Fifteen years ago, I worked for the Civil Service, in one of the huge provincial offices that used to be dotted around the United Kingdom like a necklace of bee hives. This one was in the North of England, but not to its farthest and fullest extent. The Department of Work and Pensions building was on a site where social housing had once sat, and, a few hundred years before then, it had been the hill where public executions were carried out, so there was a fairly high probability that it was haunted by at least one disgruntled working class ghost. Around 1,500 people worked in the building, and there was a shop and a pub and a gym and a canteen and a dentist’s and hairdressers and, right in the middle, a swimming pool. This building was a public sector citadel, a hub of hubbub, a palace of bureaucracy nicknamed (by me, it never caught on) ‘The Ministry of Love’.
As the staff swarmed in each morning, they were met by three immutable things: two chunky security guards, both called Ken, looking at every single ID, and a sign that, rather like the menu outside a bistro, displayed the day’s specials – the BIKINI STATE, the alert code that indicated how close the UK was to war, terrorism or civil disorder. The alert codes ran from white to red, white being stable, red meaning that shit is either coming down or is on its way, scudding across the clouds to take out this building and everyone in it in a flash of blinding light.
In the five years I worked there, the alert state was always at Black Special, an intermediate level that meant that there was an increased likelihood of attack, but no defined target. It could have been worse, of course, but, instead, was just incredibly sinister. Something awful was in the air, but it was also secret, unknown, undesignated, undiscovered. It was a constant, low hum of foreboding. But, ultimately, there was nothing you could do, so we did nothing – or, rather, we got on with our jobs, working towards a future we couldn’t be sure would arrive.
The peril of the world situation has not improved since I left the civil service, but they have changed the way it is measured. The Bikini State was replaced in 2006 by UK Threat Levels. The Threat Levels rely on words rather than colours, and run from Low to Critical. The current level is Severe, and has been since August, 2014. This means an attack is highly likely. It’s worth quoting the expected response to such an alert, remembering that perhaps a hundred people were consulted around the wording of the definition:‘Additional and sustainable protective security measures reflecting the broad nature of the threat combined with specific business and geographical vulnerabilities and judgements on acceptable risk’.
In other words, just do what you can and be afraid, be very afraid. In other other words you are probably fucked, but we’ll have to let you know. I preferred Black Special, with its cheerful pink lettering, slither of hope and diplomatic inversion of Lottery logic that, hey, with a thousand targets out there, it might not be you.