WORLD

BLAIR ON THE BRINK

The British Prime Minister became convinced people wanted heavy-handed action against terrorism, which is why his government is now on the verge of collapse

MICHAEL PETROU November 21 2005
WORLD

BLAIR ON THE BRINK

The British Prime Minister became convinced people wanted heavy-handed action against terrorism, which is why his government is now on the verge of collapse

MICHAEL PETROU November 21 2005

BLAIR ON THE BRINK

The British Prime Minister became convinced people wanted heavy-handed action against terrorism, which is why his government is now on the verge of collapse

MICHAEL PETROU

At the Bangladeshi halal restaurant on Whitechapel Road, Gulam Khan is frantically shovelling large spoonfuls of rice and lamb, tossed with cloves and cardamom seeds, into Tupperware containers belonging to a long line of customers at his counter. It is a few minutes before sundown and iftaar,

when Muslims break their Ramadan fast, and his customers are anxious to get home with food in time.

This neighbourhood in London’s East End is approximately 50 per cent Muslim, most of them from Bangladesh. George Galloway, the British politician frequently in the news because of allegations he received oil money from Saddam Hussein, is MP here. He was elected on an anti-war ticket in national elec-

tions this May.That was before July 7, when four British Muslims detonated suicide bombs on the London transit system, murdering 52 people. Two weeks later, another round of attacks faded to kill anyone because the bombs did not detonate properly.

“Everyone panicked,” Khan says.

British Muslims feared more bombs, but they were also afraid of a breakdown in relations with their non-Muslim neighbours. This didn’t happen. Kahn and others up and down Whitechapel Road say their interactions with non-Muslims in the city are as friendly as they were before the horrors of July 7Several mosques were vandalized in the aftermath of the bombings. But widespread media reports about feared revenge

attacks against Muslims outnumbered stories about actual incidents. “Thankfully, we have not seen a high level of attacks against individuals,” says Inayat Bunglawala, a spokesman for the Muslim Council of Britain. “Bricks and mortars you can always replace. Attacks on individuals would have been more traumatic.”

The truth is that London got back to normal remarkably quickly after the bombings. Muslim youth in France are in the midst of a two-week arson spree, and relations between that country’s Muslim and non-Muslim residents are strained and hostile. London, however, still hums with a civilized multicultural bustle.

You wouldn’t know this from press reports. Correspondents dispatched to London after the terrorist attacks all seemed to agree on a similar storyline: the Brits reacted with stoic defiance to the first round of attacks, echoing memories of Churchill, and the Blitz, and “We shall fight on the beaches.” When the attempted second round occurred, however, everything supposedly went pear-shaped. Britons began to fear. Thus, Vanity Fair’s celebrity gossip hound Dominick Dunne reported in the magazine’s October issue that London in July after the bombings was full of tension, and “Everyone seemed reluctant to use public transport.”

If only. The commute home on the day of the attempted July 21 attacks was as crowded as ever. The teenage passengers had to drink their cans of lager standing up. And if Londoners were now scared, it was hard to tell by the festive revellers pouring out of West End theatres and pubs.

Dunne also said that several British cab drivers he spoke to told him they would no longer pick up Muslims. In the three months since the attacks, though, not a single cab driver (many of whom are Muslims themselves) has told this to me or any of my many British friends. It’s possible that all these cabbies decided to unburden themselves to Vanity Fair, although it seems unlikely. But Vanity Fair is hardly alone. Dozens of media painted a picture of London as a shaken city. It wasn’t. And it’s not.

The problem with all this rubbish is that British Prime Minister Tony Blair apparently took it seriously—which is why his government is now on the verge of collapse.

Convinced that Britons were desperate for their PM to do something about the terrorists in their midst, Blair grossly overestimated how much they would be willing to let him get away with. His government brought in a flurry of legislation designed to combat terrorism, but which comes at the expense of civil liberties. Most seriously, he proposed that the length of time police can detain terror suspects without charge be increased from 14 to 90 days.

The legislation caused an uproar in Muslim communities, whose members feared the new rules would unfairly target them but do little to combat terrorism. Already, the majority of suspects arrested under the existing terrorism legislation are released without charge. Blair could probably have survived a loss of support from British Muslims. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, few other Britons liked the idea of throwing potentially innocent people in jail for three months.

Blair was savaged by British leftists and conservatives in equal measure. Rebels in his caucus smelled blood. Last week, the growing opposition and dissent climaxed in Parliament, where a majority—including 49 Labour MPs—voted to defeat the legislation and hand Tony Blair his first House of Commons defeat as PM. Blair’s leadership is now fatally weakened. He portrayed the vote as vital to the defence of the British realm. If Blair cannot command the respect of his party on such an issue, it is hard to see how he can still claim authority to govern.

Islamist terrorism is a new threat. But more than the citizens of any European country, Britons recoil at the slightest whiff of despotism in their government.

Maclean’s reported in May that Tony Blair’s days were numbered. The events of last week will only hasten his departure. Some commentators will blame the Prime Minister’s perceived arrogance, his close ties to U.S. President George W. Bush, or even the popularity of his probable successor, Gordon Brown. But the real issue is that Blair has lost touch with his country.

After the July attacks, he declared that the “rules of the game” had changed. The Prime Minister is right, of course. Islamist terrorism is a new threat. But Britons have not changed. They’ve faced terrorists and bombs before. And more than the citizens of any European country, Britons recoil at even the slightest whiff of despotism in their government. Blair underestimated how much value Britons place on liberty, even over safety. He is paying the price. M