Heathrow: what a difference a day makes
I had to cancel a business meeting in London today since a party coming from abroad could not make it into Heathrow. With some time to spare I am pondering the consequences of this latest "anti-terror scoop" by the British security forces under the direction of American agencies. Those consequences are potentially far-reaching. No doubt, pertinent questions will be asked in due time, and already a BBC commentator on their morning news programme hinted at the possibility that this whole operation of closing down Heathrow airport had US origins by making the connection between a couple of flights from the UK to the US who had previously been returned and refused permission to land. He also voiced some disquiet about the American law enforcement and intelligence agencies imposing serious restrictions on other countries whilst being unable to get their own house in order with the communication between the FBI and the CIA, for example, being appalling and suffering of the same failures as those pointed out during the half-hearted enquiry as leading to the inability to prevent 9/11 from happening.
I doubt, however, whether the British public put the blame for this onto the Americans. They probably believe that the British security forces had credible cause to move in, and they will simply get scared of flying even more. It is the airlines and airport operators who will probably start asking some uncomfortable questions from the UK government, but will be rebuffed with the usual "public safety is paramount" mantra. Knowing all too well that the numerous competing spy agencies could easily plant a life item at an airport or in an aircraft to reinforce the point, should the airlines not cooperate willingly, they will probably shut up and put up.
The Heathrow operation is likely going to invite a flood of conspiracy theories as the knock-on effects will become more evident. It is certainly too early to speculate on potential interconnections, but there are a number of interesting factors. To start with, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon is out of the news for a while and the Muslim terrorists are the bad guys again. If anything, this is a useful by-product of the terror alert.
Of greater consequence, however, are the economic effects. Already the shares of BAA and major airline operators have fallen by an average of 5%. People will be scared of flying and the industry is likely to suffer for some time, as will all the other industries relying on air travel. I doubt people will happily give up their mobile phones, laptops and handbags before boarding a commercial flight with only their passport and cash in hand, wrapped in a see-through plastic bag. Most flights carry people on non-essential journeys, enticed towards a holiday destination by cheap ticket offers.
The airline industry has been heavily subsidised, and those more familiar with it knew that this could not be sustained over the long term. Maybe a security scare will be a convenient scapegoat for the collapse of an industry which was going to falter anyway, particularly with the rapid rise in fuel prices. Smaller operators will fold, larger operators will be able to consolidate and create a monopoly. Ordinary Brits might no longer be able to escape the dreary English weather (although it is changing) and mediocre lifestyle (which hasn't changed so much) by flying to Spain for the price of less than a train ticket to a domestic destination. The British government won't be too unhappy about that. Those holiday makers made Spain rich and turned up their noses at the backwardness of England, which started to become a haven for migrants from Eastern Europe. Spanish companies bought up British companies, including the major airport operator BAA. "Serves them right" is what many British politicians and civil servants might think when they see their shares go down.
But I doubt that this is about inter-European rivalries. When it all plays out, I think it has more to do with the utter disregard the US administration has for its junior British partner or "poodle". The US economy is in shatters, China is in the ascendancy, the American military might is being dented in Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently in the Middle East, where Israel has been unable to deliver the short and sharp victory they had hoped for. These are the dying days of Empire. The Brits thought they could ride the waves, as they always did, and make a handsome profit in the oil and reconstruction deals resulting from the American war adventures, whilst jealously safeguarding their financial independence against both the Dollar and the Euro. Just before the Heathrow raid, the pound was almost going to buy two dollars, and various European and other Central Banks were switching some of their reserves. This latest knock on the British economy will level the playing field again. In the long-term, however, I think it will have a paralysing effect on both sides of the Atlantic.
I spoke of the dying days of Empire, and the typical pattern of decadence and decline after having reached the peak is nothing new to students of history. The capacity to self-destruct does not fail to amaze me, however, when mighty powers sacrifice their long-term future on the altar of short-term gain.