Mary Dejevsky: The ties that bind strongest of all

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The Independent Online

The security industry, big business and crisis-planners could do worse than reread Graham Greene and John Le Carré. How long will it be before the "human factor" is finally written into their real-life scripts? By all accounts, Securitas had fortified its Tonbridge warehouse with state-of-the-art everything, only to be outwitted by a gang that terrorised the depot's manager to the point where he became their "human key". You can install as many fences, safes and iris recognition machines as you like, but no amount of body-armour or pay will guarantee the loyalty of an individual whose partner and child are held to ransom.

Remember Hurricane Katrina? There was a contingency flood plan, of a sort, which relied in the first instance on local government and the police. And what happened when New Orleans was inundated for real, rather than for the purpose of a hypothetical "desk-top" exercise? Local government workers failed to turn up for work; at least half the police force walked off the job. Not because they fancied a lie-in, but because their first loyalty lay with their families. They went home to check that their families were safe, and then stayed to help friends and neighbours or guard their property against looters.

Then take the strikes that crippled Heathrow airport last summer. The private catering company that supplied British Airways' onboard meals wanted to reduce its staff and alter their conditions. The mainly women workers went out on strike and were summarily sacked. At once, BA baggage-handlers walked out in sympathy in the sort of "secondary action" that had been illegal since the reign of Margaret Thatcher.

The twin strikes cost British Airways millions of pounds in lost business, not to speak of the longer-term damage to its improving reputation for service and reliability. Technically, no blame attached to BA. In "outsourcing" its catering, it had merely looked to keep its ticket competitive. That the US-owned catering company acted clumsily at one of BA's busiest times of the year was not something it could have reasonably foreseen.

What someone might have considered, though, was that very many of the catering workers were the wives, daughters, sisters and cousins of the baggage-handlers, and at one time both groups had been directly employed by BA. The unofficial strike - for which the trade union was subsequently sanctioned - had as much to do with kinship and family loyalty as it had to do with industrial relations.

Family values have also had an unappreciated role in revolutions. After the "Orange Revolution" in Ukraine, as during the anti-Gorbachev coup in Moscow in 1991, I asked people why they thought the authorities and the coup-plotters had not used the force they undoubtedly had at their disposal. More than a decade apart, the answer was the same: their sons and daughters were in Kiev's Independence Square or lining up to defend the Russian White House. They were not prepared to order the troops against their own children.

This week, it emerged that the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, long sought for ordering the Srebrenica massacre, made regular visits to the grave of his daughter in a Belgrade cemetery. If Serbian leaders were serious about capturing him, it was argued, they had only to post a lookout there. Maybe. But perhaps they judged that it would be unseemly to seize a father beside his daughter's grave. The human factor works both ways.

In her own right: the other side of Cherie

A minister's spouse is in a bind over money and property. And, guess what, it is not Cherie Blair! Yesterday, the Prime Minister's wife, above, spent her lunch-time addressing Chatham House, aka the Royal Institute of International Affairs, on the subject: "Torture: do the rules still matter?"

I leave others to judge how conclusively Mrs Blair answered the question. Nor will I try to discern either crack or chasm between her views and those of her husband - so far as we know them. I am only delighted to record that she spoke in her professional capacity, on a subject (civil rights) in which she is an authority.

At last. Surely I am not alone in believing that Britain would have been grown-up enough to applaud a PM's wife who earned her own money from her hard-won qualifications - and would cheerfully have forgiven her absence from official events or "spouse-programmes".

As a lawyer and mother, she would be leaving behind a whole different impression at Downing Street from the fee- and freebie-loving woman we think we know. The change, I fear, has come too late.

* A notice from the Ministry of Defence tells me that "young and old will come together" on 27 June for Britain's first Veterans' Day. Excuse me, but I thought we already had a rather dignified national ceremony on the second Sunday in November, known as Armistice Day or, latterly, Remembrance Sunday. I don't recall any public discussion or Bill going through Parliament. Can the MoD just announce it and expect us all to fall in line behind the dipped flags?

Would it not have been simpler to declare 11 November a national holiday and dedicate it to all veterans, as happens elsewhere in the world? Strangely, this new tribute is being introduced just as observance of Remembrance Day, in terms of poppy-wearing and keeping two minutes' silence, was increasing because of the losses in Iraq. Come to think of it, perhaps this is why the Government thinks we need a new day.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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