Simon Jenkins on our cowardly, risk-averse Britain
As so often, Simon Jenkins hits all the nails on their heads in his Sunday Times column today (11 June 06) about the "safety at all costs", risk-averse culture espoused by our New Labour ministers from the prime minister downwards, with the crude and loud support of the right-wing press (ironical that this piece should appear in the Sunday Times, of all the improbable organs).
Among the important points made by Jenkins is the by no means obvious, but obviously correct observation that
What has happened is that the government’s risk threshold has lowered, a risk not of physical danger but of political embarrassment. A terrorism death appears as a failure of state policy.
Time and again Tony Blair has justified some new abridgement of our civil liberties, or even a crass breach of the rule of law, by expressing the fear that he would be personally blamed if he had failed to take some action, any action, to reduce a risk to the public — risk of a violent crime, risk of a released prisoner re-offending, risk of a terrorist suspect who has committed no previous crime launching a terrorist attack, risk of Iraq using a hypothetical weapon of mass destruction against Britain — which might subsequently materialise. He is interested, not so much in averting the harm that these various contingencies would inflict on innocent victims (although no doubt he's happy to try to do that too), but rather in having a defence available, when some frightful outrage is committed, to the charge that because of his failure to "do something" at an earlier stage he may be blamed for the disaster. His mottos are: "It wasn't my fault, guv", and "safety first, last and in the middle". The sign on his desk reads: "Take whatever action you can, at whatever cost to our democracy, to minimise every risk, however small, that you might be blamed." The idea of proportionality — that any curtailment of a basic human right, however few people may be personally affected by it and however unsalubrious they might be, must be proportionate to the degree of risk to others thereby reduced, and to the extent of the reduction — seems wholly foreign to him. His (and Reid's and others') constant refrain about the need to change the 'balance between an individual's human rights and the public's right to security' reveals an inability to grasp this simple but fundamental point. Whether this is an intellectual or a moral failure, either way it's a failure, and a costly one for all of us.
Simon Jenkins's article should be compulsory reading for Mr Blair and all other ministers, shadow ministers, Home Office officials, editors of Murdoch newspapers and other trashy populist tabloids, radio and television interviewers, policemen and members of security and intelligence agencies, and prison governors; for participants in know-all talk shows, discussion programmes, funny programmes about current affairs, listeners' phone-ins, press reviews, Thought for the Day, and other forums recklessly provided for the pontifications of ignorant bigots and shallow recyclers of current political clichés; for the entire political commentariat; for Mr Freddie Forsyth and for whichever of the Hitchens brothers is the reactionary one. The only people, in fact, who don't really need to read it are sensible bloggers: but even they would be well advised to do so, if only to enjoy a characteristically lively piece of English prose in a great English tradition.
PS: I owe Sir Simon an apology for including his portrait in this post, after he has written about his dislike of it. My excuse is that I enjoy that slightly menacing smile: that famous smile on the face of the tiger….