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From liberal lawyer to the leader taking civil liberties

By Tom Baldwin

The Prime Minister attributes his transformation to a growing awareness of the 'society of fear'

AUGUST 19, 1979, must have been a proud day for Tony Blair: it was the first time his words had been published anywhere except in his school magazine. The date also marked his baptism in British politics.

The young liberal-minded barrister from Derry Irvine’s chambers launched himself with gusto into a condemnation of the Tory Home Secretary’s deportation of immigrants “not by process of law but by administrative act”.

In his article for The Spectator, Mr Blair asked: “How is it that a country, priding itself on its tradition of civil rights, can arrange that a man is deported without even a hearing?” A quarter of a century later, opponents of his Government’s proposals for detaining terrorist suspects without trial are adopting a similar — if not identical — tone of incredulity.

Last week Liberty, the civil rights group, took out a newspaper advertisement warning: “The Home Secretary is proposing new laws to replace internment in prison with measures including house arrest at his discretion. This loss of liberty is to be based on his suspicion rather than proof in court.”

The avalanche of QCs, barristers and solicitors from the legel establishment who have signed up to Liberty’s statement in defence of “precious British values” might have served equally well as Mr Blair’s Christmas card list. They include Conor Gearty, Aileen McColgan, Ben Emmerson and Philippe Sands — who recently raised fresh questions about the legal basis for the Iraq war — from Cherie Booth’s Matrix Chambers.

The Prime Minister’s wife may be feeling a little isolated when she pops into the office these days. Alternatively, if some reports are to be believed, even this human rights barrister is privately incensed over what her husband has been doing. “Considerations of national security have to come before civil liberties, no matter how important those civil liberties are,” the Prime Minister told MPs last month as he defended his proposed control orders for terrorist suspects.

So, whatever happened to the man to whom Cherie became engaged in that summer of 1979 when his article appeared in The Spectator? The one-time 1960s schoolboy rebel — described by a teacher as “the most difficult” he had ever dealt with — last year announced “the end of the 1960s consensus on law and order”.

In a newspaper interview yesterday, Mr Blair was at it again, denouncing the “compensation culture” and promising to cut abuses of legal aid in such cases. But in truth, any ties still binding him to his past as a left(-ish) lawyer type have been looking a little frayed for some time.

Mr Blair’s Government has got “form” on civil liberty issues. Since 1997, there have been successive criminal justice reforms to increase the power of the police, curb jury trials, disclose previous convictions to the courts, prosecute people again on charges for which they have been previously acquitted, limit the right to silence and impose curfew orders on children. Other offences which might be taken into consideration include measures to strip asylum- seekers of benefits and make their deportation easier, as well as plans to introduce national identity cards, allow police to hand out on-the-spot fines to petty criminals, and speed up the extradition of terror suspects to America.

Mr Blair has attributed his gradual transformation to his becoming aware of “the society of fear” when he canvassed the streets of Hackney and then at the 1983 election when he won the seat of Sedgefield in Co Durham. His working-class constituents are undoubtedly less attracted to notions of civil rights than his former colleagues at the Bar.

Another important influence on the future prime minister was Labour’s electoral failure in 1983, 1987 and 1992. He believed that the so-called “loony left” were only one symptom of a hand-wringingly earnest progressive consensus in the party which was making it seem out-of-touch with most voters.

By the time Mr Blair took the home affairs brief in 1992, he was already convinced that he needed to show that Labour was, as he put it in a famous soundbite, “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime”.

Michael Howard has recently dug up another quotation from this period when, as Home Secretary in March 1994, he clashed with Mr Blair over the annual renewal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act which allowed IRA suspects to be locked up for seven days without trial.

“The liberty of a subject should be taken away not by the act of a politician but by a court of law,” Mr Blair said. The Prime Minister insists that this argument does not apply to his own Government’s proposals because the threat of “terrorism without limit” from al-Qaeda’s suicide bombers is qualitatively different to that once posed by the IRA.

But he might also point out that Mr Howard is being slightly disingenuous about what happened back in 1994. Mr Blair had spent the previous two years attempting to change his party’s entrenched opposition towards the Act because the Conservatives would otherwise carry on presenting Labour as “soft on terrorism”. Offers of a “bipartisan deal” were rebuffed. It was not until 1996 as Leader of the Opposition that he persuaded his party to abstain on the issue.

As ever, Mr Blair was seeking to neutralise a negative political issue. More than a decade later, opinion polls showing that Labour has a massive lead over the Conservatives on security issues have sustained his belief that Mr Howard is making a strategic blunder by opposing new anti-terror laws. Indeed, last week it was the Tories who were — belatedly — desperate to negotiate a bipartisan deal.

Aides say that the Prime Minister has spent hours reading transcripts of a US congressional inquiry into whether the 9/11 attacks could have been prevented. They insist that Mr Blair was reflecting his deepest fears when he recently told the Commons: “If there were to be a serious terrorist act in this country, and afterwards it was thought that we hadn’t taken the measures necessary, believe me, no one — no one — would be talking about civil liberties.”

But Mr Blair is also puzzled by the past fortnight’s furore over the Government’s apparent disregard for parliamentary and legal niceties, as well as the outrage from precisely the same section of liberal middle-class voters from which he comes. Labour strategists cite the humiliation of Lionel Jospin in French presidential election as evidence of what happened when a left-of-centre government is outflanked on security or immigration issues.

Mr Blair’s determination that he should not suffer the same fate has, in the view of Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws, the civil rights QC, seen new Labour turning liberalism into a “dirty word”. She says that the only court that matters for the Prime Minister “is that of public opinion”.

Charles Clarke, who as Home Secretary is having to force the anti-terrorism Bill through Parliament, once delivered a more polite but similar verdict on Mr Blair: “He was from the libertarian-lawyer tradition of the party but he was always a moderniser.”

'How can a country priding itself on its civil rights arrange that a man is deported without even a hearing?


‘The liberty of a subject should be taken away not by the act of a politician, but by a court of law’


‘Considerations of national security have to come before civil liberties, no matter how important those civil liberties are’