Don't mention the war on terror even if we're winning it
FRASER NELSON The war on terror is over — or at least has been purged from the vocabulary of Gordon Brown's government. The phrase, he has decided, will never be mentioned by any of his ministers. The men who attempted to attack a London nightclub and Glasgow Airport are 'criminals' and not warriors. It is only a matter of terminology, of course, but Mr Brown knows the power of semantics. With no formal announcement, British policy towards global terror has changed fundamentally.
Jack Straw has longed for such a day. He may have been Tony Blair's foreign secretary during the Iraq war, but he prides himself on never having uttered the words `war on terror' and regards the phrase as a vulgar American import. Other Cabinet members agree, and claim to have never let these particular words pass their lips. It is all part of the disengagement from the American notion of the war — a war whose existence the government does not even technically acknowledge now.
Yet America does not need to puzzle over such linguistic runes when it has the clod-hoppingly clear appointment of Sir Mark Malloch Brown from which to deduce the message. His promotion to foreign office minister, pending ennoblement, means little in Britain where Sir Mark is a nobody (a reputation which matches his accomplishments). But the impact has been much sharper in Washington, where, towards the end of his tenure as deputy UN secretary-general, Sir Mark was notorious as chief apologist for the oil-for-food scheme, and for chastising the Bush administration.
The Wall Street Journal recently described Sir Mark as part of the Axis of Soros'. It was not a compliment: the financier George Soros has suggested that America should embark on a `de-Nazffication' programme once President Bush leaves. The newspaper concluded that, 'Mr Soros's widely published views are close to Mr Malloch Brown's somewhat more guarded ones.' When Mr Brown appointed him, a New York Sun columnist concluded simply that this 'does not augur well, either for the AngloAmerican relationship or for future co-operation in the war on terror'. It is not only neocons who feel this appointment is a slap in the face, either.
It is possible that Mr Brown has explained, during his inaugural videolinked conversation with President Bush, that he needs to distance himself in public from America in order to remain a steadfast ally in private. This is not inconceivable, but Sir Mark's appointment meant nothing in Britain, and so bought Mr Brown no political capital (unlike his appointment to the Cabinet of John Denham, who resigned over the war, which was a clear and unambiguous signal). The net effect of Sir Mark's elevation has been to suggest to Washington that it may now be minus one reliable ally.
But a close look at the new shadow Cabinet reveals signals that are no more reassuring. David Cameron was never a public enthusiast for the Iraq war, and at the time told friends in private that he was essentially against it. Like Mr Brown, he sees little political capital in continuing to support a war which he judges to be reviled by the British public and being steadily abandoned even by America. Again, without any fanfare, his own appointments symbolise a definitive shift in Conservative positioning and the party's approach to critics of the war on terror.
Take the case of Sayeeda Warsi — a Muslim Tory candidate in 2005 — who was challenged two years ago over material which claimed police had arrested 872 'innocent people' after 7 July 2005 and detained them for 14 days. It was precisely the type of information to stir anger in the Muslim community. It also happened to be untrue. Only 36 people had been arrested, and of the ten released without trial none was held for more than nine days. She asserted that the government's terror proposals are 'enough to tip any normal young man into the realms of a radicalised fanatic' and described the war as illegal.
After a spell as a vice-president of the party, and a few successful performances on Question Time, Ms Warsi is to become a peer of the realm and installed in the shadow Cabinet as shadow communities secretary. I am told she will not, henceforth, be speaking her mind over the Iraq war, and no longer considers Britain to be a 'police state'. She is certainly a feisty performer, and embodies the diversity which Mr Cameron has been seeking in his Tory candidates for so long. But there is a reason why MPs are left on backbenches for a few years: so they learn about the political process and not stain their careers by mistakes born of inexperience. Ed Vaizey, one of the more talented Cameroon MI's, has asked not to be promoted for precisely this reason. So Mr Cameron's promotion of Ms Warsi marks a gamble: he knows the press will be hoping to draw from her further forthright statements on the war on terror.
Yet the more important point is that the centre of political gravity is moving Ms Warsi's way. Should she repeat her misgivings, her words might well sound unremarkable. We are edging towards a new, inglorious consensus on the state of the conflict.
It is a strange time to consider a war to be over. If the car bombs planted outside the London nightclub last weekend had been correctly primed, a thousand young British people — most of them women — could be maimed or dead. The same applies to the hundreds queuing inside Glasgow Airport last weekend. Had it not been for the terrorists' incompetence, Britain would be counting its dead and feeling very much at war. We were just a few botched chemical reactions away from this outcome.
In perhaps her most naive suggestion, Ms Warsi once suggested seeking a dialogue with the 'radical groups who we have said in the past are complete nutters'. But the problem is that — unlike Sinn Fein in the early Nineties — the jihadis do not seek a seat at the table. They wish to blow up the table. Their demands are the global imposition of Islamic law and the restoration of the caliphate. Their calculations are that the West will become weary, and unwilling to recognise that fundamentalist Islam is in arms against it.
Yet the speed of the arrests, and the fact that the bombers were this time known to MI5, suggests that Britain may actually be starting to win the war on terror. The security services have proven themselves much better prepared now than they were in the London Underground attacks which took place two years ago this week. They have been on a war footing, as their extraordinary achievements demonstrate. And here is the irony: we are finally turning the corner, in the war which now dares not speak its name.