Friday, April 02, 2004

imaginary conversation between a Prime Minister and his polling guru
PM - So, how d’you think it went?

PG – Very well, Prime Minister. I think your comments on ID cards hit exactly the right note.

PM – Well, we have to move things along quickly from the start. You don’t think people will point out that the Spanish have ID cards…

PG - …and that they didn’t prevent the bombing in Madrid? I’m sure people are pointing that out right now. It doesn’t matter. These people are in favour of doing nothing in the face of the terrorist threat.

PM – when “there is no longer a civil liberties objection in the vast majority of quarters.”

PG – Precisely

PM – And yet I can’t help remembering that we did manage to pick up those people just this week, without having ID cards in place.

PG - Amateurs, frankly. Anyone serious knows that if you buy large amounts of ammonium nitrate without actually having straw in your hair, the security forces are going to want a chat. We can’t rely on others to be so stupid. We also have to answer some tough questions about the nature of what we’re doing and the political implications of the whole war on terror for the government.

PM – What are you thinking, specifically?

PG – It’s like this. Remember all that stuff about zero tolerance policing? We took it on because we needed to look tough, because it came from America and because our polls showed it was a winner with the public. What it actually involved wasn’t really relevant, given the media equity of the concept. But if you look at it closely, there are actually some serious policy implications.

PM – How do you mean?

PG – For one thing, there are two types of zero tolerance policing. The first may or may not help to solve crime, but does a lot to reassure the public - having graffiti cleaned up, nationalizing teenagers, that sort of thing. The second is intelligence based and looks for long term results. That does more to cut crime, but by definition it’s not so visible. The public doesn’t see it and does not feel reassured. There are no headline political benefits. Compulsory ID cards fall into the first category. Excuse fingers, but they show we are “doing something”, which counts as much as if we are actually doing something.

PM – But we don’t have unlimited resources. There is a case, which I’m not necessarily making but which will be made, that we should be targeting these resources to the most effective means possible of finding terrorist groups before they target us.

PG – But what if we do that, and a bomb goes off anyway? No anti-terrorism strategy is infallible. In fact, we have to assume that our efforts will fail and that a bomb will go off somewhere. Our priority here is to take steps that will stop the public here responding in the same way that they did in Spain. Aznar’s tactis of blaming ETA was a nice try. After all, ETA are a credible threat. We can’t turn round after an explosion and blame the real IRA. We have to have a record to point to give people a reason to rally round us.

This is especially important given your leadership role in the global war on terror. The world can’t afford to lose you, PM. Britain can’t. The correct policy approach is not the one which is most likely to protect us from a terrorist attack. It’s the one most likely to keep you in office. Naturally, one’s preference is for the two approaches to be identical.

PM – (sighs) Y’know, sometimes I wish we were back in 1997. It all seemed so simple then. Mornings spent getting overexcited about the internet. Afternoons spent appreciating the design community. Evenings at the Brit awards. Free Dierdrie Rashid!

PG – Never mind, PM. Let’s remember that we have a lot of opportunities to get things done right now. Paradoxically, the war on terror may be just the thing to restore the public’s trust in you after Iraq. It offers the means of getting the nation to rally round and keeping Gordon off your back. It provides the opportunity to take hold of public institutions and thoroughly modernize them, and maybe get the public to accept some of our less popular plans. It would almost be a shame if…what’s that gleam in your eye, Prime Minister?

PM – exactly the same as the one in yours.