Short Cuts

Thomas Jones

As Tony Blair prepares to consolidate his place in the history books as Britain’s greatest wartime Prime Minister since John Major, shipping our boys out to the Gulf, boots or no boots, his rhetoric at least is wearing steel toe caps. ‘We are going to be in the front line of this whatever happens,’ he told the Commons Liaison Committee, meaning not, as you might think, that we’re going to invade Iraq regardless of public opinion and even if the UN weapons inspectors don’t detect a material breach of Resolution 1441, but rather that a terrorist attack on Britain is inevitable. Maybe he’s trying to tell us that invading Iraq won’t help prevent terrorism here, especially since there is no evidence that he knows of ‘that directly links al-Qaida, Iraq and terrorist activity in the UK’. Nonetheless, it’s his job ‘to explain to people why it’s necessary’. All very confusing. Fortunately, the PM’s off to Camp David next week (on 31 January) to have matters straightened out for him by his superiors. He won’t have time to read Collateral Language: A User’s Guide to America’s New War (NYU, $16.95), a collection of essays edited by John Collins and Ross Glover about the uses to which language has been put by the Bush Administration since 11 September 2001. Each chapter considers a different word – e.g. anthrax, cowardice, freedom, jihad – but the overall argument is against propaganda and simplification, in favour of honesty and its prerequisite, complexity.

Enoch Powell once said that Britain’s foreign policy was to do whatever America wanted before having to be asked – a view that’s still half appropriate, anyway. Norman Tebbit, capitalising on the current situation in characteristically odious fashion, has been gloating over Powell’s most famously repugnant views. ‘It is now becoming all too likely,’ he asserted in a recent edition of the Sunday Express, that his ‘darkest prophecies . . . will come to pass’. Britain is a ‘soft touch for terrorists’ he said, in his helpful response to the killing of Detective Constable Stephen Oake. The illogic behind his opinions appears to go something like this: a man charged with murdering a policeman is an asylum seeker, therefore all asylum seekers should be assumed to be terrorists – ante hoc ergo propter hoc. The Daily Mail, to no one’s surprise, is of like mind, and came up with one of the most inspired front pages of recent times. A photograph of Oake was captioned: the man denied the right to live in britain. Yes, they should be very pleased with themselves for that.

Since coming to power, Tony Blair seems to have forgotten many things: that he’s a member of the Labour Party, for example. Now it would appear that his amnesia is encroaching on his legal education (which included, lest we forget, a number of state-funded years at university). ‘I think we can see evidence from the recent arrests that the terrorist network is here,’ he told MPs. He sounds like Alan Partridge, who once observed that ‘the police are hardly going to arrest someone unless he’s guilty.’ Whatever happened to people being presumed innocent, or for that matter being in contempt of court? Who cares: he’s the Prime Minister. At least we still live in a country where no one could have wondered for more than a moment at the ambiguity of the recent Evening Standard billboard that read: police murder suspect in dock.