Not Saussure

October 17, 2006

“Machine gun rioters” Blunkett given the lie

Filed under: Politics, UK — notsaussure @ 11:10 am

The Times reports that

A HYSTERICAL David Blunkett told the Prison Service to call in the Army and “machinegun” inmates in order to regain control of a riot-torn jail, the former Director-General of the service claims today.

The former Home Secretary is said to have “shrieked” down the telephone to Martin Narey that he did not care about the possible loss of life among staff or prisoners during efforts to retake Lincoln jail which had been taken over by rioting inmates.

Mr Narey said that the way Mr Blunkett behaved during the riot convinced him that he was not up to the job of being Home Secretary.

In the article, Mr Narey explains

I was about to leave the restaurant when I got a call from Kath Raymond, David’s political adviser. I thought that this would be to convey a message of support from the Home Secretary. Instead, a flustered Kath told me that the Home Secretary was furious and said I was to call him at home.

David was certainly furious. He was also hysterical. He directed me, without delay, to order staff back into the prison. I told him that we did not, at that time, have enough staff in the prison to contemplate such a move but that many more staff were on their way from other prisons. I insisted, however, that although I was determined to take the prison back as quickly as possible, I could not, and would not, risk staff or prisoner lives in attempting to do so. He shrieked at me that he didn’t care about lives, told me to call in the Army and “machine-gun” the prisoners. He then ordered me to take the prison back immediately. I refused. David hung up.

I do not pretend not to have been flustered by this outburst, which he surely cannot have intended us to take seriously, but I attempted to remain calm, not least because I was still at the restaurant table and my staff had heard most of the exchange. One, now the governor of one of Britain’s biggest jails, and clearly deeply shocked, said simply: “Did he really say he didn’t care about lives . . .?

Mr Blunkett contests this, of course;

Mr Blunkett’s spokesman said last night: “Everything to do with the Lincoln riot is in the diary. The diary records precisely what happened. He did order the retaking of the prison. He did not say anything about machineguns. Quite apart from anything else they do not carry machineguns in the Prison Service.

“Any such phone call would have been monitored by Mr Blunkett’s private office. They did retake the prison in the end but while the episode was going on Mr Blunkett reminded Martin Narey of a situation that had occurred when David Waddington, then Home Secretary, had failed to act in similar circumstances.

“Martin Narey had not been aware of that. During the Lincoln prison situation Mr Blunkett offered Martin Narey absolute political cover for dealing with the situation.”

This seems a bit odd; for one thing no one’s said anything about the Prison Service carrying machineguns — that’s presumably why, if the account’s true, Blunkett wanted the Army calling in. However, if there’s a recording — would the Home Secretary’s Private Office be recording incoming calls to his home number? I suppose he must have had an official line installed there, so it’s certainly possible — Martin Narey this morning told the BBC that he’d be delighted to listen to it, because he sticks by his account.

He also pointed out that, contrary to what Mr Blunkett seems to think, he’d been working directly for David Waddington during the Strangeways riot, in the control room trying to manage it. Certainly, David Blunkett’s account can’t be contemporary; according to Mr Narey’s article,

David’s diary account of the riot at Lincoln in October 2002 is fascinating. It was clearly not written at the time because he refers to me as being in overall charge of corrections (prisons and probation), a position not invented at the time of the riot and one I was not to take up until 2003. So his version of what happened that night might owe something to a bit of post-event rationalisation.

That’s not the only example of ‘post-event rationalisation’, of course; Chicken Yoghurt draws attention to a review by Sam Wollaston that highlights the discrepancy between Blunkett’s memories of an event and what actually happened:

We’re in 1998 and Blunkett, then education secretary, has been having a go at incompetent teachers and trying to improve standards of numeracy. We see a clip of him being interviewed by a reporter.

“Do you know your times table?” she asks.

“I do know my times table,” he replies, confidently. “I had to learn it rote fashion when I was a child. And it stayed with me ever since. So ‘seven sevens are 49’ comes quite naturally.”

“And nine eights?”

“Nine eights … [there’s a little pause] … nine eights … [big laugh] … nine eights … [another laugh] … 72.”

He gets there eventually. But to anyone watching, this is a man desperately procrastinating and trying to fill in time, any way he can, while he works out what nine times eight is. He’s probably doing it on his fingers, out of sight of the camera.

Then we hear his diary entry: “An ITN reporter asked me what nine times eight were. Fortunately, I was able to give an immediate and accurate answer.” It may seem like a small thing, but I think it’s important. It shows that The Blunkett Tapes are very much The Blunkett Takes and someone else may see the same events in a very different way (he edited them, too – it would be interesting for someone else to go through the material to see what they came up with).

This straightforward conflict of evidence between Blunkett and Narey looks set to run for a while longer, though; the question of whether or not the Home Secretary was shrieking down the phone at the Head of the Prison Service telling him to have rioters shot isn’t going to go away.

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