Humphrys interviews Blair Sept 29 2005 Back to website

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(Transcript by warmwell)

Humphrys interviews Blair Sept 29 2005

The interview took place on the day following the ejection of Mr Walter Wolfgang from the Labour Party Conference. He was subsequently stopped by the police who used the Terrorism Act to prevent him from re-entering the hall JH. It seems a very large leap indeed from a rather frail old man engaged in a bit of mild heckling at a Labour Party conference to serious questions being raised about freedom of speech and authoritarian government and anti- terrorism laws, but the man happened to be a refugee from Nazi Germany. When he tried to go back into the conference he was briefly detained under anti-terrorism laws. The government wants even more laws to fight terrorism. Tony Blair tells us that the rules of the game have changed. How? Are we getting the balance between freedom and security wrong? Well, Mr Blair himself has just joined me.

JH : Good morning, Prime Minister. Good morning John

JH : Quick word about what happened yesterday afternoon. You have already apologised to the man. It was a pretty disgraceful episode wasn't it?

TB : I..I apologise completely..totally...and it shouldn't have happened. And, look, I wasn't in the conference centre at the time. It's difficult. The stewards, the stewards of Conference are volunteers and we're going to have to look at how we give them proper training to deal with a situation like that sensitively but I'm really sorry for him. It obviously should not have happened at all. Um. And I've apologised, and Jack's apologised, Ian McCartney... the party's apologised, we've, we've simply put our hands up and said obviously it was completely wrong.

JH : Well, Ian McCartney "sort of" apologised, didn't he? He said that he can come back in again but he'd better behave himself in effect

TB : Well, look, it's difficult because obviously, you know, look, plenty of people have been criticising or attacking the government all week. People are perfectly...

JH : They can't do much of it in the hall...

TB : Oh God.... John, there's been lots of criticism of the government and me..

JH : No, no. I mean heckling, that sort of thing

TB : Yes, but I mean I think it's important to, you know, in general terms, it's important that everyone has their say, but they have it (laughs) you know, one person's allowed to speak and then another person's allowed to speak, so I think there's nothing wrong with saying, look,in general terms people should be allowed to speak from the rostrum without being interrupted from the floor. But obviously when it's an elderly person like this, of course they shouldn't be heavy-handed in this way. I'm just trying to explain to you how this comes about. It's not that me or anyone else has given some instruction to people to go and be heavy, it's difficult because they didn't know what to do when the speech was being interrupted, but, full apology and I'm really sorry it happened.

JH : It's just that you and I obviously can remember the days when hecklers were dealt with very efficiently because that's part of being a politician, isn't it? You stand on a platform and somebody shouts something at you and you reply, it's all part of the game..

TB : ..Oh absolutely. It happened to me last conference!

JH : Well indeed, indeed, but now..See this is the serious point isn't it. What people are worried about is that things are changing. You yourself have said, you've used the expression, "the rules of the game have changed" We had Louise Christian, a very distinguished human rights lawyer, on earlier, saying, "New Labour is really trespassing into the realms" (I'm quoting her)"of criminalising freedom of expression." And that's the serious point behind all this, isn't it?

TB : Yeah, but I.. you described it as "it may seem a bit of a leap". I think it is in this case. I mean let's be very clear. First of all...I mean I've just been through an election campaign in which I don't think anyone can say people didn't have their chance to have a go at me or criticise me or criticise the government. Um. When I say the rules of the game have changed I'm talking about terrorism. I'm not talking about someone heckling a politician.

JH : I accept that

TB : I mean the heckling a politician as you say is an ago -old thing and it will go on for ages to come ...

JH : But how have the rules of the game changed? And WHEN did they change, exactly?

TB : Well, I think what I..let me try to explain what I mean by this. And this IS difficult because you're balancing, er, traditional civil liberties with trying to protect the country's security and obviously the basic civil liberty that people have of the right to life. What I was meaning was this: we have, for perfectly understandable reasons in our country, tolerated people coming in, given them refuge and they've kind of been able to do or say whatever they like. I think, because of this particular type of terrorism, if you've got somebody, say, coming in from abroad, and they're preaching hatred of our way of life and inciting people to go and commit acts of terrorism against British citizens, I think we are entitled to say and do have to say, "Look I'm sorry, if you come here, you owe loyalty to this country, its values and its way of life, and yes there's absolute freedom of expression and speech but not if it's going to do something that's going to result in some terrible terrorist act that... "

JH : Yes, but incitement was always illegal. We've always had laws covering incitement. You can't go out and say "Let's murder Tony Blair" because that is an offence absolutely clear and always has been. What we're seeing now is you seem to be criminalising - almost criminalising - thought, in some sense; 'you may not think these terrible things and then say them, if those things contradict what we say'.
You see, yesterday this old man was detained , briefly admittedly, he wasn't charged I understand that, but nevertheless, under terrorism legislation. Section 44. Which shouldn't have been used.

TB : Well, look, I mean, as I say, I don't know about it because I wasn't there. know...what people are allowed to say to politicians in this country...I mean, I've just been through an election campaign where every place I went people shouted "Liar"...

JH : Sure. But we are not allowed to "glorify acts of terrorism"..

TB : Well that's a different thing you see, John.

JH : But what does it mean?

TB : Well I think what it means is is this. If you've got someone who comes in and preaches in a mosque and says, "if you go and kill people by suicide bomb you are doing a marvellous act and you will be rewarded by God...

JH : That's incitement

TB : I no. This is the very reason why we need to change the law. It's not clear whether it fits within incitement or not. And therefore what we're trying to do, and we will obviously have to get the terms of it very clear and very right..but I don't think it's justifiable for someone to come in and do that. Um. And I think that if they do it I'm afraid they should be put back to the country they came from

JH : But your new legislation, your new proposals are much wider than that. You see, I asked Jack Straw earlier this week about Gerry Adams. Shouldn't he be locked up? After all, he has glorified terrorism in the past. He stood at the side of a coffin, he helped to carry the coffin of a dead terrorist - a terrorist in our terms but not in his - and Jack Straw didn't seem to be at all sure. He said,"Let's see how this works"

TB : Yes but I think the reason he's saying that is this. I mean every case that's taken obviously will have to get the consent of the Attorney General. I think people know, if you apply common sense to this situation, what you're trying to deal with. And incidentally, in trying to deal with it, we're just coming into line with what most other European countries do now. I mean I was very interested when I spoke recently to the Prime Minister of France and the Prime Minister of Spain, and they said "Look, we have a very clear situation in our countries now. We do not allow people to go into the.. um.. Muslim community and preach this type of extremism. If they do that we're going to say to them if you're not a citizen of our country I'm afraid you have to leave the country cos we're not having people um going into communities and try to stir up that type of hatred. And I think what you're saying i absolutely right. You've got to be extremely careful that you don't, you know, go over the line and end up putting at risk the civil liberties in this country that are of fundamental importance to our way of life, cos that defeats the purpose of the whole thing which is to protect our way of life, but I think there is a balance that you can strike, and this is a process obviously which will go through Parliamentary debate and discussions with the other political parties. But I do think people in the country do expect me as Prime Minister to be saying, "Look. Hang on. There are certain things that we are not going to tolerate, if by tolerating them we end up putting people's lives at risk."

JH : But what changed? You said "the rules of the game have changed" What change? Was it 7th July in London, the bombings in London, was that what it was?

TB : Well I personally think that the rules should have changed some time ago and we have tried to tighten the law but I think that what I mean by the rules have changed is that whereas before we might even give asylum to someone in this country who was then going into the local community and, you know, preaching this type of hatred, I think you've got to say now, "I'm sorry..

JH : But why now? That's my point.

JH : Because I think people can see that this isn't scare mongering. We've actually had a terrorist act in our country and these people were British born er people whose minds frankly had been turned by this type of vicious and appalling propaganda directed at them and the point about it is, look, if this were merely a question of freedom of expression or speech in the sense that no one was going to get harmed by it, well fair enough - and there are a lot of daft things that people say and daft things that people do and fair enough. That's part of um life's rich tapestry, but when they are doing something that they turn someone's head so that they then go down on a tube or a bus and kill completely innocent people, then I think people will expect me as Prime Minister to act on that, and if I'm not acting they'll say "Well come on. Whose civil liberties come first on this situation?"

JH : They had a certain amount of support from a certain section of the Muslim community because they said, some of them said, to the extent that we can tell what they said, the messages they left behind, it was what happened in Iraq that caused them in part to do it. Do you accept that link?

TB : I accept entirely that they will use Iraq as I have always said to people, they use Iraq, if it's not Iraq they'll use

JH : So we are less safe as a result of our attack - as a community as a country, we are less safe because of what was done in Iraq. No because what I would say is this; that in the end if you look at this terrorism worldwide, they use whatever cause they need to use

JH : And thi gave them a cause, to attack us specifically But it's not just Iraq that's their cause, it's also Afghanistan, it's what happens in Palestine

JH : But this is an attack on Britain

TB : I appreciate that but if you actually look at the propaganda that goes in to create this apalling sort of mix of hatred and extremism, Yes it's true they'll use Iraq, but before Iraq there was Afghanistan, September 11th of course happened before either of those other incidents

JH : That was an attack against the United STates. I'm talking about the security of this country, for which you are responsible

TB : I know, but you see John, I think that, that when they attacked the US they didn't just atack the US, that was just my point in my conference speech,they attacked the Western way of life, and the reason why I took the decision, and I know it's difficult and people don't agree with it but I took the decision, following September 11th that our position was shoulder to shoulder with the US in fighting this world wide and I still think that is the right postion..

JH : Even if it has made us a less secure nation

TB : But I don't believe, at least in the long term, that it will make us less secure. I think it i important for our security, for example, that there is democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and we've got to stay the course and make sure we get it there.

JH : Let's return to the balance that you talked about. The crucial balance between liberty and in this context, criminal law. Let me remind you of something you said in your speech; "the whole of our system (criminal justice system) starts from the proposition that its duty is to protect the innocent from being wrongly convicted. Surely our primary duty should be to allow law-abiding people to live in safety" In other words, you're saying quite clearly there, quite clearly, that the rights of the man who has, who has, who is a suspect but has not been convicted, are LESS than the man who has not even been charged. That is a fundamental departure isn't it?

TB : No. I don't think it is a fundamental departure in the sense because I think I also said, in between those two sentences, that ...

JH : You said, "that must be the duty of any criminal justice system"

TB : Yeah. To protect the innocent.

JH : Indeed, indeed. But you said "primary". The impotant word in that, as you a a lawyer will know, the "primary" duty should be to allow law-abiding citizens..

TB : I know. And I believe that because...

JH : Over and above the rights of the innicent who - up til now, because you are innocent until convicted, aren't you, in our system?

TB : Yes, that's true but the reaon I'm talking about this, let me give you a specific example: I don't think you can deal with the anti-social behaviour, which is a real problem for people in the country, particularly elderly people, particularly people living in the poorest parts of some of our cities, unless you are prepared to give the police summary powers to deal with it. I don't think we can deal with it otherwise. And so, I agree with you that it raises a very very difficult issue but my point is this. If, as a result of court processes that are extremely difficult to go through, the police don't take action on anti-social behaviour, or for example houses used for drug dealing, or for example, organised crime in a particular area, if they don't take that action, then someone suffers and the people that suffer are innocent law-abiding citizens. Now, I agree again that it is a very tough balance to draw, but I think we..we've got to get into a situation where we understand some of this modern crime we're not going to be able to deal with it unless we change the way we think about the system. Not in the sense that you want to convict innocent people. Of course that would be absurd...

JH : But that might be the effect of it. That mght be exactly the effect of it.

TB : No. I think the effect of it, to give you a specific example would be this; the powers that we are introducing for the police, for example...

JH : Summary powers as you put it Yes. Summary powers. Will, for example, allow them to go and get someone out of a house who is using that house for drug dealing. They can then go back and appeal to the court, but the initial action by the police is, if you like, summary justice...

JH : It begins to sound like the sort of midnight knock on the door, doesn't it. Well, the midnight knock on the door is sort of an emotive way of putting it

JH : Well it was meant to be because the worry is that if you go far enough down this road, you're into a police state, aren't you.

TB : Well I don't think you are, you know. I think if you look at how the anti-social behaviour legislation's been used so far, I think most people would say, "Yeah, it's all very well to talk about a police state. But supposing I'm an elderly person and I'm getting my door kicked in every night and I've got people putting stones through the window..."

JH : Sure, Sure. That means we need better policing. It doesn't men we have to change the law so that the innocent can be picked up.

TB : But it does mean it it it does mean that you change the law so that people in the community that are causing trouble know that life's going get a lot tougher and harder for them...

JH : Because we have given the police summary powers that they didn't have before and we've managed in this country before without them. What's gone wrong in the last few years?

TB : But we haven't. It isn't in the last few years..No. This has been building up since...

JH : Isn't it? Do you remember that as a youngster? The sort of thing you have described?

TB : No. But John, I'll tell you what I remember as a youngster, and you probably do as well, you used to leave your back door open at night, but you woudn't do it nowadays..

JH : So what we're doing is we're saying, because we can no longer police - or because society is breaking down..I mean this is a serious admission for a Prime Minister to make isn't it.

TB : It's not. Look. This is not something that has suddenly arisen under this government or indeed probably under tha last government, it's somethong that's built up in Western society over a long period of time, and I was talking about the break up of traditional communities, traditional family structures - now that's the world. There's no point in trying to turn the clock back to the 1950s. We don't live in that world any more. But we do have to try and make sure that decent law-abiding people get a measure of protection and they don't feel they've got it at the moment. And so, when you talk about the knock on...the midnight knock on the door, that's one way of looking at it, but if you're as I say, an elderly person, and you're actually scared sometime of living in your own home at night, well that's a pretty rough situation for you to be in, and I want to give them protection, and I don't think the traditional law can give them adequate protection. And the proof of the pudding's in the eating. The antisocial behaviour legislation, where it's been applied and where we've got the extra numbers of police and community support officers to back it up, it's been successful. It's made a difference to people's lives and I'm not diminishing this as a debate incidentally and I think you're absolutely right ask me about it. I think in a sense what I'm doing in my conference speech is say "Let's have the debate about civil liberties and where they fall and lets make sure we get the answers right." But my view, based on my experience is, I cannot honestly stand up and tell you I can protect you against this new type of disorder, or take something like binge drinking, unless you've got really tough powers, summary powers if necessary, there for the police to deal with it.

JH : A quick word about the economy. I interviewed Gordon Brown on Monday and he rather poo-pooed my suggestion that we might be heading for a spot of trouble because people had stopped buying things in the shops. He said that was nonsense really. Yesterday the CBI published a report saying retail sales in September fell at their sharpest annual pace in at least 22 years. Something's going wrong isn't it.

TB : Well the world economy's tougher and that's what's changig but the balance to that if you like is that we're also going to grow as we've been growing as an economy over the past eight years. We've probably weathered the economic storms better than other economies. Um. Interest rates are stll half what they were. We've got two million extra jobs and unemplyment's low. That's not to say we won't have tougher economic times ahead because I think all countries will face that, but we're still doing a darned sight better than most of our competition.

JH : And a very final word, did you er, rap Cherie's knuckles for speaking out of turn - assuming she spoke out of turn?

TB : (Laughs.) I think all these things should remain between husband and wife..

JH : (Laughs.) So she was dead right when she said "It's too far ahead for me even to think about moving out of Number 10 "

TB : What's she to say when people are shouting out questions to her? Anyway, I'm just getting on with the job. As you are.

JH : Tony Blair, many thanks

TB : Thanks John.