Alice in blunderland

By MIKE JOHNSON [email protected]

Mike Johnson is a freelance journalist who worked in the Algarve for more than 20 years. He now lives in Plymouth in the UK and comments on world topics which fascinate him.

Lewis Carroll got it right in his highly popular children’s fantasy, Alice in Wonderland, when Alice, exploring the world beneath the rabbit warren, down which she’d fallen, exclaimed “Curiouser and curiouser”.

She scolded herself for her lapse of grammar, but the sentiment still held true. If you, dear reader, had happened to find yourself falling into the UK recently, you might well have uttered those same words.

We are used to our politicians committing political hari-kari and our cherished national institutions, such as the police, falling short of the standards we expect of them, but, at the moment, they are excelling themselves. It all began with the story of the ‘secret’ file which, when accidentally exposed on national television, caused the police to mount an anti-terrorist operation before they were prepared to do so.

It was early morning when Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Bob Quick, arrived at 10 Downing Street to inform the Prime Minister about police raids which were due to take place at 6am the following day. AC Quick had been busy with last minute revisions to documents and, in his haste, one of the documents was clearly on show under his arm as he got out of his taxi. By sheer bad luck, this showed the addresses which were to be the subject of the raids.

A member of the press corps gathered outside No.10 happened to photograph the document and, by the time the meeting inside was ended, it was already on the internet. National television news reproduced the photo, but with the addresses blurred out.  The damage, however, had already been done.

The police operation, code-named Pathway, immediately swung into operation, some 18 hours before it was intended. Whereas it had been planned as a series of clean dawn raids at a number of homes in north west England, while the occupants were still asleep, now anti-terrorist officers burst into a university library and an internet café in the early evening, to make some of the arrests.

In all, 12 suspects were detained, 11 of them young Pakistani men, in the country on student visas. The operation was declared a success, although AC Quick tendered his resignation immediately it was over, and this was accepted. Under UK Anti-Terrorism laws, the detained men may be held for up to 28 days of questioning, and already details of Operation Pathway have emerged.

It was launched in December 2008, when 14 suspected Al-Qaeda terrorists were arrested in Belgium. Their leader had been on the run from British police in Pakistan, and was believed to be planning a series of terrorist attacks in Europe, including the UK. Two months later, police picked up the trail to the north of England and the suspects were put under full-time surveillance.

Although the police have seized documents and computers from the residences raided, there seems to be considerable doubt over whether potential targets or evidence of bomb-making were discovered. It may well be that AC Quick’s moment of carelessness has seriously jeopardised the operation and that some, if not all, of those arrested may have to be released.

In the meantime, the Metropolitan Police had also been preoccupied with the attendance in London of world leaders attending the G20 summit. There had been the usual demonstrations, this time not marred by any noticeable violence, when, on the last day, an incident occurred which was, once again, to question the public’s view of the police.

Innocent bystanders

Nobody pretends that life is not difficult for the police in situations such as this, but they are there to protect the public, not cause the death of an innocent bystander.  On this occasion, they were reinforced by members of the elite Territorial Support Group, who provide back up when things get really serious. Newspaper seller Ian Tomlinson, a 47-year old father of nine, was just walking home, minding his own business, when he was hit from behind by a police baton and pushed to the ground. Minutes later, he died of a heart attack.

All this was captured on a bystander’s mobile phone, and the incident was immediately referred to the Independent police Complaints Commission. The officer in question has now been suspended from duty. The Met, as is its fashion, closed ranks, releasing information that Mr Tomlinson had a history of drunken behaviour and that he acted provocatively towards the police.

One remembers the killing of Charles de Menezes, an innocent caught up in a terrorist police operation, in a London tube train. Years before, 46-year old Harry Stanley, a painter and decorator, was shot dead by police who believed him to be carrying a firearm under his arm. It turned out to be a table leg. It will be argued that the police need all the help we can give them to combat terrorism, but this cannot include the murder of innocent civilians.

Another figure in the public eye, who has been forced to resign, is Gordon Brown’s Head of Strategy and Planning. Damian McBride’s job is to mastermind the Prime Minister’s political agenda, but it seems he has been spending his time digging up muck-raking stories about Conservative politicians and trying to get them published on the internet. In a series of emails now made public, Mr McBride makes explicit sexual allegations against David Cameron, the Tory leader, the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne and Nadine Dorries, a back-bench MP.

One remembers similar stories circulating about Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie,  during his premiership. However, Mr Brown has apologised to all concerned and says that No.10 will now clean up its act, but perhaps Alice had a point when she mused towards the end of her Adventures in Wonderland, “It would be so nice if something made sense for a change.”