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Thursday, January 20, 2011 

A watershed moment.

Today marks a watershed in the politics of the last five years. Not due in any way, shape or form to Johnson going out and Balls going in (booya!) but instead to the policy which both prior to the election supported and defended being allowed to expire: the detention of "terrorist suspects" beyond a nominal 14-day limit. No other policy pursued by New Labour with the exception of the war in Iraq was so indicative of the party's surrender to the authoritarian, populist right-wing, whether it be best represented by the Sun newspaper in both cases, or the scaremongering panic merchants then in charge of the Metropolitan police. The MPs who voted against the original proposal for up to 90 days detention were daubed on the following day's Sun front page as "TRAITORS", as if they personally had acted in concert with those we were told were just waiting for such an opportunity to do us all harm. Blair himself said that he hoped that those who voted against would not "rue the day" they had done so, while the likes of Kitty Ussher, since very happily retired, wrote of how the country was less safe as a result and how those responsible would have "blood on their hands" should an attack ever take place thanks to the police not having enough time to hold suspects.

Indeed, if we're to believe Anthony Seldon's account of Gordon Brown's time as prime minister, his subsequent doomed and dismal attempt to extend the without charge limit to 42 days was an attempt to come across as "tough" to the Murdoch press. It's not much of a surprise that they felt they had to at least try and return the favour, with Kelvin MacKenzie, the Sun's ex-editor and now "star" columnist looking into the possibility of standing against David Davis after he resigned to make a stand against the government's general authoritarian drift.

What then has changed over the two years since the last attempt to extend the limit? Even at the time Brown got the vote through the Commons, only for it to fail in the Lords, the mood was beginning to change. Memories of 7/7 and the days after the atrocity were beginning to fade, and the realities of the liquid bomb plot, although always treated in a hysterical fashion both by the media and government were simply becoming an inconvenience for those flying. Moreover, the security sources that had either stayed quiet or supported the government first time round either contradicted the claims of ministers and hacks as to how urgently necessary it was to have the extra time even if it was never used, while the director of public prosecutions came out in opposition.

The actual answer is that very little to nothing has changed, at least to go by what's happened over the past year. The "official" threat level remains at severe, only a month ago an alleged plot involving attacks in the West Midlands and Whitehall led to charges being brought, and in October one of the "printer bombs" planted by al-Qaida in Yemen was intercepted at East Midlands airport. What we don't have is the impending sense of utter doom that the media and at one time the government apparatus seemed to want to propagate, whether it was Tony Blair informing the world that the rules of the game had changed, John Reid telling us to look out for the telltale signs of radicalisation, the former head of MI5 taking apparent pleasure in talking about 30 plots and 2,000 individuals involved in terrorist activities, or Ian Blair looking up and seeing the sky as "dark".

You could explain the change if you were so inclined to the very different political priorities of then and now. Just as 9/11 and those responsible defined the politics of the next 6 or more years, so will the crisis brought about by the sub-prime banking collapse take precedence for some time yet to come. Terrorism was a distant and over-egged threat, while the economic crisis and recession has affected everyone.

As neat as this seems, it doesn't even begin to answer why our politicians resorted so quickly to such extreme measures which were never needed, or why now when the threat is supposedly just as real as it ever was that they're letting the limit lapse back to 14 days with nary a whimper. It doesn't explain why the Sun doesn't seem today to have made any mention whatsoever of this outrage making us less safe, nor why the police or those others formerly in favour of 90 days are not making their voices heard. If 14 days wasn't long enough in 05 and 08, why is it plenty less than two years later? It isn't just that the full 28 days available was only ever used in the aftermath of the liquid bomb plot, and even then that three of those held for the full period were released without charge. It isn't either that we've now got a government that "believes in civil liberties" and wants to unravel New Labour's worst excesses.

It's that the whole political obsession which built up around the illusion of providing total or near total security and safety has for now been replaced by something else. Politicians could no longer give us jobs for life, prevent acquisitive crime or stand firm against immobile evil empires which could either invade or send missiles a moment's notice, but they could try as hard as they could to protect us from exploding brown people or violent crime. Instead they're trying to convince us that salvation will come through getting the deficit under control and by cutting now for prosperity in the future. It's an all encompassing narrative into which almost everything the coalition is doing fits. In time it too will fade and we'll look back on it wondering how we could have opposed and challenged it better, but for now it's all but impossible to escape from and contradict.

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The only thing we need expect is a manufactured security alert which will be designed to discredit what has been done. There may also be smears leaked against the supporters of change

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