One of the things I resent most is an intrusion on solitude. Quite often, these days, the only solitude you get is when travelling somewhere on your own with the mobile turned off. A stranger trying to strike up a conversation with me on a train or on a plane is unlikely to get very far; much as I like meeting new people, three hours of quiet sometimes seems a greater pleasure.
So I blew it last Friday out of mild selfishness. I was going up to Sheffield to spend the weekend with my parents. The train was pretty full. "Anyone sitting here?" I said to a man on his own at a table for four. "Be my guest," he said. Almost at once I regretted it; his eyes lit up in a brave and glittering way, like the Ancient Mariner's. He looked like someone aching to strike up a conversation.
I firmly got out the book I was reading - The Way We Live Now. It didn't immediately work. "Ah, Trollope," the man said. "Is that a good one?" I looked at him; he was wearing a not-very-good suit and tie, had a terrible haircut and a tatty blue file bearing his name on the table. Middle-ranking civil servant, I decided. "I think it's the best," I said firmly, before starting to read.
It more or less worked; the rest of the journey he seemed to be trying to start up conversations with the girl next to him, or trying to catch my eye to make some observation, but it clearly wasn't going to work. Once, he tried the gambit of offering to fetch me something from the buffet, but I declined and then rudely went to get it myself. Poor man: but whatever the flood of conversation behind the glittering gaze, I wasn't going to be the one to unplug it.
A couple of days later, of course, watching the television news, a face looked strangely familiar. A civil servant had blown the whistle on officials carrying out an unapproved immigration policy, and letting Eastern Europeans into the country without proper checks. He had been suspended; his name was Steve Moxon from Sheffield; we talk to him later in the programme ... it was the man from the train, looking just as weirdly excited. He must have been in London to be shouted at by the Home Office.
Damn. Call yourself an investigative journalist? Well, no, not really. But there are some questions I would very much like to have put to Mr Moxon on the train, and have been following his story since with understandable curiosity. His claim, that managers in the Sheffield office of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate were fast-tracking applications from Eastern European nationals to work in Britain, was reported with all the seriousness Mr Moxon could desire. One wonders, however, about the gravity of the charge, remembering that much of Eastern Europe is shortly about to join the European Union. Even given the restrictions demanded by present member states, the whole tendency is towards greater freedom of movement within Europe, and not a lot is to be gained by sticking to the absolute letter of the law, or waiting until May before starting to "fast-track" such applications.
Mr Moxon first demanded to have a meeting with the Prime Minister: a request very sensibly turned down flat. Disappointed, he went to see the Liberal Democrats to see if they wanted to be his friend. A source said "He said 'I'm a trouble-maker, I have got a track record of raising awkward issues.' It was then that alarm bells began to ring." The Conservatives were less picky about the gentleman with an intense gleam in his eye, and a photo-opportunity ensued.
They must be regretting it now. It quickly surfaced what some of those "awkward issues" were, in the form of some wild e-mails from Mr Moxon to the Panorama programme, in which he proposed "silencing" the Islamic world by dropping nuclear weapons on it. I start to think that I was quite right to be nervous about Mr Moxon on the train, but all the same I would very much like to ask him some questions.
They are principally about his motivation here. He says, for instance, that the fast-tracking of Eastern European applications is to avoid a sudden burst after May. But who would care about that? And the number of applications, before May as well as after, is public information, if anyone wanted to make a big deal out of it. Can anyone doubt that Mr Moxon, in reality, loathes the idea of immigration so strongly that he is going to sacrifice his career over the strictest letter of the law, one which in three months will be completely meaningless in any case?
The truth is that though some whistleblowers are genuinely motivated by a large point of principle, others, like Mr Moxon, may be trying to further an extreme political position. He may have succeeded; things will be harder now for citizens of new member states of the European Union, and not just until May. It is not just the laxity of officials which Mr Moxon has tried to put an end to, but a whole process of democratic change. I very much dislike the idea that the odd, obsessive figure I wouldn't hold a conversation with could irresponsibly hold up the vital process of European integration in any way.Reuse content