John Harris

Journalist & Author

Archive for February, 2014

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Berlin: Imagine a City by Rory MacLean – review’

Friday, February 21st, 2014

A compelling series of portraits captures the intangible something that turns visitors into Berlinophiles

If you’re going to Berlin, take a guidebook, and a copy of Faust’s Metropolis (1998), the towering history of the city written by Alexandra Richie. It runs to over 1,000 pages, but it’s candid about the difficulty of getting to the heart of Berlin’s character. The prologue references the works of Goethe, Grosz, Brecht and Weill, but acknowledges that even they could not “truly capture the essence of a place whose identity is based not on stability but on change … It is a volatile place, and many have found to their cost that the veneer of normality can vanish as quickly as yellow Mark Brandenburg sand slips through the fingers.” I first read those words on a train bound for Berlin from Paris, and they had me hooked, as did the opinion of the woman sharing my compartment. She also had trouble explaining the city’s allure, but told me it was as magical as New York – and she was right.

The travel writer and Berlin resident Rory MacLean pays tribute to Richie’s “superb” work in this book’s bibliography, and he has read Faust’s Metropolis more closely than most: in his own opening pages, he offers the intriguingly similar opinion that “Berlin is all about volatility. Its identity is based not on stability but on change.” More original words complete the picture, and offer a sense of the intangible something that attracts so many visitors and quickly makes Berlinophiles of them. “Long before setting eyes on it, the stranger feels its aching absences as much as its brazen presences, the sense of lives lived, dreams realised, and evils executed with an intensity … Yesterday echoes along today’s streets and the ideas conjured up by Berlin’s dreamers and dictators seem as solid as its bricks and mortar. The hypnotic and volatile city comes alive in the mind.”

It certainly does: perhaps more than any European city, Berlin lends itself to the mystical urban pastime of psychogeography, so much so that the best way to experience its wonders is not to follow maps or guide books, but to half-distractedly drift. But how to evoke such qualities? You can write straight history in the knowledge that the stories you tell will invite the reader to project them on to the Berlin of now, and feel their drama anew; or, alternatively, mix up conventional storytelling with the flights of fancy that such a singular place inevitably sparks. It’s advisable to work within careful limits – but MacLean serially breaches any of his own, as in a woeful paragraph at the start of an otherwise capably delivered chapter about Frederick the Great. “Death wields his scythe in every corner of the globe,” he writes. “Cannae, the Somme and Stalingrad claimed him as their own. Hiroshima gave him his single busiest day … Both Genghis Khan and Mao Zhedong worked him to the bone for a generation across Asia. But over the centuries it is to Berlin that he has most often returned.” If your raw materials are the Prussian empire, the Nazis, and the core of the cold war, do you really need the Grim Reaper?

Berlin takes the form of 23 portraits of individuals, and when MacLean exhibits restraint and decorum, the text sings. A compelling piece about the industrialist and Weimar foreign minister Walter Rathenau is full of auguries of the nightmares of the 30s and 40s, not least when Rathenau is portrayed telling his fellow German Jews that they are as native as “the Saxons, Bavarians and Wends” and ought to revel in being “a living part of the nation”. The material about Marlene Dietrich – “a tragic figure, who could never stop acting”, according to Fritz Lang – is sharp and evocative; a chapter focused on Joseph Goebbels reminds us that he once damned the German capital as a “repulsive accumulation of pirates, pederasts, gangsters and their like” and did not want to “kneel in its filth”. There are times, besides, when MacLean’s habit of mixing the real and invented comes off, mostly when he includes fictionalised observations and dialogue in true stories. The trick is most subtly and successfully worked in a section about the Berlin CIA chief “Big” Bill Harvey, suggesting a model of storytelling akin to Francis Spufford’s Soviet fantasia Red Plenty, albeit with a less consistent strike rate.

As a filmmaker in the 1970s, MacLean worked with David Bowie, when the latter had come to Berlin to recover from cocaine dependency. Bowie often positioned himself in the background, reflecting his wish to somehow disappear into the city. On his most famous Berlin piece, though, he took centre stage, and created “Heroes”: the six minutes of music MacLean puts at the heart of a rather underwhelming Bowie chapter, and calls “Berlin’s rock anthem, a droning, courageous wall of sound, fired with deep emotion, hammered by a clanging, metallic rhythm.”

Put on “Heroes”, and the awful excitement of cold war Berlin is revealed in an instant, along with an unbelievably moving sense of what it is to understand your own frailty in the face of the huge forces of history, and be newly resigned to it (hence being heroes “just for one day”). It is all there, in the versions sung in English, French and German. And like all the best art, “Heroes” pretty much destroys the need for mediation. MacLean reckons that Bowie’s Berlin phase enabled him to work on “a coherent vision for himself and a new age” and that he “captured and defined its quintessence, speaking for a confused generation which had lost hope in ideals and dreams”. I kind of know what he means, but “Heroes” gives me a much deeper sense of it than overwrought phrases like those; indeed, once you have absorbed that song, you probably never need to read about Bowie’s time in Germany again.

Something similar applies to Berlin’s magic more generally. Anyone who has fallen in love with the place would probably agree with one particular bit of wisdom authored by the French-Ukrainian writer and troublemaker Ivan Chtcheglov in 1953: “All cities are geological. You can’t take three steps without encountering ghosts bearing all the prestige of their legends.” Berlin proves it, as does this book. But it’s sometimes best to let the spectres speak for themselves.

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On climate change, Ed Miliband must match his bold words with real action | John Harris

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

While Tory ranks contain so many ‘deniers’, Labour can now lead the way in bringing the planet’s fate to the top of the political agenda

‘Either denial or dither on climate change will damage the country,” says Ed Miliband, perhaps going a bit too heavy on the alliteration. The science, he reminds us, is clear, and he wants to somehow rebuild a national consensus. Time, then, for another “D” word: “decent” Tories and Liberal Democrats, he says, will be expected to muck in. He wants us to understand the true meaning of the recent floods and restore climate change to the prominence it enjoyed before the anti-climax of 2009’s UN Copenhagen summit and the fallout from the financial crash pushed it to one side.

I am not the first to point it out, but if now is the time to belatedly protest the four-year absence of what we once called “green issues” from mainstream politics, we should be honest enough to properly apportion the blame. It’s not about Nigel Lawson, or pantomime-villain deniers: they will stick to their script no matter what, and sounded just as daft before the great deluge of 2014 as they have in the midst of it. No, if anyone is going to carry the can for the fact that climate change vanished from public discourse just as the weather was definitely turning strange, it is surely the politicians who once banged on about its urgency, and then suddenly went quiet.

That, obviously, includes just about every senior Labour figure, and a party that has still to decisively thrash out whether it believes in the social democracy of smokestacks and airports, or understands what the encroaching reality of climate change actually means. Miliband, to be fair, was a credible, forceful secretary of state for energy and climate change. It’s nice to hear him loudly voicing that side of his politics, but if what he said at the weekend is to mean much, he has a lot of urgent work to do.

By way of a timely cautionary tale, in 2010 the Lib Dems’ manifesto claimed that “climate change is the greatest challenge facing this generation” and that the party remained “unwavering in our commitment” to doing its bit. Vince Cable has since claimed that the Lib Dems have a “very tense relationship” with the Tories over environmental policy. But last year Lib Dem MPs were whipped to vote against their own policy on a decarbonisation target for the electricity industry; and with their own Ed Davey in charge of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, energy policy risks what one report has called a “high carbon lock-in”. (A token Lib Dem minister still toils away in the Department of the Environment, under the supervision of that renowned friend of the Earth, Owen Paterson.)

Self-evidently, though, a special award for cant should go to the prime minister. The husky picture, the wind turbine and the blather about being the greenest government ever barely need mentioning, but it’s still jaw-dropping to pick through the old Tory campaign bumf that has somehow survived their recent online purge – full of talk about “green growth”, “a new green revolution”, and the old hippy exhortation to “think globally and act locally”. In retrospect, it all suggests the morals of Del Boy Trotter being applied to the biggest issue facing the human race. Even Tony Blair was never quite that shameless.

Cameron’s chicanery probably played some role in climate change’s fall from grace. Polling on the subject is shot through with inconsistencies, but one thing screams out from the data: according to the UK Energy Research Centre, between 2005 and 2013, the share of people who rejected the very idea of climate change almost quintupled, from 4% to 19%. That development chimes with the most interesting recent development in modern British politics: the rise of Ukip, whose hatred of green politics is one of its biggest selling points. In turn, its popularity has emboldened those Tories who would have people believe that environmentalism is some kind of enduring leftwing plot, and terrified the erstwhile modernisers now minded to bin “green crap” at every opportunity.

Meanwhile, the EU remains the key means by which any greenish UK government might push for greater international action – but we don’t like it very much. And in any case, our trust in politicians is so low that we are unlikely to respond well to lectures about any supposed emergency – which is why it would probably be a good thing if the Lib Dems kept quiet, for now. When Davey piped up last week, he indulged in exactly the kind of piety that tends to drive British people mad; the prospect of Nick Clegg joining in is too grim to even think about.

All of that could easily suggest a counsel of complete despair. Fatalism might seem like much the most sensible option: even mitigation of climate change, let alone any kind of prevention, could be well beyond our grasp. I interviewed James Lovelock in 2010: humans, he said, are “still animals, and still semi-intelligent. I don’t think we can handle big problems like the Earth.”

Still, imagine a Labour (or Labour-led) government doing everything a small island in northern Europe could, if only it tried. It would energetically pursue the party’s support for the decarbonisation of UK energy production, and create jobs in the process. It might send people to Brussels, to insist that the recently proposed aim of producing 27% of Europe’s energy from renewables by 2030 – opposed, it should be noted, by Davey – should be reflected in firm national targets. Starting now, Labour could talk up the 2015 UN climate summit in Paris, if only to ensure that politicians and diplomats feel the heat of expectation.

In government, it could set an example to other countries by calling time on the already unpopular idea of fracking, on the simple basis that this is no time to be wasting resources on fossil fuels. Airport expansion would be a non-starter, as would any more money on carbon capture and storage, and the oxymoronic idea of “clean coal”. In 2014 all this might sound like a charter for green-left impossiblism; in fact, when climate change was fashionable, such ideas came tantalisingly close to the political mainstream.

It’s also worth asking a couple of questions: if Tory ranks contain so many so-called deniers, might it not be an idea for the opposition benches to find room for some kind of super-green corrective? Why do Labour’s supposedly bright young things make so much noise about payday lenders and smoking in cars, but pay so little attention to the fate of the planet?

Which brings us to perhaps the most glaring current absence: that of any sizable and strong body of opinion outside parliament. Not that long ago, just as the political noise around climate change was last tailing off, I watched Miliband interview Mohamed Nasheed, the then president of the Maldives – the island nation whose fears about climate change make headlines about the British weather look like indulgent moaning. Nasheed clearly understood the need to commune with power – but he also talked about the best way of pushing backsliding politicians in the right direction.

“What we need is large-scale, 60s-style direct action: dynamic street activity,” he said, “and we need to act very quickly.” He uttered those words in 2010. Four years later, they still sound like a consummate piece of advice.

• This article was amended on Tuesday 18 February 2014. The aim of producing 27% of Europe’s energy from renewables by 2030 has not yet been adopted, as we said. It has been proposed and has not yet been adopted by heads of state. This has been corrected.

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Politics Weekly podcast: England’s floods and ‘Milibandism’

Friday, February 14th, 2014

The torrential rain which has fallen on the south of England has contributed to the wettest winter since records began nearly 250 years ago. It has presented an immediate political problem for the government, and ministers have been slow to don their wellies and get to grips with it. But given such record-breaking bad weather, is it fair to blame the politicians?

Joining Tom Clark this week are the Guardian’s environment expert Damian Carrington and columnists John Harris and Michael White.

Also this week: Ed Miliband was at Guardian HQ this week to deliver the annual Hugo Young memorial lecture. He chose to focus on public services and his plan to put ordinary people at the heart of any future reforms. But does it amount to anything more than opposition flim-flam?

Leave your thoughts below.

Tom Clark
Michael White
John Harris
Damian Carrington
Phil Maynard

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The college that gets 11-plus ‘failures’ into Oxbridge. How?

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

Loreto College saw 21 students receive offers from Oxford and Cambridge this year, a success rate of 50%. John Harris revisits his old college to see what they are doing right

Dylan Fuller is 18 and from Stockport in Greater Manchester. His parents did not go to university: his dad is a taxi driver, and his mum is a school bursar. His GCSEs, he tells me, were “good, but not great”: one A* and five As. But at the end of his first year studying for A-levels, his AS grades – four As, in French, politics, English and history – sparked a realisation that with university applications looming, he could aim high.

Just before Christmas, he went for an interview for a place reading French at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. “When I got there, I was talking to people from Eton and Harrow, and places like that – and they’re not that different,” he tells me, as if it came as a slight surprise. He says he began his first formal interview feeling “surprisingly relaxed”, and managed to start a debate with the dons in charge about the functions of language. A few weeks later, he got an offer conditional on three As at A-level, which his teachers are confident he’ll get.

Fuller is a student at Loreto Sixth Form College, a Catholic institution located in the inner-city neighbourhood of Hulme, nudging the once-notorious district of Moss Side. This year, 21 of its students received offers from either Oxford or Cambridge, up from 16 in 2013 – which represented a success rate of 50%, as against a national average of around 20%. Just under a third of the successful students have parents who did not go to university, something that reflects the college’s student body: though Loreto’s high standards pull in students from all over Manchester and beyond, 57% of its students live in council wards officially classed as having high poverty levels, and more than a quarter receive government bursaries.

The college has strong links with the church that go back to its foundation in 1851, but 48% of its students are non-Catholic. Academically, its intake ranges from those with learning difficulties, through young people taking vocational courses, to the 85% of students studying level 3 courses who make it to university. At the last count, a quarter of Loreto alumni went to Russell Group institutions, a figure close to the top of national rankings.

It is routinely oversubscribed, but sets out pretty standard benchmarks for entry to A-levels: six GCSEs at A* to C including two of English, maths and science, two of which must be at least grade B. Moreover, as assistant principal Aidan Bruce puts it: “We do get people with very strong GCSEs, but we also take people on to A-levels who wouldn’t get on them in other parts of the city.” The education department’s value-added rankings, it is worth noting, place Loreto first among England’s sixth-form colleges.

There has been a run of stories bout education secretary Michael Gove’s beloved London Academy of Excellence, a highly selective sixth-form college run under the free schools programme and sponsored by a handful of private schools. This year, it got six students into Oxbridge. Loreto’s success story, by contrast, has happened in the context of what any outside observer would understand as comprehensive values.

Just over 25 years ago, I arrived at Loreto myself – liberated from the staid Cheshire suburbs, and thrilled to be in the company of around 1,200 other young adults (the student body now numbers around 2,800). It took me two attempts, but thanks to concerted help and advice, I eventually made it to Oxford. I had arrived at Loreto with pretty underwhelming exam results, but suddenly being a treated like a grown-up worked its wonders – and though no one talked about “value added”, I ended up with four As at A-level. Outwardly, the place has since changed beyond recognition – but within five minutes of arriving back, I sense a familiar mixture of pastoral care and a belief in high achievement, and get the impression this remains somewhere that young people start to discover who they are.

Loreto’s Oxbridge co-ordinator is Dr Tony Lyons, a 53-year-old Cambridge history graduate and computing teacher. “Like a lot of the students I work with, I was the first in my family to go to university,” he says. “I see so much talent … I want them to have the same chance I had, and I don’t want them to be put off by prejudice.”

When he took on the job in 2003, the college was getting between five and 10 of its students into Oxford and Cambridge each year. But in 2009, that number tumbled to only three – so he spoke to admissions tutors in both universities, and began to come up with a system to spot students’ potential and then work on the skills required.

At enrolment, any student with at least five A*s at GCSE now has a meeting with Lyons or one of his colleagues, and discusses their subject choices, so as to maximise their options. The college’s tutor groups – forms, in all but name, in which students spend time every morning, as well as doing periods of RE, general studies and “tutorial” work – include classes set aside for “high-calibre” students, in which they work on self-presentation and debating skills. And at the start of upper sixth, Oxbridge students are clustered in dedicated tutor groups to make the applications process easier to handle, and give them support networks among their peers.

In lower sixth, none of this is fixed: throughout students’ first year, and in the wake of AS results, Lyons is constantly scouting for potential Oxbridge candidates. “I’m looking for students who are working to a high standard. But it’s also about whether or not they’ve got some sparkle. It’s almost an intangible: by the time they get to upper sixth, I’m not that bothered about the student who has three As if that has just happened through graft. I’m interested in students who have a bit of passion or quirkiness about their chosen subject.”

The college works with Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the pro-access charity the Sutton Trust. It also organises joint activities with the nearby fee-paying Manchester Grammar, as well as using some of its staff for mock interviews – though Lyons says he has never looked into the approaches to Oxbridge used by private schools. One key lesson to be learned from the Loreto experience, he says, is that being overly directive is usually a bad idea: “Instead of saying, ‘Do this, and do that’, you sometimes have to let students come to you and say, ‘Look – this is what I’m interested in.’ It has to be driven by them.”

There is one other interesting element of some of Loreto’s Oxbridge work. The college’s network of feeder schools extends to the borough of Trafford, which retains selection at 11 – and given that Trafford’s grammar schools have their own sixth forms, many of the students who come to Loreto will have failed their 11-plus. From time to time, Lyons ends up correcting the consequences: in 2011, he tells me, “I had five students from Trafford who applied to Oxbridge. Two had failed the 11-plus, and three had passed. Of the two who failed, one’s at Oxford and one’s at Cambridge. And only one of the three who passed the 11-plus got in.”

Not without reason, then, Loreto sees itself as exactly the kind of institution that politicians who want social mobility and educational inclusion ought to be celebrating – and yet it is at the sharp end of dire cuts in funding to sixth-form colleges, at the same time as huge amounts are being directed towards the education secretary’s pet projects. Last week, the Sixth Form Colleges’ Association reckoned that England’s 93 sixth-form colleges had lost more than £100m in funding over the last three years, leading to subjects being scrapped and class sizes increasing – while £62m had gone on a mere nine free schools. It barely needs mentioning that the axing of education maintenance allowances – which once benefited more than half of Loreto’s students – is part of the same story. All told, Gove’s traditionalism perhaps leads him to fixate on schools that cater for 11- to 18-year-olds, while some of the country’s most successful institutions are overlooked (to compound their pain, unlike schools, sixth-form colleges must also pay VAT).

For Loreto’s principal, Ann Clynch, all this is a huge issue. “In the context of increased student numbers, we’ve lost a lot,” she says. “That’s a concern, but at the same time, I have to be realistic. What I struggle with is this: why, when you’ve got colleges like Loreto – large, inner-city, successful, doing the social mobility thing – are we spending money on small sixth forms in academies and free schools with sixth forms?”

Though she says she supports Gove’s drive for social mobility, and such policies as his prioritisation of single-subject science GCSEs, she has one other big complaint: the looming separation of AS- and A-levels, which Cambridge has said will have a negative impact on widening access to elite universities. “I would ask Mr Gove: can he reconsider that?” says Clynch. “AS-levels are a great motivator to students, and they work as an indicator to teachers and universities. We have internal exams, but an external AS is a huge thing, and it has been really important in contributing to our results.”

Over the next hour or so, I meet four more successful Oxbridge applicants: three young women respectively from Droylsden, Ashton-Under-Lyne and Prestwich – and 19-year-old Ali Ahsan Khalid, a refugee from Pakistan who came to the UK after his father was murdered in the midst of religious persecution, and settled with his family in Salford.

He now has an offer to study medicine at Cambridge. “From the very first day, people here asked me if I wanted to apply, and I had the support,” he says, still looking rather amazed. “So coming here mattered a lot.”

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Is Britain ready for water cannon?

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

Water cannon are used in Northern Ireland and abroad – with varying degrees of brutality – but have never been deployed in Britain. So why are Boris Johnson and the police now talking about introducing them here?

Anyone watching the news on TV will know the basic scenario. There’s a riot of some kind: perhaps political, maybe largely senseless, occasionally related to an international football match. The police duly get stuck in, using horses, or baton charges, or even plastic bullets. And then, just to underline the fact that something really serious is afoot, a number of armoured vehicles will appear. In the manner of giant weeing daleks, they will then fire huge jets of water at their targets, sending them flying across the street, and clearing a space in between the cops and their quarry – or, in a different situation, one set of miscreants and another.

Such are the wonders of water cannon, first used in 1930s Germany, and now part of the armoury of police forces all over the world. Its use in Northern Ireland goes back to 1969, and the police there currently have access to six of the renowned Zieger Wasserwerfer 9000, a few of which were used last summer. On the so-called British mainland, however, the water cannon has usually been thought of as either a signifier for the kind of trouble unique to Ulster, or something best left to the sort of countries where regimes routinely brutalise their citizens (Egypt, Indonesia, China) or the streets have, at some time or other, echoed to the sound of jackboots, and the authorities asking people for their papers (France, Germany, Ukraine).

Until now, that is. In January, it was announced that, in his capacity as mayor of London, Boris Johnson was backing the Metropolitan police’s drive to get its hands on water cannon – and was prepared to foot the bill. The Met’s chief commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, had briefed Johnson about the water cannon’s merits, while other senior Met officers advocated its use. The mayor wrote to Home Secretary Theresa May, serving notice that he was “broadly convinced of the value of having water cannon available” to the Met, and viewed it as the “most economical interim solution that allows the [chief] commissioner to meet his desire to prevent disorder on the streets”. Yesterday, Johnson was at it again, telling radio listeners that though water cannon “will be very rarely used”, he and the Met are “going ahead with it. There is a consultation and we’ll have to see what the home secretary says.”

Meanwhile, some senior police figures have been loudly singing the same tune. The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) reckons that, though “there is no intelligence to suggest that there is an increased likelihood of serious disorder”, protest against “ongoing and potential future austerity measures” is part of the case for bringing water cannon into the police’s range of options. May will be approached any time now, it seems, “in respect of water cannon authorisation”; whether any particular force wants to use it will be up to its chief constable, and its elected police and crime commissioner.

An Acpo report, written by the chief constable of West Mercia, David Shaw (more of whom later), has made the case for its use, and retrospectively identified three occasions when water cannon might have been a sensible tool: 2004’s Countryside Alliance demonstration in London; demonstrations outside the Israeli embassy in 2008-09; and the student protests of 2010 – when, as you may recall, irate twentysomethings laid waste to the Tory HQ in Westminster, and some of them managed to menace the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall.

Some of England and Wales’s new police and crime commissioners are said to have rejected the idea of using water cannon and have suggested they don’t want to share the cost. And plenty of other voices have warned of water cannon’s huge dangers. Some have talked about Dietrich Wagner, the 66-year-old Stuttgart resident who was effectively blinded by water cannon in 2010 when German police clamped down on a protest against the building of the city’s new railway station (horrifying images of the incident show blood streaming from Wagner’s eyes). Such injuries as broken bones and ruptured spleens have been mentioned. Even Acpo’s own briefings acknowledge that “water cannon are capable of causing serious injury or even death”, and that “there is a range of water cannon footage available online showing injuries caused by water cannon”. By way of reassurance, its documents also insist that “deployment criteria as well as the tolerance for disorder or protest vary significantly across the world”.

Which brings us to perhaps the most powerful argument of all, once elegantly voiced by the home secretary herself. In 2010, May said: “I don’t think anybody wants to see water cannon used on the streets of Britain because we have … a different attitude to the culture of policing here in the UK. We police by consent and it depends on that trust between the police and the public.”

Interestingly, some of the police officers now pushing for the use of water cannon seem to have only recently changed their minds. In 2011, when he was mulling over that summer’s riots, Hogan-Howe said that though water cannon had “been effective” in Northern Ireland, it had distinct limitations, and was “not the answer” to rioting elsewhere in the UK. “In any country, if you haven’t used things before then, of course, nobody is going to go willingly towards this new approach,” he said. There was also the small matter of money (the trusty Wasserwerfer 9000 costs £1.3m per vehicle). “These things are expensive,” he added. “Most of the time, they just sit there doing nothing.”

There is some truth to this. In the early 1980s, after such cities as Manchester, Liverpool, London and Leeds had experienced riots, the Home Office borrowed German water cannon to “evaluate” its use, and ended up buying two British-built prototypes. By 1985, they were gathering dust in a Metropolitan police garage in Greenwich, amid what one Guardian report called “growing doubts” that they could ever be used.

Things then went quiet, with water cannon making the news only when it wasthey were brought on to the streets overseas, or British firms sold the requisite kit to foreign governments. In 1997, for example, water cannon made by the defence firm British Tactica were unleashed on demonstrators in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta – and they were used there again as recently as March 2012.

Occasionally, the water cannon has played a role in big British news stories – as in the summer of 2000, when English football hooligans decided to have a go at fans of Germany in the Belgian city of Charleroi, in the usual flurry of lager and broken bar furniture. You can watch the key moment on YouTube: a crowd of troublemakers on a city square being scattered by two formidable jets, squirted from water cannon mounted on the roof of an armoured vehicle bearing the number 10.

In 2001, there were riots in Bradford, which prompted the dependably level-headed Labour home secretary David Blunkett to suggest that the police might need to have water cannon at their disposal. His contention, it was said at the time, was driven by local people and politicians rather than the police – and once again, any voices clamouring for the introduction of water-based crowd control soon went quiet.

Ten years later, though, came this story’s watershed episode: the wave of riots that spread across England in the summer of 2011, after the shooting of Mark Duggan. Towards the end of five days of disorder, David Cameron announced that the police had been given permission to use rubber bullets, and that there were contingency plans for water cannon to be available at 24 hours’ notice. May, by contrast, sounded a bit more hesitant. “The police are very clear – they tell me that, at the moment, they don’t need water cannon,” she said.

In the midst of the riots, Hugh Orde, the president of Acpo, sounded just as noncommittal. “Water cannon are used to deal with fixed crowds to buy distance,” he said. “These are fast-moving crowds, where water cannon would not be appropriate … I don’t see it as necessary, and nor do the 43 chiefs I spoke to this morning.”

In May last year, 4,000 police officers were trained in the use of a Ziegler Wasserwerfer 9000, in preparation for the arrival of that year’s G8 summit in Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. It all happened at Longmoor army camp, near Petersfield in Hampshire. With its customary understatement, the Daily Mail flagged up its story as follows: “Enter the water cannon: two years on from the riots that scarred Britain, hundreds of police are training at a secret base with a fearsome new deterrent.”

A big question hangs over this story: why is the case for water cannon being made so vociferously right now? “We’re as confused as anyone else as to where this has come from,” says Sara Ogilvie, a policy officer at the human rights campaign group Liberty. “We’re not sure what’s changed to make anyone think this would be useful.”

By way of one possible explanation, she mentions the fact that Johnson is a ”political figurehead with policing responsibilities”: the same model that has given rise to the new regional police and crime commissioners, and one she thinks comes with real dangers. Suggesting that the police use water cannon, she says, might have a lot more to with crude politics than the whys and wherefores of law and order.

“Water cannon doesn’t sound that dangerous; it doesn’t sound that brutal – it sounds like a nice, easy way of letting the police do their jobs, with no one getting hurt,” she says. “That’s not the case, but it’s an easy thing to sell. It seems like a populist policy – and when you’ve got elected figureheads at the centre of the police, we worry that we’re going to see more of it.” Water cannon, she insists, are “inflammatory, militaristic and brutal”. She goes on: “They’re liable to cause panic. They’re referred to as ‘less than lethal force’, which is hardly reassuring. They can really hurt people, and add panic to what might already be a difficult situation.”

Isn’t there also a cultural aspect to this debate, bound up with a deep-seated sense that the water cannon is un-British – unless, of course, we’re talking about Northern Ireland?

“Northern Ireland is another story. If there are any lessons we can learn from Northern Ireland, it’s maybe that having a big piece of weaponry doesn’t guarantee the peace. But I agree: it’s not a very British way of policing. It’s very paramilitary. And let’s be honest: it comes at a time of very low confidence in the police in London. We’ve had plebgate, we’ve had the Duggan verdict … I can’t think of a worse time for the police to be asking to buy a big military weapon, instead of trying to work out a better way of regaining the trust of the people they’re supposed to be there to protect.”

Chief Constable David Shaw is on the opposite side of the debate. The author of the Acpo paper that set out the case for bringing water cannon to England and Wales, he says the question of why the proposal has been made in early 2014 is a red herring. The big catalyst, he says, was the 2011 riots. Serious work on public order policing started soon after that, and “it’s taken some time to get to where we are,” he says. “There’s absolutely nothing I could point to and say: ‘It’s happened now because [of this].’ It’s just something that’s taken time to work its way through.”

His briefing paper mentions protest against “ongoing and potential future austerity measures”. Does he think we’re still in that phase of our recent history? “A year or 15 months ago, there was a possibility that austerity could lead to … some form of demonstration or violent protest,” he says. And is that analysis out of date?

“I think it may well be,” he says. So does that weaken his argument? “No, no. I don’t think it does at all. The whole idea behind this is that it’s not a direct response to 2011, or anything we’ve got now. These things can last 30 years. And things happen over three decades.”

Does he agree that introducing water cannon would be a huge change? “Yes I do. I completely get that. And can I just stress: there’s a danger that because I’ve got the term ‘national leader’ applied to my role here, I’m seen as some sort of zealot for this. My position is that I think it’s sort of a necessary thing, but I wish we didn’t have to have it. Just like I wish we didn’t have to have firearms.”

What about the prospect of people being injured, or even killed? “Rather than play things down, and make out that this is just as tool that is completely harmless, and it just gets people wet – what I’d rather do is be completely frank and open about what it can do.” He mentions footage of water cannon being used abroad, and the episode in Stuttgart. “I’ve heard of instances where debris on the ground has been hit by the jet, and that’s hit people. I’ve seen footage of people being knocked down … People can strike their head on the ground.” In Northern Ireland, he says, “we have no record of injuries. And the way it would be used, and the training, would be exactly the same.”

Still, does he accept that the water cannon is distinctly un-British: one for the French and Germans, perhaps, but not right for here? “I would agree with you, to be honest. But I also think most people would say that it feels un-British, at times, to have to equip your local cop on the street with a ballistic shield, and a Nato helmet, and flame-proof overalls, because people are trying to burn down Croydon.” The police, he says, can also use rather un-British baton rounds: “They’re a tactic we can use. But just because it’s available, it doesn’t mean we use it.” He accepts that, to some people, water cannon might seem “a little bit alien”, but repeats his point: “It’s also a bit alien when we see streets on fire.”

Exactly how the Home Office will respond to requests to approve the arrival of water cannon is unclear, but a statement issued by a spokesperson gives more than a hint of what is likely to happen: “We are keen to ensure forces have the tools and powers they need to maintain order on our streets. We are currently providing advice to the police on the authorisation process as they build the case for the use of water cannon.”

As ever, what they say is made of two very different elements, one of which serves to mask the other. Basically, we are talking about a portent of something associated with the most brutal aspects of state power, wrapped up in the New Labour-ish language of health and safety, and making sure all the right faux-cuddly boxes are ticked.

Whatever happens, the Home Office statement assures, any introduction of water cannon will be subject to a full “community impact assessment”, whatever that is. And fair play to Theresa May, Boris Johnson and the Association of Chief Police Officers: they don’t have those in Indonesia, do they?

• Chief constable David Shaw, author of the Acpo report on water cannon, will take part in a Guardian web chat on Wednesday 5 February from 1pm.

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