“The Times has learnt that the Ministry of Defence was unwilling to supply lorries and drivers without being guaranteed payment for their services. As a result there appear to have been delays [in delivering] sleeping bags and food parcels to the stricken communities”
It took me a while to realise what this story in today’s Times reminded me of. Here were people driven out of their homes with no food or bedding, and a civil servant was refusing to deliver supplies without the right piece of paper signed and in triplicate. There was no shortage of supplies, but a dim little Jobsworth refused to make them available.
On 22 January 1879, a British force of 1,800 men faced 24,000 Zulus at Isandlwana. 480,000 rounds of ammunition were available but, so legend had it afterwards, the Quartermasters would not hand it over without the requisite authority. Legend probably had it wrong in fact, but the story persists.
The approach of 90,000 gallons of water per second is probably the nearest any of us will get to imagining what it is like to face 24,000 Zulus. Whilst Gordon Brown is much to blame for the inadequacies of the flood defences (he blew the money promised for that on expensive consultants, doomed IT projects and half-cock educational schemes) and whilst his contempt for the little people is legendary, it seems unlikely that he would have stood in the way of using MoD lorries to deliver urgently-needed supplies.
No, this would have been some mid-ranking civil servant, with a dry home to go to, a stranger to initiative or common-sense, insisting on proceeding with the procedures. Perhaps his boss was at lunch, and his boss was on a training course, and his boss was ill and his boss was on holiday and his boss is someone called Des Browne, whose leadership skills were so much in evidence over the Iran naval hostages farce. Des Browne was probably in that cupboard under the stairs which Geoff Hoon used to hide in when there were decisions to be made at the MoD. So the cold and hungry evacuees did without.
Meanwhile, no doubt, one of those Scotchmen who infest Westminster was getting out his atlas, trying to find Worcester and wondering why he had heard of it before. Perhaps the Homely Secretary, Jacqui Smith, who hails from Worcester, went to drag Gordon Brown away from checking Alastair Darling’s spreadsheets.
All parties, she would have said, spend immense resources trying to woo Worcester Woman, and Des Browne is letting her freeze and starve. Gordon suddenly remembered where he had heard of Worcester before and reached for his cheque-book. It is all very well ignoring the people of Hull as the water laps at their eaves – they will vote Labour however much you neglect their basic safety. Worcester Woman is a different matter – she might vote Lib Dem next time. Thus the promise of whatever it takes to sort the problems out.
It would be good to find that civil servant, and put him in the stocks just below the predicted high-water mark at Upton-Upon-Severn.
It would also be good to keep track of Gordon Brown’s commitments. His promises tend to evaporate on close inspection, rather faster than the flood-waters will. Where Blair lied recklessly, Brown does so carefully, ever-alert to the nuances, the ambiguities and the shades of meaning which allow him to slip away from apparent commitments which sound good at the time.
I rate the chances of Worcester Woman rather lower than those of a red-coat on the slopes of Isandlwana. Unless, of course, Gordon Brown decides on an early election.