Blair Won't Resign Despite Blow Over Terror Law

By Kevin McCandless | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

London ( - Despite an embarrassing defeat in parliament over anti-terrorism legislation, British Prime Minister Tony Blair vowed Wednesday night to continue the fight against what he called a "new type" of extremist violence.

In a House of Commons vote earlier in the day, 49 left-leaning members of the ruling Labor Party joined opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat lawmakers to defeat Blair's proposal to allow police to hold terror suspects for up to 90 days without charge.

Law enforcement officials argued that they needed time to investigate complex, international plots. However, human rights groups had mounted a vigorous campaign against the plan.

Currently, British police are allowed to hold terrorism suspects without charge for up to two weeks.

After the 90-day proposal was defeated by a 322-291 vote, the Commons then agreed on a compromise - a 28-day detention period.

However, this will still have to be approved by the House of Lords. The upper chamber has lately voted against several pieces of legislation favored by Blair, including a proposal to outlaw speech "inciting religious hatred."

After Blair's defeat, the Conservative Party said the prime minister's "authority has been diminished almost to vanishing point" and he should "consider his position."

But Blair told the BBC he would not resign despite enduring his largest defeat in parliament since being elected in 1997.

He said that he couldn't understand how members of his party could put the civil rights of a minority ahead of the safety of society. Despite the setback, he contended that he was proud of his actions.

"Sometimes it's better to lose doing the right thing than to win doing the wrong thing."

Before the vote, tensions ran high in parliament, with key members of the cabinet being recalled from diplomatic trips abroad and party officials openly berating rebellious lawmakers.

A London newspaper reported that two Labor members on opposite sides of the issue were allegedly involved in a heated punch-up.

Despite the setback for Blair, another proposal to outlaw the "glorification of terrorism" was passed by 25 votes.

As part of an anti-terrorism bill expected to be passed Thursday, the new law would make it illegal to speak or publish statements anywhere at any time that would encourage the "commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism."

Government ministers say this is designed to work against Islamist "preachers of hate" but civil liberties groups worry it could chill free speech.

An earlier effort by Labor rebels to delete the amendment failed by a single vote. Ironically, left-leaning, anti-Iraq war lawmaker George Galloway missed the vote because he was giving a paid speech in Ireland at the time. The former Laborite's presence in the House could have made the difference.

John Horgan, a terrorism expert at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said he doubted the amendment would prevent extremists from spreading their message.

With the global reach of the Internet, he said, inflammatory sermons were only a few mouse clicks away.

"I don't think that the problem will go away. With the Internet, it will simply be displaced."

As far as extending the detention period was concerned, Horgan said it seemed like a stop-gap measure - one that obscured the need for the security services to spend more money on better equipment.

While he approved of plans to deport some foreign terrorist suspects living in the United Kingdom back to their countries of origin, he said the country still needed to have a critical, reasoned debate about fighting terrorism.

"What we've seen after 9/11 that the drama that surrounding terrorist events clouds our minds about the thing we need to do," he said.

Blair said late Wednesday he thought that the clash over the detention period was a "one-off" issue.

Controversial proposals to reform the health care and education systems, due to be voted on in the next few months, would not face similar rebellions from his own party, he added.

Subscribe to the free daily E-Brief.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.