The empire strikes back

Talking to a friend of mine in the civil service, and they were laughing about the current UK education secretary, Michael Gove, and his spot of bother over the cancelled school projects list.

For the benefit of my US readers, the new British government here is cutting lots of government projects, including new school builds and much-needed rebuilding of old Victorian schools. On Monday, the Department for Education published a list which canned a £55bn school building scheme, killing off 715 new or rebuilt schools.

Unfortunately, 25 schemes which were originally listed as still being green-lighted, were listed in error, and have now been confirmed as dead, much to the horror of teachers and parents, who were only just celebrating about being spared when they were told, no, sorry, your project is dead too.

The new head of education, Michael Gove, was wheeled out to the House of Commons today for a bit of jeering, apologising for this shocking error, and general political hurly-burly.

Why was my friend laughing, do you think?

They reckon that this so-called ‘error’ was a civil service classic, straight from the pages of the Sir Humphrey war-book of getting one over on the politicians.

There’s always multiple versions of a document floating about. To try and get an unpopular boss fired and/or disciplined (and given Grove is talking about possible 40% cuts, he’s as unpopular as they get), just release an old incorrect version of an important document to one party, a newer version to a second party, make sure your politician doesn’t get any version (Grove had to go into parliament without the list – it was still being ‘prepared’), and then pass it to the press and give them a heads-up on the inconsistencies.

In the army, this kind of thing is called ‘fragging’ and usually involved rolling a hand grenade into an unpopular officer’s tent or shower. I guess Grove can thank himself lucky it’s schools he’s in charge of, rather than the army!

Wicked colleagues of mine sometimes used to do a similar thing in corporate life back in the late 1980s, especially when redundancies were coming. Unpopular directors or managers would get a 3.5” floppy disk left on their desk with a pencil-written label such as ‘interesting pictures’. The unpopular director would then slot it into their machine’s floppy drive, not realising that someone had painted the magnetic media with flammable nail varnish, before sprinkling broken-up match-head powder onto the varnish, leaving it to dry for an hour or so.

When the floppy disk was inserted in the early PC, the needle would drop down to read the rapidly spinning disk interior, ignite the powder, set fire to the varnish, and proceed to burn/melt the interior of the PC until a fire extinguisher was brought into play.

This practice was called ‘flaming’ and maybe where the term ‘flame-war’ came from for angry internet banter.

If coalition ministers find any mysterious disks left on their desk with enticing yellow stickies pinned to them, they might be better off dropping them in the bin, rather than hoping to find pool-side pictures of Cheryl Cole.


I am an author of various fantasy, science fiction, crime and other genre books from Gollancz, Hachette and HarperCollins. Some day I hope to grow up and be an astronaut. Exploring Mars would be nice.

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