The BBC news this morning greeted the new week with breathless excitement. A tanker had been hi-jacked in the English channel; the hi-jackers were seven Nigerian stowaways ‘believed to be seeking asylum in the UK’; four helicopters had undertaken a daring mission in the dark; sixteen heavily armed members of the Special Boat Services (SBS) had abseiled down onto the tanker; and ‘with overwhelming force quickly regained control of the vessel.’ Anyone sufficiently excited by the cinematic drama to turn to Google to establish precisely who our heroes from the SBS might be will be instantly enlightened by the ITV website: it is, we are told, ‘a highly covert elite maritime anti-terrorist unit of the Royal Navy.’
My immediate response to this as the BBC’s first news story of the day, still sleepy as I was, was to detect a distinct smell of rat. I lived too long in South Africa under apartheid to have any confidence whatever in the truth or motives of the national broadcaster, and the past decade of Tory government has instilled in me an equivalent level of cynicism when it comes to any story obviously put out by government ministers. The whiff of rodent gathered strength as the details of the story started to come out and it became clear that the SBS assault had been ordered by our execrable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, along with her more junior colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, Ben Wallace.
The seven stowaways had omitted to take with them the explosives or firearms that might have justified the expense of helicopters and elite ant-terrorist troops, and were unarmed, although this apparently hadn’t deterred the crew from taking refuge in the ‘safe place’ always provided on tankers in case of hi-jackings. Various versions of the story had the crew being threatened with ‘broken glass’, ‘knives and other sharp objects they had picked up’, and scary ‘verbal abuse.’ The captain, rather significantly one might have thought in the context of a ‘hi-jacking’, remained in control of the tanker’s bridge throughout. The seven targets of the elite anti-terrorist unit couldn’t have stowed away with the intention of seeking asylum in the UK because they could apparently have had no idea when they boarded the ship in Lagos where it would be heading. Patel subsequently praised the SBS for its ‘swift and decisive action’, but one wonders how it could have taken 16 heavily armed SBS operatives all of 9 minutes to ‘regain control of the vessel’.
The evidence is stacking up to the point where one doesn’t need to be an irredeemable cynic to assume, until it is demonstrated otherwise, that everything anybody associated with this government ever does (with the possible exception of Rishi Sunak) is either hopelessly incompetent or done with dishonest and deceitful intent. Presenting the seven stowaways as dastardly ‘asylum seekers’ all too obviously plays into Patel’s racist anti-immigration rhetoric. But the whole dramatic spectacle of the heavily armed SBS warriors abseiling down onto the tanker under cover of darkness bears a remarkable similarity to the 250-strong raid on the terrace house in Forest Gate in east London in 2006 that I wrote about on July 29th. In that case the police knew that the intelligence the raid was based on was extremely dubious and that the ‘bomb’ which the 15 heavily armed men, kitted out in their chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear protection suits were searching for, almost certainly didn’t exist, but the police were ordered by the politicians to conduct the raid regardless. Here, the 16 SBS men will almost certainly have known that the 7 stowaways weren’t armed in any serious sense of the word. In both instances sledgehammers and gnats come to mind.
So what were these overkill spectaculars all about? In the Forest Gate case, a training exercise, a message that the government was taking anti-terrorist action seriously, and a distraction. The report on the police’s extra-judicial murder on the London tube of the Brazilian plumber, Jean Charles de Menezes, was due to be published imminently, and the media needed to be given something else to focus on. Apart from playing to Patel’s virulent anti-immigrant agenda, today’s tanker-hijacking story was no doubt similarly designed to distract the media’s attention, however briefly, from a range of political awkwardnesses: the very strong criticism by a large segment of the legal profession of Patel’s and Johnson’s attacks on ‘lefty lawyers’ in the immigration and asylum context; the continuing disaster of the Government’s hopeless mishandling of Track and Trace; and the equally self-mutilating stupidity of Boris Johnson’s continuing refusal to support the continuation of school meals. Take your pick.