In any conflict, the true victor is always the State

The world has been cancelled. There is a war on.

I normally consume news by the hour, almost the minute. Yesterday I had to turn it off. For much of the day, there was no news, merely the fallout of a bungled assassination attempt on President Saddam Hussein. There was just hours of waiting for news. Yet nothing else had a look-in. Only the ultimate anaesthetic, football, was permitted to supplant bombs as fit subject for public interest.

The American senator, Hiram Johnson, declared that the first casualty of war is truth. He was wrong. The first casualty is news. Sooner or later truth find its voice. News is always relative. Yesterday Britain suddenly had no worries over Europe’s constitution, the NHS, London’s transport, the Olympics or the Budget. Instead the nation waited breathless for tales of bombing and heroism. When “all the youth of England are on fire”, cried Shakespeare, and the “blast of war is in our ears”, then “silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies”. Tolerance and humility must give way to “hard-favour’d rage”.

During the Falklands conflict the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Geoffrey Howe, commented that he might as well shut up shop for the duration. All he could do was sign blank cheques. British government was on autopilot. Two weeks ago Gordon Brown made a similar remark, inconceivable from him at any other time. Repeating Lord Howe of Aberavon, he said that the Ministry of Defence could have unlimited access to Treasury funds. He gave the most notoriously wasteful department in Whitehall a golden key to the Exchequer. Drugs clinics, the elderly, Aids in Africa, the war on poverty could all eat their budgetary hearts out. War excused everything. Politics was in abeyance.

I have tried over the past month to argue my way through this wretched war. Debate is now overtaken by action. Democrats must accept collective responsibility for decisions taken by government when validated by Parliament. This decision has been so validated, despite Downing Street’s disinclination at first to risk it. Iraq may not be a legal war, but for Britain it is a constitutional one. More than that, it is an act of collective violence which, once put in train, is best done fast. This is more likely if soldiers charged with its execution are supported, not shown red cards at every turn.

That does not mean politics ceases. This is no war of national security. It does not require domestic mobilisation. A national coalition has not been formed. Despite Tony Blair’s crude efforts to scare the public into becoming pro-war, there is no threat to British territory. We have sent professional soldiers to aid an American “disarmament” expedition in the Gulf. This should not require emergency powers. The war should by rights fall within the defence budget, give or take an extra #1 billion.

If news is the first casualty of war, the first victor is government. It is ironic that every war fought by Britain in the past century, justly in the cause of freedom, has led directly to a curtailment of freedom in favour of state control. The history of war runs in tandem with that of higher taxes, greater regulation and more government.

Income tax was invented to pay for hostilities against Napoleon. It rose above a shilling in the pound to pay for Crimea. It went up higher, to 30 per cent and “supertax”, to pay for the Great War. It hit a top rate of 90 per cent to pay for the Second World War. These rises may have been necessary at the time, but they were not immediately abolished on the return of peace. There is no case in the past century of tax rates used to pay for a war returning to the status quo ante. War is the most efficient of all tax-gatherers, because it inflicts its pain under general anaesthetic. Against the blast of war no scream is heard. Mr Brown is so acquiescent today because at last he has an excuse for higher taxes.

The same goes for the size and scope of government. The first surge in officialdom occurred in the Great War. By the time of the Second World War there were roughly 200,000 civil servants. Fifteen years after it had ended there were 375,000 and rising. Before that war, local communities ran their own hospitals, social services, poor homes and prisons. After it they ran none. The welfare state was introduced not through socialism but on the back of a wartime economy. The trains were nationalised not out of conviction but out of military need. State control of universities goes back to 1919 and the Army’s demand for more scientific research. The statist Utopia that passes for some British cities was made possible only by the bombs of war.

War offers an opportunity for repressive legislation that would never be tolerated in peace. The Great World War saw the xenophobic Defence of the Realm Act. The Second World War saw the War Powers (Defence) Act, which banned as a threat to national security the sentence, “Even Hitler had a mother”. Official secrets, censorship and espionage were given a scope that nobody saw fit to repeal with the coming of peace. Freedom had no lobby.

After an IRA attack in 1974, the supposedly liberal Roy Jenkins introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act, pledging in public that it was a “strictly temporary measure”. It gave the police extensive discretion to spy on, intern and deport citizens without trial. It has never been repealed. It was just too useful. There is in Britain no supreme court to demand its demise.

The present Labour Government promised to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act. It did, cynically introducing one ten times as long and far more draconian. Under the cover of “9/11” the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, brought in his Anti-Terrorism Act, the most extensive restriction of civil liberties in Britain in peacetime. It included indefinite internment of “suspects”, expulsion of foreigners and the right of the Home Secretary to take any further measures “by decree” without oversight. Only the House of Lords, to its credit, demanded the dilution of his more extreme police-state proposals.

Who knows what Mr Blunkett may be scheming to slip through under cover of bombing this week. He is already seeking powers to tap mobile phones and e-mail messages and pass on such information to an array of state agencies. He is a shameless enemy of liberty. Protest such intrusion and you will be given the excuse of Tosca’s Scarpia and the East German Stasi: “The innocent have nothing to fear.”

The most trenchant critic of such control-freakery used to be a certain Patricia Hewitt, the author of The Abuse of Power and a civil liberties lobbyist. “Patricia Hewitt prosecutes the State,” cries a handout in my file. Ms Hewitt now sits happily in the Cabinet. There she enforces more severe infringements of civil liberty than she can have imagined possible when she wrote her book. That is ambition for you. Ms Hewitt is another Clare Short.

Such offences against personal freedom are bitterly fought in the United States, where courts and politicians regard the championing of liberty as a sacred duty, not an Opposition hobby. In Britain infringement seems immune to party and to argument. Labour and Conservative ministers alike fall in love with emergency powers. From Roy Jenkins to David Blunkett, ministers once dusted with the glitter of office grab eagerly at any chance to exploit war’s “hardfavour’d rage”.

Nor are they its only beneficiaries. Hard-favour’d rage is now gathering a multitude of demons into its embrace. Pro and anti-war advocates pollute politics with mindless name-calling in the press. On Monday Labour whips blighted the careers of MPs for treating war as a matter of conscience, a contempt of Parliament which would be illegal if committed by outsiders. Other MPs who support the war are threatened with deselection. Universities have become cockpits of intolerance. Football matches have become cauldrons of xenophobia. Germans and French are excoriated for taking a view of the war no different from that which Britain took a year ago.

Leviathan has all the best tunes, with full orchestral backing when nations go to war. That is why war is the hardest time to plead the case for free speech, fair trial, due process and personal liberty. And that in turn is precisely the point. Wars fought for freedom bring in their train freedom’s greatest foes. They need hawk-eyed scrutiny.