Thursday, March 10, 2005

Messages and clear signals

One fatuous argument widely used in politics nowadays is that we should support a piece of legislation because "it will send a message" or "send a clear signal". There were two examples of it in the Commons yesterday.

First, at prime minister's questions, Tony Blair said:
I do not agree with the sunset clause, for this simple reason: it is important that we send a clear signal now that this legislation is on the statute book and will remain on the statute book.
Then, summing up the debate on the Prevention of Terrorism Bill itself, Hazel Blears said:
A sunset clause is inappropriate for another reason: it could send the message to terrorists, who will be watching our debate closely, that we are uncertain about what we want to do to ensure that we have a proper legal framework to tackle terrorism in our country. We have tried to establish a legal framework that balances national security with individual liberty, but it is vital that we convey the message that we want to make this country the most hostile environment in which terrorists could consider operating.
As an extreme measure like the introduction of house arrest reminds us, legal action can deprive people of their liberty and if it doesn't do that it can still land them with legal bills, months or years and worry, destroy marriages and people's health, and even shorten lives. Read Bleak House.

But to a thoroughly modern political party like New Labour none of this matters when set against the importance of image. House arrest must come in - and come in without a sunset clause - because it will make the government look tough. The audience Hazel Blears had in mind was not terrorists but voters.

I have commented elsewhere (see the column for 12 April) that Tony Blair sounds like a progressive public school master from the 1960s. Lately, with his fear of appearing weak, he has sounded more like one of Nigel Molesworth's masters at St Custard's:
You may think I'm soft but I'm hard, damned hard.

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