Is it always interesting to observe the process by which a politician becomes an elder statesman. A number of criteria must be met. Although the individual concerned should have held high office, it ought to be most unlikely that he will return to the front line. Without repudiating his former allegiances, he should be willing to eschew partisanship. There should always be the sense that he is drawing on the experience of office and refining it into wisdom. He should also eschew involvement in day-to-day controversies. He should only pronounce when he has something to say. The outcome is a valuable contribution to public life.
Margaret Thatcher could never have been one such. Eschew partisanship: that would be the day. But almost as soon as he left No.10, John Major did become an elder statesman, commanding a respectful attention that he never enjoyed as Premier. The latest recruit to this exalted company is Jack Straw. A couple of days ago, he made an important point, the more so because it relates to a problem that he helped to create. As Home Secretary, he was responsible for the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), 2000, which he now admits to be gravely defective.
Ministers need to be able to think in private. Sometimes, they may wish to sound off, indulging in "streams of consciousness", as Mr Straw put it. The clash of ideas – even impractical ones – is part of the intellectual raw material out of which realistic policies will emerge. it is also important that civil servants should be able to keep a record of these proceedings. Ideas which might seem plausible in the course of a heated discussion may look very different in the cold light of paper. But because of the FOI, there is less paper. Ministers are afraid to play with ideas, for fear that they will be made public in a half-cooked form. As a result, the quality of government might suffer.
Mr Straw believes that the Act should be re-written so that its more anarchic teeth can be drawn. He is right. The current government should rush to agree with him, before asking him to chair a small working party to draft the improvements.
There is another area in which the quality of government is under threat, and it is the most vital of all: national security. Despite all the evidence, there seems to be a widespread belief that we are not living in a dangerous world: that those responsible for security are deliberatley exaggerating the problems to justify their own salaries: that some of them may be James Bond manques who are confusing fantasy and reality. This is such a travesty. Those who live with dangers and warn of dangers are not like small children who are afraid that there is a monster lurking under the bed. They are outstanding public servants who have a firm grip on reality. We are menaced by lurking monsters.
In 1517, Martin Luther sparked off the Reformation. Within a very few years, Catholics and Protestants were killing one another, which they continued to do for decades and centuries. In Ireland, it is not yet certain that the wars of religion are over. Today, there is turmoil in much of the Islamic world, often accompanied by a growth in religious intensity. As a result, many Muslims have far more resemblance to John Calvin or Philip II than to the average modern Anglican who potters along to Church once a month for a pleasant service and a glass of sherry with the vicar. Many Muslims have come to hate the West, to believe that we are the authors of their misfortunes and that they are entitled to strike at us without restraint.
There is no easy response to all that. The natural Western instinct is to pursue dialogue: to negotiate; to see what scope there is for compromise and concession. There is nothing wrong with any of that, as long as we do not delude ourselves that all will then be well. If you are tempted to indulge in optimism, think Catholics and Calvinists in 1550. Whatever the outcome of any negotiations, there will be a sizeable residue of ruthless opponents, who simply want to kill us.
That is where the Secret Intelligence Services are crucial. They are in business to frustrate the evil-doers. But they cannot do this on their own. Anglo-American cooperation is crucial. This is not only a matter of exchanging pieces of paper. Consequences ensue. Under President Obama's liberal regime, the US is much less keen on detaining terrorits. That leads to the embarrassments of Guantanamo Bay. These days, the Americans prefer to kill their targets. As a result, information which we supply to them will lead to extra-judicial killigs.
This are usually carried out by drone attacks. But let us be realistic. With the best planning in the world, some strikes will go awry. Innocent people will be killed. It is a grim business. So what is the alternative? If the inevitable consequences of drone warfare in the badlands of Pakistan make you feel unhappy, what about bombs in British cities? We do not live in a world which permits the luxury of easy choices between good and evil, white and black. We are condemned to hard choices between shades of grey. Hard choices mean hard thinking. The price of freedom and safety is eternal intellectual vigilance. We ought to thank, honour and reward those who who work in the shades, on our behalf.
Instead, we are displaying rank ingratitude. One of the most outstanding current members of SIS spent four years under police investigation, three of them on gardening leave, before he was cleared. Apart from anything else, that was a colossal waste of a vital asset. He should have been on watch, in regions where there are few gardens.
It is time for the elder statesmen to intervene again, warning the younger politicians that squeamishness is not an antidote to terrorism. There is a choice. Either the West responds realistically to the threats that we face, or our opponents will exploit our lack of realism.