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Vignette Sunday: Boffins

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

By Nigel Waite

On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write vignettes on a specific theme (changed monthly).

The theme for the nineteenth contest was Predictions


Many people are familiar with the word “Boffin”, but hardly anyone knows that it originally referred to the people working at the Bureau Of Forecasting. Hardly surprising really since the Bureau had put a lot of effort into keeping itself secret. It grew out of the work done at Bletchley Park during the war. Yes, the breaking of German ciphers was important stuff, but the machines developed there were capable of doing so much more. The wartime planned economy needed accurate forecasts of production, of course, but the real breakthrough was in social forecasting. How would British Society develop in the years following the war, and what could be done to guide it.

The Americans were doing similar work of course. But they were nowhere near as security conscious. While the Bureau managed to keep even the existence of Bletchley Park secret until the Seventies, some of the American work leaked into the public domain almost immediately. Still, they should have done a better job at preventing the publication of that science fiction series, even if no-one took those pulp magazines seriously.

In the early days their techniques were crude. For example, the British people and politicians were attached to the idea of empire, but the empire itself was holding Britain back. The Suez crisis was necessary to make the country realise it was no longer an imperial power. Fortunately the Bureau had friends in the US who could persuade Eisenhower that Britain and France should be warned off from invading Egypt. The Bureau’s operation succeeded in its immediate aim. The new Prime Minister would later talk of the winds of change, and no-one asked who was doing the blowing. However some of the spinoff of the operation wasn’t so fortunate. The French were upset by the whole thing, and the actions they took in response caused problems for the Bureau in years to come.

But the Bureau learned its lessons and refined its techniques. Mexico 1970, for example. A little something slipped into the meal of a footballer and the forecast breakdown of society was averted. Things still got bad in the Seventies, but predictions showed they would have been a lot worse.

Now accurate forecasts depend upon having good data. They had excellent data about the UK itself. Opinion Polling and Market Research were booming industries after the war, thanks to a little encouragement from the Bureau. But the UK didn’t operate in isolation. To begin with, they got a fair amount of data from the Commonwealth and from their contacts in the US. However, over time that reduced to a trickle. What they really needed was data from Europe. The French and Germans had formed an organisation called the European Economic Community that was ideally placed to collect the data that they needed. However attempts to get access to that data were blocked by the French. That damned spinoff from Suez was continuing to hurt them. They tried setting up an alternative organisation, but they still weren’t getting the data they needed

Eventually they manage to rig a referendum and get someone more friendly in charge. Britain joined the EEC and from then on things were easy. The EEC turned into the EU, got broader and deeper, and the Bureau got all the data it needed. They also extended their ability to influence events. They got that Pole elected as Pope (shame the Cardinals got it wrong the first time), and pretty soon the Berlin Wall fell and the Bureau could extend its network into Eastern Europe.

Of course, all good things come to an end. The first sign of trouble occurred in 2008, and prompted a fevered discussion at the highest level in the Bureau.

“How did that man win the election? He’s a buffoon! All the forecasts showed that Livingstone would win comfortably.” The chief had lost his normal calm demeanour.

“We’re not sure, sir”, Watson answered. “We’ve done some comparisons between the result and the prediction, and there’s some unusual third order activity. Someone may be interfering.”

“Is it internal ? I hope everyone knows that’s strictly forbidden, and has been ever since Jones interfered with the 92 election to win that bet. All because his wife wanted a new kitchen.”

“No sir. We haven’t seen any sign of that.”

“So one of the external players – Russia, China, or America ?”

“Well the Russians have never really recovered from the experience of the Soviet Union’s research” answered Roberts. “They were hampered by trying to make their computer models compatible with Marxist theory. And many of their best analysts got sent to Siberia when they made correct predictions about the future of the Soviet Union.”

“We think the Chinese are still only in the early days of their research”, added Watson, “and the Americans have never recovered from having their funding slashed in the Eighties.”

“Yes – that was one of your better operations, Roberts. How about the Europeans ?”

“Well”, said Roberts, “At one time we did think that the EU was being set up to gather data for a European effort. It would be harder for someone else to duplicate our research as our operations have contaminated the data with a number of low probability events. Maybe they’re just observing - we’ve seen no sign of anyone else interfering,”

“Until now. But I can’t see what this election is meant to accomplish. Maybe if we knew what they were trying to do, we’d have a better idea who’s doing it. So focus your efforts there, gentlemen, and report back to me next week.”

Meanwhile in an office in Paris, the Directeur read the latest report with satisfaction. Their asset was in place now, and in a decade or so the Bureau would be cut off from the data they needed to work. His office had been in the shadows for a long time. Early on they’d infiltrated the British Bureau. They’d got a lot of useful information from them and, more importantly, they’d been able to use the Bureau to influence events without being seen. The EU network had been expanded and the American efforts hindered, and if anyone did trace things back the British would get the blame. Still, that couldn’t go on for ever. It was time for the Service de Prévision to start working on its own.

He just hoped that this was all his own idea.



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