Daily Archives: September 13, 2018


The Strange Russian Alibi 1067

Like many, my first thought at the interview of Boshirov and Petrov – which apparently are indeed their names – is that they were very unconvincing. The interview itself seemed to be set up around a cramped table with a poor camera and lighting, and the interviewer seemed pretty hopeless at asking probing questions that would shed any real light.

I had in fact decided that their story was highly improbable, until I started seeing the storm of twitter posting, much of it from mainstream media journalists, which stated that individual things were impossible which were, in fact, not impossible at all.

The first and most obvious regards the weather on 3 and 4 March. It is in fact absolutely true that, if the two had gone down to Salisbury on 3 March with the intention of going to Stonehenge, they would have been unable to get there because of the snow. It is therefore perfectly possible that they went back the next day to try again; and public transport out of Salisbury was still severely disrupted, and many roads closed, on 4 March. Proof of this is not at all difficult to find.

This image is from the Salisbury Journal’s liveblog on 4 March.

Those mocking the idea that the pair were blocked by snow from visiting Stonehenge have pointed to the CCTV footage of central Salisbury not showing snow on the afternoon of 4 March. Well, that is central Salisbury, it had of course been salted and cleared. Outside there were drifts.

So that part of their story in fact turns out not to be implausible as social media is making out; in fact it fits precisely with the actual facts.

The second part of their story that has brought ridicule is the notion that two Russians would fly to the UK for the weekend and try to visit Salisbury. This ridicule has been very strange to me. Weekend breaks – arrive on Friday and return on Sunday – are a standard part of the holiday industry. Why is it apparently unthinkable that Russians fly on weekend breaks as well as British people?

Even more strange is the idea that it is wildly improbable for Russian visitors to wish to visit Salisbury cathedral and Stonehenge. Salisbury Cathedral is one of the most breathtaking achievements of Norman architecture, one of the great cathedrals of Europe. It attracts a great many foreign visitors. Stonehenge is world famous and a world heritage site. I went on holiday this year and visited Wurzburg to see the Bishop’s Palace, and then the winery cooperative at Sommerach. Because somebody does not choose to spend their leisure time on a beach in Benidorm does not make them a killer. Lots of people go to Salisbury Cathedral.

There seems to be a racist motif here – Russians cannot possibly have intellectual or historical interests, or afford weekend breaks.

The final meme which has worried me is “if they went to see the cathedral, why did they visit the Skripal house?” Well, no evidence at all has been presented that they visited the Skripal house. They were captured on CCTV walking past a petrol station 500 yards away – that is the closest they have been placed to the Skripal house.

The greater mystery about these two is, if they did visit the Skripal House and paint Novichok on the doorknob, why did they afterwards walk straight past the railway station again and head into Salisbury city centre, where they were caught window shopping in a coin and souvenir shop with apparently not a care in the world, before eventually returning to the train station? It seems a very strange attitude to a getaway after an attempted murder. In truth their demeanour throughout the photographs is consistent with their tourism story.

The Russians have so far presented this pair in a very unconvincing light. But on investigation, the elements of their story which are claimed to be wildly improbable are not inconsistent with the facts.

There remains the much larger question of the timing.

The Metropolitan Police state that Boshirov and Petrov did not arrive in Salisbury until 11.48 on the day of the poisoning. That means that they could not have applied a nerve agent to the Skripals’ doorknob before noon at the earliest. But there has never been any indication that the Skripals returned to their home after noon on Sunday 4 March. If they did so, they and/or their car somehow avoided all CCTV cameras. Remember they were caught by three CCTV cameras on leaving, and Borishov and Petrov were caught frequently on CCTV on arriving.

The Skripals were next seen on CCTV at 13.30, driving down Devizes road. After that their movements were clearly witnessed or recorded until their admission to hospital.

So even if the Skripals made an “invisible” trip home before being seen on Devizes Road, that means the very latest they could have touched the doorknob is 13.15. The longest possible gap between the novichok being placed on the doorknob and the Skripals touching it would have been one hour and 15 minutes. Do you recall all those “experts” leaping in to tell us that the “ten times deadlier than VX” nerve agent was not fatal because it had degraded overnight on the doorknob? Well that cannot be true. The time between application and contact was between a minute and (at most) just over an hour on this new timeline.

In general it is worth observing that the Skripals, and poor Dawn Sturgess and Charlie Rowley, all managed to achieve almost complete CCTV invisibility in their widespread movements around Salisbury at the key times, while in contrast “Petrov and Boshirov” managed to be frequently caught in high quality all the time during their brief visit.

This is especially remarkable in the case of the Skripals’ location around noon on 4 March. The government can only maintain that they returned home at this time, as they insist they got the nerve agent from the doorknob. But why was their car so frequently caught on CCTV leaving, but not at all returning? It appears very much more probable that they came into contact with the nerve agent somewhere else, while they were out.

I shall write a further post on these timing questions shortly.

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The War on Raspberries 202

On a recent visit to the National Mining Museum in Newtongrange, I was taken slightly aback by the questions from young adults who knew nothing at all about Thatcher’s destruction of the coal mining industry or its motives. It is hard to realise that for an 18 year old today the miners’ strike is as chronologically distant an event as Dunkirk was to me.

My whole adult life has been defined by the changes initiated by Thatcher and continued by Tories and New Labour. It is hard to remember now the world where your employer could not, by law, sack you just because they wanted to, and where you could get state protection from rapacious landlords charging unfair rents. The destruction of heavy industry in order to destroy the strength of organised labour, and the privatisation of the monopoly utilities for the profit of the rich, was a transformation that is at the root of the mass misery we live amongst today.

There was one small and forgotten part of Thatcher’s attack on traditional working class lifestyle that you probably had to be in Dundee to remember. The war on berry pickers. The soft fruit of the Carse of Gowrie and the Tay Valley is an important part of the Scottish economy. There is currently much concern as to how, post-Brexit, labour is to be found to pick the fruit. Government proposals to issue visas for the purpose are an order of magnitude below what is needed, and local labour remains difficult to attract.

It did not used to be difficult, until around 1980 the Tories launched an extraordinary campaign to drive pickers out of the fields. Berry pickers, they decided, were an unacceptable part of the informal economy and were not declaring their income on benefits claims. Suddenly teams of besuited benefits inspectors started appearing among the raspberry canes demanding social security numbers. People signing on for the broo had to produce their hands for inspection for berry stains. There was a campaign in the rabidly Tory Courier newspaper which even alleged that Tayside berry pickers were a major source of funding to the IRA!

So people stopped going to pick berries. Who would give up their unemployment benefit for a few weeks back-breaking seasonal work, with all the delays and rigours of signing back on again?

Which suggests to me a possible solution to the problem. British people should be able to do up to three months seasonal agricultural work without any requirement to declare the income for either tax or benefit purposes. This would make the financial incentive sufficient to get people into the fields, would protect the economic benefit of the crops to the economy, and would be benefit neutral (the benefits are already being paid) and more or less tax neutral (the large majority who can do this would be nowhere near reaching the income tax threshold anyway).

I am not sure whether the Scottish government’s tax and benefit powers suffice to introduce this in Scotland alone, but it should be considered as a possible way forward throughout the UK.

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