Memories of war shame today's tentative terrorist measures
News that Britain's emergency homeland officials and transport agencies have been working on plans for the evacuation of all or part of the population of London in the event of a major terrorist attack first appeared in the International Herald Tribune last month and was followed by a story with a slightly different slant in London's Evening Standard two or three days later.
Reminding its polyglot readership that London has a population of more than seven million, the Tribune reported that security officials had asked London's borough councils to identify large spaces capable of accommodating up to 250,000 people while they await buses and trains to evacuate them from the capital.Officials would also fan out to shepherd fleeing Londoners towards these secure areas, it said, and troops would be called in to quell any unrest among those seeking cover.
'These plans are unlikely ever to be used but we have to prepare for the very worst, ' said a statement from deputy prime minister John Prescott. Despite this reassurance, the government also released two documents detailing procedures for decontaminating office buildings after chemical, biological or radiation attacks.
The second newspaper story appeared to focus on an aspect that the first report had missed, claiming that it was parliament that was to be evacuated to a secret location outside the capital, with no mention of the evacuation of the populace, nor even part of it. Instead, it clearly said that Peers and MPs will be spirited away to somewhere that will not be vulnerable - even to a direct terrorist attack on the Palace of Westminster itself.
Though the second story stressed that this relocation of parliament would only take place in almost unimaginably extreme circumstances - 'for the first time in 300 years' - the fact that this measure was not ruled out showed that it was considered acceptable, according to the Standard.
This, plus the fact that resonances of former parliamentary evacuations less distant than the 'Oxford Parliament' of 1681 were not dwelt on, must have seemed ominous to the sizeable portion of today's London population who remember the 'unimaginable circumstances' of 1940/41, when a superior German army was encamped a mere 21 miles from Dover and the German Air Force came even closer with a bomb that destroyed the Commons Chamber so that the House of Lords had to be used instead.
Rather than contemplate the removal of parliament from Westminster in those stirring times, the government concerned itself with such practical preparations for defeating an expected invasion as would put to shame the tentative measures under consideration today.For example, between January and September 1940, not only did industry produce and distribute five million steel air-raid shelters but, less wellknown, manufactured 3.5 million papier mÔchÚ coffins in four weeks in the spring of 1940, when the fear of aerial bombardment was at its height.
But nothing can really compare for starkness and grandeur with the evacuation that took place at the same time. It is now estimated that, between the end of June and the first week of September 1939, some 3.75 million persons were moved from areas thought to be vulnerable to bombing into areas thought to be safe. This evacuation was an immense sociological phenomenon whose effects can still be traced today. At its height, in September 1939, these population movements affected one third of the population of Great Britain. In one week in June 1940 nearly 100,000 children were evacuated from the London area alone.
There is a profound difference between evacuating parliament and evacuating people, just as there is a great difference between asking boroughs for holding sites and manufacturing coffins in advance.