Melanie Phillips

22 March 2004

Sleepwalker Britain

Published in: Daily Mail

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In the middle of the most alarming terrorist threat in the country's history, producing jittery warnings to be vigilant at all times, two anti-war demonstrators managed to scale Big Ben at the weekend under the noses of the police.

With the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens claiming that Britain's anti-terror infrastructure was the envy of the world, the Met's security spokesman Commander Brian Paddick dismissed the Big Ben security breach as a harmless stunt.

Such complacency is simply jaw-dropping. The two Greenpeace protesters scaled the perimeter wall around the Palace of Westminster. According to Commander Paddick, the police were unable to get to them before they reached the clock tower. Why not? If the perimeter wall around the Houses of Parliament is not secure, what is?

In the circumstances, one might expect heads to roll. Commander Paddick simply brushed the incident aside, saying the security of the locked buildings had not been compromised. But suppose these had been two terrorists aiming to blow up Big Ben? Are we to understand that wouldn't have mattered?

When the police learned the protesters were Greenpeace, he said, they decided to let the demonstration go ahead. But didn't it occur to anyone in the Met that this advertised the Palace of Westminster was not secure, a positive invitation to terror?

Incredibly, some officers are saying privately it wouldn't have mattered if Big Ben had been blown up because there weren't any people in it. Even here, it appears, on the thin blue line that stands between ourselves and terror, there is not only incompetence but crass stupidity and an astonishing moral blindness. But if we can't depend on the police, what hope is there?

Now there is a debate over other anti-terror powers that may be needed. Sir John has called for greater co-ordination in Europe. There are concerns that the Home Secretary is using the terrorism threat to undermine civil liberties. Maybe, as this emergency develops, we will be forced to make more difficult inroads into our ancient freedoms. But what is the point of gaining new powers when, either through incompetence or a failure of political will, we don't use the ones we already have?

In particular, how can we possibly begin to guard against terror when the government has lost control of our borders so that no-one has the faintest idea who is coming in or going out?

As Sir John said, terrorists constantly move in and out of the country. Yet thousands of illegal immigrants are coming in every year, with the majority simply disappearing into the landscape. The security service has previously said that in its fight against terrorism, this is the most serious problem it faces.

Yet the government is still failing to get to grips with this continuing debacle. David Blunkett pins his faith on the introduction of ID cards - which is why he is apparently trying to sneak this proposal through the Commons, despite having appeared to kick it into the long grass. But even with ID cards, he still wouldn't be able to deport illegal immigrants because of the Human Rights Act, which has given our activist judiciary powers to thwart immigration controls the government tries to impose.

It was the same Human Rights Act which was responsible for the release last week of the Libyan terror suspect who had been detained without trial. The government said he was a danger because had links with people who had links to al Qaeda. The Special Immigration Appeals Commission - chaired by Mr Justice Collins, a judge who has repeatedly thwarted attempts at immigration controls - said the intelligence claims against the suspect, who belonged to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, didn't stand up to scrutiny. The Lord Chief Justice upheld that decision.

Since the evidence was secret, it is impossible for us to judge whether this was right or not. But the Terrorism Act, under which people suspected of belonging to terrorist organisations can be held, is itself qualified by an interpretation of the Human Rights Act which limits such terror organisations to al Qaeda and its associates. Given the loose connections between al Qaeda and other networks of terror, this obviously leaves wide holes in the legislation through which suspects can slip.

The government refuses to face the fact that, on a variety of fronts, the Human Rights Act is undermining our defence against terror. Moreover, other laws are unaccountably not being used.

A Saudi extremist, Dr Mohammed al Massari, told BBC Radio Five Live earlier this month that the deaths of innocent people through terrorism was 'a necessity in war', that 'all British targets are legitimate targets' and that it would be 'legitimate' to assassinate Tony Blair.

Under our demented asylum laws, al Massari has been given indefinite leave to remain in this country and cannot be thrown out. But why is he not being prosecuted for incitement to murder?

According to Sir John Stevens, more than 250 people in Britain have been charged with terrorist offences since 9/11. But why is the extremist cleric Abu Hamza still at liberty in London to preach similar incitement?

Why was Sheikh Omar Bakri Mohammed allowed to preach from London at the weekend, on the website of the extremist group al Muhajiroun, about what it described as 'one of the greatest forgotten obligations in Islam - inciting religious hatred' against 'Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddism, democracy, freedom etc'. Many moderate Muslims are aghast at the activities of such preachers and urge they should be arrested. So why are they still at liberty?

One of the suspects in the Madrid bombings is said to have close links to Mohammed al Garbuzi, a Moroccan cleric suspected of being a key figure in the Casablanca bombings last May - and who has lived in London for 16 years. We now learn al Garbuzi is allegedly a commander of the proscribed Group of Islamic Combatants of Morocco.

It gets worse. He was suspected of originally entering the country in the company of Abu Dahdah, who has been held in Spain for two years on suspicion of being a member of al Qaeda. Yet as soon as these claims became known last week, al Garbuzi fled into hiding. How could the security service, which apparently knew all about him, have let this happen?

Now the country's emergency planners have said Britain is so woefully complacent and unprepared, it could not cope with a terrorist atrocity on the scale of Madrid, let alone a chemical, biological or nuclear attack. On all fronts, we appear to be sleepwalking to catastrophe.

If this terrorist threat is to be defeated, the country has to exhibit the discipline, focus and single-mindedness it would display in a conventional war. We have to show we have both the unswerving will and the ability to defend ourselves by doing whatever it takes. We have to show that we mean business.

Alas, we are advertising instead a culture of complacency, ignorance and incompetence, which we have managed to signal with devastating symbolism on the face of Big Ben itself to every terrorist across the globe.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography

Books

  • The World Turned Upside Down
  • Londonistan
  • The Ascent of Woman
  • America's Social Revolution

Contact Melanie

Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
Northcliffe House
2 Derry Street
London W8 5TT

Contact Melanie