by Tom Watson
Tomorrow marks 50 years since John F Kennedy’s inaugural presidential address. When David Cameron attends the Nordic conference on behalf of the nation later in the week, his handlers will no doubt try to mark the anniversary by enveloping him in Kennedy stardust. My hunch is that he will want to talk tough, as JFK sometimes did: “let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill”.
Cameron is still looking for international recognition equivalent to that of Blair and Brown and Thatcher. Those television images of statesmen shaking hands in exotic places are the particles of political legacies that politicians crave. In all of Cameron’s grasping hunt for glory, he can only dream of a legacy as enduring as JFK’s. Yet there is a grim reality for our prime minister, one that is only now beginning to reveal itself to him. If you want to leave a positive political legacy in the age of the internet, you probably have to be shot or spend 30 years in jail for a crime you didn’t commit.
And if you don’t believe me, think about the nearest thing the Labour party has to JFK, Tony Blair. That man used to walk on water. The day after tomorrow he will be at the Chilcot enquiry for the second time, wading through misery, as the detail of his decision to take us into Iraq is surgically examined. It wasn’t meant to be this way.
It’s probably an understatement to say that I’ve had disagreements with Mr Blair, but his humiliating second appearance before the committee in some way seems an unworthy way to treat a former prime minister.
And the juxtaposition of Tony Blair in the court of public opinion, on the same Friday as the criminal courts are expected to rule on whether terror suspect Abid Naseer is extradited to the USA, should not be lost. Mr Naseer stands accused of being an Al Quaeda operative.
I was at the TUC conference with Tony Blair on the day of 9/11. Al Quaeda operatives flew the planes into the twin towers. For Mr Blair, and for millions of UK citizens, things changed that day. There followed half a decade where the security apparatus of the state was strengthened, where our liberties were eroded to provide greater security to all.
“Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans – born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage – and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.
Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty”.
Tony Blair, tempered by war, insisted that his people bear the burden of increased state security. Longer queues at airports, more CCTV, an increase in intelligence gathering, greater snooping powers were just part of his plan. No wonder Shami Chakrabarti became a household name.
David Cameron and Nick Clegg, for good or ill, are cutting back nearly all the measures that Tony Blair consciously introduced.
Their approach to the unravelling of the Blair security legacy is a mix of gusto, despair and shamefaced embarrassment.
They ditched ID cards with a fanfare. Many cheered. Few really cared.
They’re in despair over the ditching of control orders. And they don’t know what to do. And they look weak – are weak – because of it.
And they’re deeply embarrassed that the 28 days detention powers are to expire. I think of all those hours we spent arguing over whether we should support detention powers for 42 days, and how the argument was made that 28 days was an inadequate compromise. And now the Tory-led administration is ditching the measure. You probably didn’t know this. They have tried to sneak it out. But failed.
At 00.01 on Monday 24th January, 28 day detention powers expire. They revert to the previous limit of 14 days – not nearly enough time to forensically examine the contents of a terrorist’s encrypted hard disk drive.
The home secretary will not be making a statement to the House about this major change to the justice system. Parliament will not be told the views of security and intelligence gathering experts.
Doesn’t that strike you as peculiar? If she wants to change the policy, Theresa May should bring the matter to the House of Commons for debate. For as JFK also said: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate”. They’re running scared. They’re embarrassed and ashamed. This moment should not go unmissed.
So, like all things you hear from David Cameron, you have to check the rhetoric against the reality. He’s going to talk tough at his international conference but on security matters, his government is confused and weak. And one day, David Cameron will come to regret it.
Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich east.