It seems a long time since my last 'Westminster Gleanings' and since my conversation with Lord Gilmour about the Middle East. Ariel Sharon's new grab for the central ground, if such a thing really exists, of the Israeli political spectrum, sets the scene for an extraordinary d'nouement to his public life. If his popularity ratings hold up until the election, he may well triumph over the overt extremists, but there is little for the Palestinians in this, whichever way the voters go. The security wall dividing Jerusalem from the West Bank remains central to Sharon's policy of disengagement and continues to exclude Palestinians from hope of true peace, rather than disengagement, and of eventual economic development. This move is about a more secure Israel and to hell with everyone else.
Meanwhile here in Westminster, the Tony and Gordon waltz continues, the chancellor has been seen supporting his rival lately, apparently for the sake of securing his inheritance without destroying its base. However, the row over Sir Adair Turner's report on pensions is rapidly putting paid to the uneasy peace. Surprisingly, a Conservative Party with a new leader may well become attractive to the voters, not least because David Cameron, who must surely beat the greyish, dull and right-wing David Davis on December 6, has the same fresh and personable image as once sold the prime minister to the country. Gordon Brown, however strong his apparent hold on the immediate future when Tony Blair retires, increasingly has the air of an unattractive bully boy who cares little for anything beyond balancing the books for the sake of his own ambition rather than for the sake of the population.
I, along with many one time New Labour supporters, have been sorely disappointed by endless government trimming and compromise reducing the original and genuine aspirations of the New Labour message. Mr Cameron, it is true, may suffer from a lack of stated policies and will certainly do so, if, under his leadership, the Conservative Party continues to blow in the wind of opinion rather than re-create a strong brand-name and message. This was Tony Blair's problem, a new message with few concrete policies at its foundation. It may partially account for the government's increasingly strong-arm steering of our country and our culture in whatever direction suits the moment, as opposed to a steady progression through well-planned policies. Unfortunately, the new Conservative leader will have to fight off the worst elements in his party to avoid his message being one of unattractive right-wing anachronism in the face of Labour's invasion of the traditional central ground of Conservative politics.
It would not be difficult for a new party leader to distance himself from the increasingly dictatorial and puritanical tone of our current government as it seeks to order every element of our lives. Public rejection of the findings of the Turner commission, before it is even published, adds to the general concern about rule from the top; even more so when it is rule divided between Blair and Brown, with parliament left scrabbling in confusion. Disenchantment with a big-brother style of government is, I would say, inevitable in this country, where we have seldom taken kindly to being told how to lead our lives; especially if a Cromwellian uniformity seems to be part of the plan.
Lady Thatcher's rule of one fell on the rebellion of her members of parliament before it had a chance to fail on the country's voters; Tony Blair's may do the same. In the country, a regenerated Conservative Party led by a bright young man with a whiff of minor rebellion about him in his refusal to deny use of drugs could, pathetic although it may seem, have some of the attraction of the dissolute court of Charles II, if only because it would be more fun. It has to be said that there will need to be a bit more spark in the Conservative parliamentary party to back this colourful picture and, if it is to be more than a flash in the pan, it needs to be backed by policies that are progressive and achievable. David Cameron has politicians of some weight in his pantheon and he needs to use their abilities to the full while he shows the telegenic face of a newly regenerated party. It is depressing for the middle-aged that youth is more satisfactorily tele-visual and therefore votable, but, supported by the political weight and intellect of the likes of Ken Clarke and of William Hague, if he can be abstracted from his highly lucrative financial career, Cameron could return the Conservatives to credibility.
The other important rebellion from Labour MPs this month, that brought defeat to the prime minister in the House of Commons, has been over anti-terror measures and the detention of terror suspects. The detention without trial for 90 days, of any person arrested in this country seems abhorrent, against the spirit of the Act of Habeas Corpus of 1679 and usage of habeas corpus possibly predating Magna Carta in 1215. It has been seen, we were taught in school history classes, as protection for the individual against arbitrary detention by the state. Today, as Michael Zander, the emeritus professor of law at the LSE, says: 'It still represents the fundamental principle that unlawful detention can be challenged by immediate access to a judge.' It has, however, been suspended in times of social unrest, most recently in mainland Britain during World War II to detain fascist sympathizers and, more lately, in Northern Ireland, to allow the notorious internment of IRA suspects. In effect, it is believed that it increased support for the IRA.
Interestingly for me, I sat next to a most unusual and, I would say, liberal commissioner of police this week who believes that the 90 days are required to investigate terrorism with international roots. He pointed out that proper investigation of such cases involves police officers travelling to liaise with their counterparts in other countries, possibly several different countries, and that this takes a great deal of time and organization. He further suggested that this investigation is essential if the individuals concerned are eventually to receive a fair trial. Undoubtedly, the whole drama has done the reputation of the police little good. Sensible arguments have not been aired through the storm of protest as senior officers were castigated, quite rightly, for taking centre-stage in the political theatre rather than offering their evidence from behind the curtain of civil service discretion.
Finally, this week, I attended the Asian of the Year Awards banquet at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, where a good friend was receiving the main award. A screened message from an exhausted looking Tony Blair seemed directed not so much at this event but more as a general interview for an Asian television station broadcast. Similarly, the government ministers there as supporting cast and including the youthful looking attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, rather missed the point in their speeches, using the usual platitudes about diversity and multiculturalism to an audience of massively successful business people and entrepreneurs who could have written a book about Asian triumphs in this country. I feel it was an evening for celebration and congratulation, not an excuse for the slightly inept and inappropriate condescension that still lingers in the tone of politicians when they speak to perceived minority groups. Perhaps at an 'Asian' event it was necessary to recognize differences, but to me it seemed ridiculous to do other than celebrate simply and wholeheartedly the successes of so many people who have enriched this country economically and culturally and who have become as British as those of us who have lived here for generations.