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Were the Birmingham pub bombings caused by government agents seeking to justify new anti-terror legislation? Almost certainly not. But the very fact that someone could ask it, poses an interesting question in its own right reckons Laurence Inman.

I watched a rather good drama-doc on the telly the other week, about the sinking of the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland in 1915.

It couldn’t avoid some of the clichés you always get in these productions: earnest warnings are ignored by complacent superiors, lovers are separated in the sinking (one of whom dies trapped in a lift,) a young man befriends a little girl (all very innocent) and gives her his life-belt, Germans are not monsters etc etc.

But it was worth it to see the superb Kenneth Cranham as the Captain. He just gets better all the time. And, of course, modern CGI makes any large-scale film involving water or fire (this had both) quite believable.

Audiences these days would never swallow the cartoon-like explosions in The Dam Busters or the use of models on the pond at Pinewood, as in Sink The Bismark.

The film also made some intriguing suggestions about realpolitik behind the scenes.

Was the ship loaded with tons of munitions, making it a permissible target, and were the Germans tipped off ? Did Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, know that U-Boats were operating in the area, but was unable to issue a warning because to do so would let the enemy know that we had cracked their codes ?

Was the whole thing set up to get the Americans into the war ?

The code problem was something Churchill was said to be faced with twenty-five years later, when our boffins had worked out the Enigma code and knew the Germans were going to bomb Coventry.

Should they evacuate the city, or balance any likely losses against the possible saving of lives later on ? Now there’s an interesting dilemma.

Even more interesting is the idea that a government can allow, or even arrange, for an atrocity to happen, in order to justify what Blair and Bush might these days call ‘a change in the world order.’

We have no trouble believing our enemies are capable of this, but still cling to the idea that, on our side at least, war is a gentlemanly pursuit, played according to civilised rules.

Wasn’t there a local skirmish in East Africa in about 1850, between the Army and some disgruntled colonials, when our soldiers sent over ammunition to the other side so that it would be a fair fight?

Until quite recently people readily believed that such things happened. Now they believe in dark and sinister conspiracies carried out by shadowy government departments of which we know nothing.

It probably started with the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbour in 1898, used as a casus belli for the Spanish-American War and resulting in the deaths of nearly 300 American sailors.

Many authoritative historians have since come to believe that it was sunk by orders of President McKinley, a theory which gained credibility during the Cuban Crisis, when crucial cabinet meetings were taped and Robert Kennedy could be heard at one point yapping: ‘We could do a Maine.

That is, sink one of their own ships, blame the Russians and begin a train of events which would kill me. I was only twelve.

It has been suggested that the Americans bombed Pearl Harbour themselves and, more recently, that they masterminded the 11/9 attacks in order to excuse everything that’s happened since. And of course, it is held by some to be self-evident that Diana was murdered to avoid any possibility of the Monarchy being run from Harrods.

The most disturbing ‘conspiracy’ I’ve heard was doing the rounds about twenty-five years ago.

It was suggested that the Birmingham IRA bombs were planted by government agents in order to make new security legislation more palatable. The deaths were a mistake; a proper warning was supposed to have been given, but somebody blundered.

The man who reported this was asked point-blank on TV if he believed it. ‘No I don’t think I do,’ he replied. ‘But ask yourself this: if it were to be proved true, would you be surprised?’

That could well be the most important political question to have been asked in my lifetime.

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