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Democracy must not fall victim to terror

Joyce McMillan

There was a packed house at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on Tuesday, when Tony Blairís former media boss Alastair Campbell swung into town to speak at a conference on the role of the media in post-devolution Scotland. The event was subtitled "A Question of Trust", and Campbell had plenty to say on the subject, both on his general experience of a hostile Scottish media, and on the specific questions of trust raised by the governmentís handling of the decision to go to war in Iraq. Despite his recent transition to the life of a jobbing freelance writer and performer - his one-man show is now scheduled to visit Glasgow in May - thereís no doubt that Campbell still carries about him a distinct aura of power: he has physical glamour and charisma to burn, and seems surrounded by a permanent blaze of television lights.

But it was interesting to note, in his responses to questions, how little power Campbell seemed to feel he had ever had. He claimed that he had never tried to "drive" or "control" media coverage of the government; he was, he said, only seeking to "get our voice heard" amid the hostile cacophony of a multi-media world. And on Iraq - well, whatever one makes of Campbellís high-profile vendetta against Andrew Gilligan and the BBC, itís clear that from his point of view, the government was embattled, facing a series of desperately difficult decisions, trying hard to do the right thing, and well entitled to defend the basic decency of its motives, even if it could not persuade a majority of the people to agree with its policy.

I thought again about Campbellís anger, and his furious defence of his own and the Prime Ministerís integrity, as the news began to break of Thursdayís horrific terrorist attacks in Madrid. Coming just a few days after Tony Blairís impassioned Sedgefield speech on the need for constant continuing vigilance against the threat of terrorism, the Madrid attacks represent a terrible reminder of the new mood of darkness that entered our political life with the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States in September, 2001. I doubt whether most people in Britain would class themselves as wholehearted admirers of the American and British response to this new threat over the past two and a half years. The aggressive war rhetoric, the wholesale dumping of civil liberties, the detentions without trial, the damage to community relations, and the controversial and risky invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq - none of it has been a pretty sight; and some of it has been alarming to everyone who cares about the democratic values we claim to defend.

But faced with the global threat of the kind of horror that befell Madrid this week, governments experience intense pressure to "do something", to be seen to anticipate and pre-empt such threats to the basic physical security of their citizens. And in the case of this new wave of terrorism, the difficulty of their decision-making is compounded by the fact that the threat is both manifestly real, and - on any one day, in any one city - extremely remote.

It would be madness for us in the West to abandon our democratic institutions, our business of trade and exchange, or our free-flowing, well-travelled way of life, because of the possible actions of a few thousand hard-core killers in a global population of more than six billion. But in the media goldfish bowl of 21st-century politics, inaction is not an option, and you need not be a supporter of every action the British government has taken, since the events of 11 September, to feel some empathy with the difficulty of these decisions, and with the heavy responsibility of determining which new security measures are essential to protect public safety, and which, by contrast, go far beyond what can be justified by the level of risk.

But hereís the irony; that the government now apparently feels itself in need of that public empathy, and even of our trust in its good intentions, at precisely the moment when ten years of relentless political spin and "presentation" have left most of the public feeling profoundly excluded from power and its dilemmas. For a solid decade, Alastair Campbell has been Britainís leading exponent, in practice if not in theory, of the idea that contemporary politics is "all about" capturing and dominating the agenda of the mainstream media; about grabbing headlines with half-baked policy announcements, rebutting accusations almost before they hit the page, and always appearing to respond to "public concerns" as articulated through the tabloids, even when to respond to those concerns in reality would be both irresponsible and ridiculous.

Implicit in this view of the political process is an intensely authoritarian attitude to ordinary voters. They are the useful idiots who change their votes at the behest of the front page of the Sun, we are the clever guys who manipulate that response so as to win and keep power. Itís an attitude to the people that invites only two responses: unthinking acquiescence and admiration, or unthinking hostility and rejection.

Above all, it simply cannot generate the kind of informed and intelligent consent to, or respectful dissent from, difficult decisions that Alastair Campbell now seems to think the government needs; to put it bluntly, if you feed the public for a decade on a diet of informational junk-food, you can hardly expect them, at the end of it, to react like thinking citizens, and full partners in the exhausting responsibilities of power.

But that is not to say, of course, that governments in future cannot try to do better. Faced with the current range of threats, our societies stand at a dangerous crossroads, in which increasingly frightened, friendless and illiberal governments are tempted to enact ever more repressive security measures, which are met at best with a short and shallow popular enthusiasm, and at worst with deep resentment and disaffection.

The only real alternative to this depressing scenario lies in the possibility of a more intelligent and adult dialogue between people and government at every level, about how to strike the right balance between freedom and risk, security and restriction, about whether we want a public park with no swings because children might fall off them, a Scottish Parliament with a "secure perimeter" rather than an atmosphere of openness towards the people it represents, or a world armed to the teeth and increasingly contemptuous of human rights, because of the threat of global terrorism. Heaven knows, conducting intelligent public conversations about risk has never been our political strong point. From the GM debate to child protection, the air rings with hopeless public demands for "absolute safety", and with the irresponsible and patronising sound of governments pretending to meet that demand.

But in the global confrontation with terrorism, the very future of the open societies we prize depends on our ability to strike the balance between security and freedom, and to get it right. And under 21st-century conditions, the victory will finally go to those governments which enjoy the full and informed consent of their people to the policy they pursue, and not to those who, Campbell-like, imagine they can make all the complex decisions by themselves in their bunkers, while outwardly bamboozling the public with a simplistic rhetoric of crackdown and triumph, and which are likely, if they follow that path, to find themselves sooner or later where Alastair Campbell finds himself today - angry, misunderstood, defensive, short of public trust, and out of power.