7/7, five years on - "They haven't gone away, you know."
"I remember, I remember", a Philip Larkin poem title runs. I remember parts of 7/7, but have forgotten far more. I've forgotten exactly when and where I was when rumours of gas explosions on the underground hardened into confirmation of bomb attacks. I've forgotten how I came to be in the Shadow Home Secretary's Office later that morning - was I summoned, or there anyway? - or when I was asked to help with his response to the Home Secretary's emergency Commons statement (or why). I've forgotten where I wrestled with his draft or sat in the Chamber.
And my memories of the day are blurred, disconnected images: seeing David Davis at the Westminster Tube entrance near Portcullis House, before the news broke, with Rachel Sylvester and Alice Thomson (then of the Telegraph, now of the Times); walking down the Embankment to find my wife, who works in an office off Fleet Street; exchanging a few grim words near the Chamber with Patrick Mercer. What comes back most clearly is the sense, almost the smell, of confusion - the mobile connections went down - and, yes, the fear: it wasn't clear (how could it have been?) that there were four bombs only. There could and there might have been more.
Davis was judged at the time to have spoken briefly, cogently and with dignity in the Commons. 7/7 was followed by a frantic Blair policy upheaval. Does it appear, in retrospect, to have be an over-reaction, and the Islamist threat to have been over-hyped? Today, the London murders can seem more like an end than a beginning. After all, there've been, to date, no more terror transport killings in the capital. (Mercifully, the 21/7 attacks claimed no casualties.) Indeed, there's been no large-scale mainland terror attack since the assault on Glasgow airport in the summer of 2007.
I tend to hear two views. The first is that the threat was and remains very serious, and that the Security Services deserve our thanks for forestalling it to date. The second is that it was indeed over-inflated, and was used as cover for draconian measures by a Labour Government contemptuous of our freedoms - as yesterday's announcement over the treatment of detainees indictates. As I write, the latter take seems to fit the public mood. Under the Coalition Government, there's a new stress on civil liberties. Even if Labour hadn't lost, the public mood in relation to Afghanistan is one of war-weariness (which today's announcement of the withdrawal of British forces from Sangin will do nothing to dispel). It can be argued that the threat from Irish republicans is greater than that from Al Qaeda.
I wonder if the two views are completely incompatible. Yes, the threat was clearly very grave. If the 21/7 bombers had mixed their explosives properly, there'd have been further Underground deaths. If there hadn't been bollards outside the terminal entrance, there could have been scores of deaths in Glasgow. If Nicky Reilly had known what he was about, he could have brought murder and mayhem to an Exeter restaurant two years ago. The Bluewater mall murder plot and airplane liquid explosives conspiracy were thwarted. We should be grateful today for the work of the Security Services, who toil for our safety and security with little public recognition and reward. And if the threat was urgent then, there's no reason to believe it isn't now.
None the less, no convincing case has been made for 28 days detention without charge. I had constituents who were held for that period in relation to the liquid explosives plot, but then released. Labour, remember, tried to push that total up to 90 days. Pauline Neville-Jones, the Security Minister, gave a TV interview recently stressing Ministers' willingness to re-examine 28 days, to review the present operation of stop and search and control orders, and to re-examine the "Prevent" counter-terror programme that they've inherited. There's been, she said, a "loss of trust" between voters - not just Muslim ones - and government over our freedoms. The paucity of UK terror attacks since 7/7 sits uncomfortably with claims of over two thousand Al Qaeda activists in Britain.
So it's possible for the threat both to have been very serious and yet have been exploited ruthlessly by Labour Ministers. Andrew Gilligan recently wrote a persuasive article in the Spectator arguing that the new Government has an opportunity to get policy right by clamping down on extremism while easing up on civil liberties. And if the number of terror operatives in Britain is less than is sometimes alleged - my impression is that Britain's big anti-Al Qaeda Muslim majority has slowly got its act together since 2005 - it's still worth bearing in mind that only a few people are required to cause terror on a colossal scale, with dire consequences. Remember the words of Gerry Adams on the IRA, an organisation to which he was no stranger: "They haven't gone away, you know."