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The New Depression

The business and political elite are flying blind. This is the mother of all economic crises. It has

We are living through a crisis which, from the collapse of Northern Rock and the first intimations of the credit crunch, nobody has been able to understand, let alone grasp its potential ramifications. Each attempt to deal with the crisis has rapidly been consumed by an irresistible and ever-worsening reality. So it was with Northern Rock. So it was with the attempt to recapitalise the banks. And so it will be with the latest gamut of measures. The British government – like every other government – is perpetually on the back foot, constantly running to catch up. There are two reasons. First, the underlying scale of the crisis is so great and so unfamiliar – and, furthermore, often concealed within the balance sheets of the banks and other financial institutions. Second, the crisis has undermined all the ideological assumptions that have underpinned government policy and political discourse over the past 30 years. As a result, the political and business elite are flying blind. This is the mother of all postwar crises, which has barely started and remains out of control. Its end – the timing and the complexion – is unknown.

Crises that change the course of history and transform political assumptions are rare events. The last came in the second half of the 1970s, triggered by the Opec oil price spike and a dramatic rise in inflation, which marked the end of the long postwar boom. Its political consequences were far-reaching: the closure of the social democratic era, the rise of neoliberalism, the discrediting of the state, the embrace of the market, the undermining of the public ethos and the espousal of rampant individualism. For the next 30 years, neoliberalism - the belief in the market rather then the state, the individual rather than the social - exercised a hegemonic influence over British politics, with the creation of New Labour signalling an abject surrender to the new orthodoxy.

The modalities of this present crisis are entirely different. Extreme as they may have appeared to be at the time, the economic travails of the 1970s were progressive rather than cataclysmic. The old system did not hit the wall, but became increasingly mired and ineffectual. What swept the social democratic era away was not the force de frappe of an irresistible crisis but that it was accompanied by the steady rise of a new ideology and political force in Thatcherism - and Reaganism in the United States - and its victory in the 1979 general election.

In contrast, the financial meltdown of 2007-2008 demolished the neoliberal era and its assumptions with a suddenness and irresistibility that was breathtaking. The political class, from New Labour to the Conservatives, is standing naked. They are still clinging to the wreckage of their old ideas while acknowledging in the next breath that these no longer work. The financial crisis is a matter of force majeure; political ideas and discourse change much more slowly, even when it is obvious that the old ways of thinking have become obsolete. Meanwhile, there is no political alternative waiting in the wings, refining its radical ideas in think tanks ready to storm the citadels of power as there was in the 1970s, notwithstanding the fact that think tanks are now far thicker on the ground. Instead, it has been the mainstream which senses that neoliberalism no longer works, fatally undermined by events and, ultimately, the author of its own downfall. This crisis will have the most profound and far-reaching political consequences and will in due course transform the political landscape, but it remains entirely unclear in what ways and when that might be.

In all these senses the financial meltdown has far more in common with the Great Depression than the Great Inflation. When the financial crisis consumed Wall Street in 1929 and proceeded to undermine the real economy, engulfing Europe in the process, it was not accompanied by a radical shift towards Keynesianism, but rather a reassertion of sound finance orthodoxy, followed in due course by the adoption of protectionism. The political mainstream as represented by Labour's Ramsay MacDonald and Philip Snowden and the Conservative Stanley Baldwin all sang from the same hymn sheet. Only Keynes and a faction of the Liberal Party enunciated a plausible alternative. Eventually a programme of fiscal deficits and public works was pursued by Franklin D Roosevelt in the United States, but in Britain Keynesianism was not properly embraced until rearmament and the approach of war. Indeed, it was not until 1945 that the combined legacy of war and the Depression belatedly resulted in a fundamental political realignment and the birth of the social democratic era.

The Grim Reaper has finally spoken:

a boom pumped up by credit steroids and a bust that takes us back to the 1930s

Since the financial meltdown dramatically intensified in September 2008, Gordon Brown has managed to ride the economic storm rather more successfully than the Conservatives, or, for that matter, than Tony Blair would have done. It is Vincent Cable, the Liberal Democrats' econo­mics spokesman, however, who has indubitably emerged as the political sage, unafraid of confronting neoliberalism's shibboleths, demonstrating a clarity of mind and the political courage to tell things as they are, in a way that has escaped all other prominent politicians. Although Brown was the economic architect of the past decade and was responsible, more than anyone else, for its excesses and was shaping up to be a rather disastrous Prime Minister, he displayed last autumn, at least initially, an agility of mind and nimbleness of foot that defied the expectations of those who believed he was capable of neither. He revelled in the sense of purpose and vision offered by the crisis, seemingly prepared to jettison the thinking that had imbued his previous decade as chancellor.

But Package Part I, widely hailed at the time and imitated elsewhere, proved woefully inadequate, and the financial system remains frozen. Meanwhile the waters are rising up the Good Ship UK, threatening to transform the banking crisis into a fiscal and currency crisis. It seems unlikely that, if that should happen, Brown will survive the next election.

Even if it does not happen, Brown faces a serious problem about his own past role, because Britain’s crisis has been greatly exacerbated by the soft-touch regulation, easy credit, runaway house inflation and overexpansion of financial services over which he presided and for which he is accountable. So far he has refused to admit or accept responsibility for his actions – he initially had the temerity (or foolhardiness) to argue that the UK was better placed than other countries to deal with the credit crunch, even though it has become abundantly clear since that the very opposite was the case. So while Brown remains in denial, the plausibility of his new turn, and his understanding of what is entailed, must be seriously doubted.

Indeed, after its initial boldness, the government now seems trapped by its past actions and its former ways of thinking. Brown's failure to accept the need to nationalise the banks suggests the limits of his new-found political courage, and his inability to embrace the logic and imperatives of the new situation. He is still a prisoner of his old timidity and his conversion to the neoliberal cause. It is his good fortune that the Cameron Conservatives have been hugely wanting in their response to the financial meltdown. Having spent his first years as leader of the opposition seeking to reassure the country of his centrist credentials, David Cameron, at the first whiff of gunfire, has turned on his heels, rejected Keynesianism and, at the very moment when events have shown Thatcherism to be deeply flawed and historically out of time, headed back to the Thatcherite womb of sound finance, arguing that a government must balance its books and that deficit financing, Keynesian-style, is reckless and irresponsible.

But all this, it must be said, is the small change of politics. The crisis threatens in time to sweep away the political world as we know it and those who fail to grasp its magnitude and meaning. Far more is at stake than the fortunes of a few leaders, be their name Brown or Cameron. Who knows where things will be this time next month, let alone next year or, indeed, in 2012? The financial meltdown now rapidly plunging the western world into what increasingly looks like a depression is the first great crisis of globalisation. There was plenty of warning. The Asian financial crisis of 1997-98 proved a salutary lesson about the dangers posed by huge capital movements that were subject to precious little regulatory control. Three economies capsized (South Korea, Thailand and Indonesia) and others stood on the brink.

There were other earlier warning signs, notably Mexico in 1995, when GDP fell by 9 per cent and industrial production by 15 per cent, following a run on the peso. These crises were blamed on the immaturity and fecklessness of national governments - in the case of east Asia on so-called crony capitalism (which, incidentally, prompts the question of how we should describe Anglo-American capitalism) - which the International Monetary Fund obliged to engage in swingeing cuts in public expenditure as a condition of their bailouts.

Yet what if such a crisis were to be no longer confined to the peripheries of global capitalism but instead struck at its heartlands? Now we know the answer. The crisis has enveloped the whole world like an uncontrollable virus, spreading from the US and within a handful of months assuming global proportions, at the same time mutating with frightening speed from a financial crisis into a fully fledged economic crisis. In so doing, it has undermined the foundations on which the present era of globalisation has been built, namely scant regulation, the free movement of capital, a bloated financial sector and immense reward for greed, thereby bringing into question the survival of globalisation as we now know it.

Enormous international flows of unregulated capital have capsized the international financial system - with disastrous consequences for the real economy - in a manner akin to the effect of a roll-on, roll-off ferry shipping too much water. We can now see the cost of free-market capitalism and light-touch regulation. Iceland may provide an extreme example of the consequences of the credit crunch but it also illustrates the dangers facing the more vulnerable economies, the UK included, in a deregulated world where the market rules: a small, open economy; a large, internationally exposed banking sector; an independent currency that is not a serious global reserve currency (of which there are only three); and limited fiscal strength. These propositions have constituted the core economic beliefs - from Thatcher and Lawson to Blair and Brown - that have informed policymaking over the past three decades and without which, it was claimed ad nauseam, an economy could not succeed. Heavy-handed regulation and an overbearing state would serve only to frighten off capital and condemn a country to slow growth, stagnation and global marginality. Now we know the fallaciousness of these claims and the consequences of "letting the market decide".

Like Iceland, albeit not as extremely, Britain has been living in a fool's paradise. A failure to regulate the banks and other financial institutions in any meaningful fashion allowed bankers to behave in a grossly irresponsible and avaricious fashion; a boom that was made possible only by a government-enabled credit binge in which people borrowed recklessly; a bloated financial sector that grew to represent over 8 per cent of the total economy and which was found to have been built on foundations of sand; an overvalued currency that made manufacturing exports uncompetitive and thereby resulted in an unnecessary and counterproductive contraction in the manufacturing sector which must now be reversed; an absurd belief that boom and bust had been banished for ever, allowing the banks to turn a blind eye to the inflating of various asset bubbles and display a profound ignorance of the history of capitalism; a persistently chronic current account deficit that can no longer be compensated for by inward capital flows; monstrous salaries for those at the top of the financial and corporate tree, which were justified in terms of a trickle-down effect that remained a chimera, and as the reward for risk which was, in fact, a reward for greed and failure; growing inequality, which was justified in the name of a more competitive economy accompanied by declining social mobility in the cause of an open and flexible labour market; and, finally, the mushrooming of what can only be described as systemic corruption on a mega-scale as the state ignored the gargantuan abuses of those who ran the banks and other financial institutions, while regulatory authorities willingly colluded in their excesses.

This is the sad story of the New Labour era.

The ultimate cost of this debacle as yet remains unknown. What began as a financial crisis is threatening, as the government seeks to bail out a bankrupt financial sector, to become a currency crisis, with foreign investors concerned about the effects this might have on the value of sterling, and perhaps even worse, ultimately a sovereign debt crisis, with growing doubts about the UK’s financial viability. Until there is some end in sight to the financial crisis, and a line can be drawn under the banks’ indebtedness, we will not know the answer to these questions. One thing is clear, however: whatever the limitations of the social democratic era, it was never responsible for such an all-enveloping and cataclysmic crisis as the one that the neoliberal era – and the Thatcherites and New Labour – have managed to produce. After all the boasting about the virtues of the Anglo-American model of capitalism, the Grim Reaper has finally spoken: a boom pumped up by credit steroids and a bust that takes us back to the 1930s.

There are two key aspects to this crisis: national and global, with the latter promising to be rather solutions are concerned, we are in uncharted territory, with close to zero interest rates, a Keynesian-style fiscal boost that may prove inadequate to the task and could well fail, a hugely indebted financial sector that threatens to leave us with an enormous future tax burden and a greatly expanded national debt. All of this, furthermore, must be addressed in the context of an open-market regime which is very different from those of previous eras, and which could render Keynesian-style national solutions ineffectual. What would greatly assist any national recovery is a co-ordinated global response to the crisis; in other words, global co-operation at the highest level. This cannot be ruled out, but it would be a brave person that would bet on it. It was exactly the lack of international co-operation that bedevilled recovery in the 1930s and eventually led to the Balkanisation of the world into regional currency and trading blocs.

The most important single question in this context is the relationship between the US and China. Will the Obama administration be able to resist the slippery slope of creeping protectionism? Will arguments over the revaluation of the Chinese renminbi be resolved amicably? If the answer is in the negative, then the global outlook will be very bleak indeed and so, also, as a result, will be the prognosis for national recoveries. Indeed, the prospects would look disturbingly like those of the 1930s, with growing international antagonism and friction and a continuingly intractable crisis at a national level, with only the very slowest of recoveries.

Around the world there is growing evidence by the week of a resort to national solutions at the expense of others: measures to subsidise industries that are in severe difficulties; the Buy American clause that was inserted by the House of Representatives into Barack Obama's latest package (though since weakened); the industrial action in Britain against foreign workers; the withdrawal of banks to their national homes; the attack by Timothy Geithner, the US treasury secretary, on China as a currency manipulator. No Rubicon has been crossed but the warning signs are clear. A retreat into protectionism and beggar-thy-neighbour policies will deliver the world into a second Great Depression.

So what will be the political effects of the financial meltdown? Some are already evident. Just as the Great Inflation of the 1970s played to the tunes and concerns of the right, with its invocation of the market, the New Depression suggests the opposite, the inherent limitations of the market and the indispensability of the state. Indeed, the speed with which the neoliberal refrains and invocations have unravelled has been breathtaking. The single most discredited aspect of the social democratic legacy was nationalisation, and yet the government, with the most extreme reluctance, has been obliged to nationalise Northern Rock and partially nationalise the Royal Bank of Scotland and the merged Lloyds TSB and HBOS. Who would have ever imagined, at any point during the past 30 years, that no less than the financial commanding heights of neoliberalism would have ended up in the hands of the state, with precious little opposition from anyone except a few disgruntled shareholders? Even now, however, the Labour government, still trapped in the ideological straitjacket of New Labour and displaying extreme timidity in the face of powerful vested interests, which has always been a New Labour characteristic, is running scared of the inevitable logic of the situation, namely that all the high-street banks should be taken into public hands until the mess is sorted out. Anything else leaves the public responsible for all the debts and risks, while the banks continue to be answerable to the very different interests of their shareholders. But such is the fury and depth of the crisis that this scenario is highly likely.

The state is experiencing an extraordinary revival. The credit crunch is the most catastrophic example of market failure since 1945. It became almost immediately obvious to wide sections of society that there was only one institution that could potentially sort out the mess: the state. Far from being a rational distributor of resources, the market had proved the opposite. Far from bankers and financial traders embodying the public interest, they have been exposed as irresponsible and dangerous risk-takers whose primary motivation was voracious greed. If trade unionists and the nationalised industries were the demons of the 1970s, bankers and the financial sector have assumed the mantle of public enemy number one in the late Noughties. In fact, the irresponsibility of bankers, and the damage they have inflicted on the economy, hugely exceeds anything that the unions could possibly be held responsible for in an earlier era. Meanwhile, the fallen heroes of the pre-Thatcher era, most notably Keynes, are duly being exhumed, restored to their rightful position, and pored over for their ability to throw light on the present impasse and what might be done; if the recession turns into a depression, Marx will once again become required reading.

This political shift is not just a British phenomenon, but a more general western one. The most striking feature of President Obama's inaugural speech was the way in which it embraced and legitimised African Americans for the first time in American history. But it also had another powerful theme, namely its invocation of the public interest and public service. After decades during which American political discourse has been dominated by the language of individualism and the market, it came as a shock to hear a US president articulate a very different kind of philosophy, renouncing private greed in favour of the public good. Obama's election can in part be seen as a response to the failure of the neoliberal era, as well as of Bush's neoconservative agenda; certainly his election represents a remarkable shift to the left in US politics, in contrast not just to Bush, but every recent US president, including Reagan, Bush Sr and Clinton. That Obama is the first African-American president also represents a remarkable redrawing of the political landscape. There is no more powerful - nor difficult - way of redefining society or to embrace a new form of representivity than to include a racial minority that has been excluded.

This brings us finally to what might be the longer-term global consequences of the crisis. Again, we are inevitably stumbling around in the dark because so much depends on whether the recession metamorphoses into a fully fledged depression and in what way and shape the world eventually emerges from the debacle. That said, two key points can be made. First, the credit crunch signals the demise of the Anglo-American, neoliberal model of capitalism, which has exercised a hegemonic influence over western capitalism and been the blueprint for globalisation since 1980. Because of its catastrophic failure there seems very little chance of its resurrection. The process of recovery - whenever that might be - will be accompanied by an overriding concern to ensure that the events of 2007-2009 are not repeated in the future, just as happened in the US in the 1930s with the strict regulatory framework that was introduced for the banks after their comprehensive failure in 1929. This will include the search for a new global regulatory framework that controls and constrains international movements of capital, as well as strict controls over the financial sector at a national level. A new set of political priorities - and with it a new political language - will be born.

Meanwhile, the influence and prestige that the US, and to a far lesser extent Britain, have enjoyed will vaporise in the same manner as their neoliberal model. Their 30-year project has failed and they will be obliged to pay the price in their reputation and the esteem in which they are held. The countries of the former Soviet Union and the casualties of the Asian financial crisis that were forced to swallow the neoliberal medicine will have good reason to feel aggrieved and resentful. The west has been forthright in accusing the non-western world of corruption. The financial meltdown suggests that the west has been guilty of huge hypocrisy. Systemic corruption has lain at the heart of the western financial system. An entirely disproportionate and extortionate level of bonuses has ensured the enormous enrichment of top executives in the financial sector, all in the name of reward for success, when in fact it was the reward for failure. In addition, we have had the collusion of the credit-ratings agencies; a regulatory system characterised by its failure to act as any kind of constraint; and governments that ensured the continuation of this web of relationships and applauded its achievements. The corruption was on a breathtaking scale as evidenced by the size of the bailouts required to rescue the banks. It will be difficult for western governments to make these kinds of accusations of others in the future. That Obama represents such a voice of hope will help to mitigate the inevitable ill-will towards the US, but this should not be exaggerated amid the euphoria surrounding developments in Washington.

The second point is more far-reaching. It is doubtful whether we can still describe ourselves as living in the American era or, indeed, the Age of the West. If not yet quite over, both are certainly drawing to a close, and it seems likely that the effect of the financial meltdown will be to accelerate the rise of China as a global power. The contrast between the situation in China and that in the US could hardly be greater, even though it has been partially obscured by the depressive effect of the western recession on Chinese exports and on China’s growth rate. While the US economy is contracting, China’s grew at roughly 9 per cent in 2008 and is projected to grow at about 6 per cent in 2009. Its banks, far from bankrupt like their US counterparts, are cash-rich. China enjoys a large current account surplus, the government’s finances are in good order and the national debt is small. This is a crisis that emanates from the US and whose impact on China has been essentially indirect, through the contraction of western markets. It is the American model that has failed, not the Chinese.

One of the factors that intensified the Great Depression, and indeed was part cause of it, was Britain's growing inability to continue in its role as the world's leading financial power, which culminated in the collapse of the gold standard in 1931. It was not until after the war, however, that the US became sufficiently dominant to replace Britain and act as the mainstay of a new financial system at the heart of which was the dollar. The same kind of problem is evident now: the US is no longer strong enough to act as the world's financial centre, but its obvious successor, namely China, is not yet ready to assume that mantle. This will undoubtedly make the search for a global solution to the present crisis more difficult and more protracted.

Martin Jacques's new column will be published fortnightly in the New Statesman. His book "When China Rules the World: the Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World" will be published in June (Allen Lane, £25)

the global downturn in numbers

    0.5%

    IMF prediction for global growth in 2009 - worst since WWII

    Up to 40 million

    Number of people who will lose their jobs this year, according to the International Labour Organisation

    $9.7trn

    Total pledged by the US alone towards solving the crisis

    3.6%

    Proportion of GDP pledged by the G7 and BRICs countries towards fixing the crisis (1.5% this year)

    2.3m

    Number of US properties that received a default notice or were repossessed in 2008. In the UK, 45,000 homes were repossessed - another 75,000 are expected to be taken in 2009

    14

    Number of major global banks which collapsed, were sold or were nationalised during 2008

    200,000

    Number of European companies expected to fail this year; an additional 62,000 are expected to fail in the United States. These figures represent record levels of insolvency

    52%

    Increase in UK company failures between late 2007 and late 2008

    14%

    Drop in level of Chinese exports during January

    1%

    Current UK interest rates (down from 5% in October 2008). In the US, rates have fallen to between 0 and 0.25%

How the crisis unfolded

13 September 2007 Run on Northern Rock begins when it is revealed that the bank has requested emergency support from the Bank of England

21 January 2008 FTSE suffers worst falls since 11 September 2001

February 2008 Northern Rock nationalised

17 March 2008 JP Morgan Chase takes over the US investment bank Bear Stearns

12 July Mortgage lender IndyMac collapses - second biggest US bank in history to fail

9 August 2007 European Central Bank pumps ?95bn into banking market

7 September Financial authorities step in to rescue Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac

9 September Bradford & Bingley becomes second British bank to be nationalised

15 September Lehman Brothers files for bankruptcy

16 September AIG, biggest insurance firm in the US, receives $85bn rescue package

3 October 2008 US government announces $700bn Troubled Assets Relief Programme

8 October UK launches its first bank bailout plan, making £50bn available

October 2008 Iceland's banks collapse. IMF extends £1.4bn ($2.1bn) loan a month later

24 November Alistair Darling announces a temporary cut in VAT from 17.5 to 15 per cent

23 January 2009 UK enters recession

28 January US Congress passes Barack Obama's $819bn stimulus package

5 February UK Monetary Policy Committee votes to cut interest rates to 1 per cent - the lowest in over three centuries

Michael Harvey

Martin Jacques is a journalist and academic. He is currently a visiting fellow at the London School of Economics Asia Research Centre and at the National University of Singapore. Jacques previously edited Marxism Today and co-founded the think-tank Demos in 1993. He writes the World Citizen column for the New Statesman. His new book on the rise of China, When China Rules the World, will be published in June.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The New Depression

MURDO MACLEOD
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Where the bodies are buried

Whether you’re alive or dead, Sue Black knows who you are – as dozens of murderers and war criminals have discovered.

Even before she became an anatomy student, Sue Black was used to death. From the age of 13 she had worked every Saturday at a local butcher’s shop. On cold days, she would rush to pick up the livers from the incoming vans, the fresh organs warming her hands in the cold Scottish winter.

By the time she arrived at the University of Aberdeen, having lied to her worried parents that she had secured a full grant, she was already familiar with bones, blood and flesh. But what she saw inside David – the nickname she gave to the cadaver she was instructed to dissect – was very different.

She calls the inside of the human body an “amazing world”, a life story written in skin and tissue. Stretching out her pale forearms – she is red-haired and “tans as well as a snowball” – she shows me her freckles. Their ­position was decided in her mother’s womb: the cells settled in a layer of skin called the basal lamina, waiting to be activated by sunlight. “If you stay indoors and you never go outside,” she says, “well, you’ll always remain pale and interesting.”

Black, now 54, has made her career painstakingly learning to read these human stories. She is now Professor of Anatomy and Forensic Anthropology at the University of Dundee and one of Britain’s leading experts in human identification. She sees bodies that betray their owners – the veins on a paedophile’s hand, for example, which are more distinctive than a fingerprint – and bodies whose marks and scars become testimonies to murders and war crimes. She cannot help looking at the world as an anatomist: it always annoys her that political cartoonists put the gap in Tony Blair’s teeth in the wrong place.

Three deaths influenced Sue Black’s childhood and set the pattern for her career. The first was that of her grandmother – a tough old woman who, when she knew she was dying, told the young Susan that whenever she needed advice, she could turn to her own shoulder and talk to her. (She still does.) The second was a young mother called Renee MacRae, who went missing in 1976 with her son Andrew near Inverness, where Black grew up. “I can remember the police coming round and asking my father to look in the outhouses,” she says, her hands cradling a cup of tea in her university office.

The officers found no trace of MacRae and her son, there or anywhere else. The case remained dormant until 2004, when a new chief constable decided that there was enough intelligence to excavate a local quarry. Black was involved with the search but after the police moved tonnes of earth, they uncovered only a few bones – which belonged to a rabbit. The disappearances are now Scotland’s longest-running missing persons case. “Those kinds of things get under your skin,” she says. “You think there’s a family sitting with their life, in part, in a stutter. They just want their sister back . . . Whoever killed her is the only person, I suspect, who knows where she is.”

The final death that changed the young Sue’s life was that of a rat, beaten to death by her father, who had found it scavenging outside the hotel that he ran on the shores of Loch Carron. She remembers its eyes, its teeth, its tail, its fevered thrashing as it died. It left her with a fear of rodents, so she was stumped when, on reaching the fourth year of her anatomy degree, she was told to dissect the brains of hamsters and mice. She convinced her tutor to let her study human bones instead – and never looked back.

***

What Sue Black does is easy to explain but sometimes difficult to accomplish: she finds out who people are or, more often, were. After training as an anatomist, she was employed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and travelled to Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Thailand and Iraq to help identify the bodies of those killed in natural disasters and massacres. Her first big mission came in 1999, when a colleague, Peter Vanezis, was asked to collect evidence in Kosovo for a possible war crimes tribunal. He arrived at a barn in the village of Velika Kruša, in the west of the country, and found it filled with 42 decomposing bodies. He told his superiors that he needed help. He needed Sue Black.

She was by then the mother of three children, aged 15, five and three. With her husband working full-time and her parents living 120 miles away, she hired a nanny and got on the next plane. It was not a hard decision. “The girls have grown up knowing that we adore them but they also know that their dad has a life and their mum has a life, the same as they will have a life – or they do have a life now, because they’re much, much older.”

What she found in Kosovo was a scene of horror. There was a survivor from the barn massacre – a man who had made it to the corner of the room and had been shielded by his friends as Serbian troops sprayed the men with bullets, then tried to set the barn on fire. He lay still under their bodies until it was safe to emerge, many hours later. Black’s job was to see if the physical evidence corroborated his story.

That involved sifting through the remains with her fingertips, working on bodies that had been burned and partly eaten by local dogs and were now a boiling mass of maggots. There was no running water on site and there were snipers in the hills. There were also no toilets. On the first day, one of the police officers on the mission returned from the tree that the team had been using as a makeshift loo, beaming from ear to ear. He had found himself urinating on an explosive device. It had a tripwire that would have triggered if anyone walked down the road away from the barn, killing or severely injuring them. But the man was thrilled: at his age, he had managed to stop mid-flow as soon as he saw it.

During her time in Kosovo, Black took on the role of the team’s surrogate mother. “Everybody kicks in to a professional mode the minute you get into the car and you’re heading out to an event,” she says. “But when you’re in your lodgings at night, when people are being people rather than being professionals, there’s a different dynamic that goes on.” In that role, she says, she could tell them to stop drinking, have a proper meal, or go to bed. “And those buttons are ones that a mother can hit. What becomes quite disruptive within a team is when you have single, available, attractive women and you have men.”

She also helped the rest of the team deal with the emotional demands of the job. Once, she was conducting a post-mortem in a field. The subject was a toddler, still in red booties and a sleepsuit. Soldiers had chased the village children into the field and then used their heads for target practice while the adults were made to watch. Pausing for a moment from her work, she looked up and saw a line of policemen’s boots. One of the officers had broken down – he had a toddler at home – and his colleagues were sheltering him until he could continue. Black, however, was having none of it. She stood up and threw her arms around him, allowing him to cry in the open. Then she told him that he had to keep his work and home life separate.

When she is working on a difficult case, she has a mantra: “You didn’t cause this, you didn’t do this, you’re not responsible.” She keeps her professional life in the “work box” and, because of this, she professes never to have had a sleepless night as a result of the things she has seen. The crime writer Val McDermid, who has known Black for 20 years, says that she is “very good at compartmentalising . . . It’s that ability to not bring her work out of the building that makes it possible for her to survive.”

***

For the first half of her career, Black was mostly concerned with identifying the dead. But it can be just as important to identify the living – as in the case of Scotland’s largest paedophile ring.

Some time between 2005 and 2007, a man called Neil Strachan, who worked as an engineer with Crown Paints in Edinburgh, attached a personal hard drive to a computer at work. He forgot all about it, until one day the computer was sent away for repair. On the hard drive, the technician found a sexually explicit photograph of a child.

That discovery set off a chain of raids and arrests, leading to the trial of a group of men who had met online to swap indecent images and boast about their exploits. One of Strachan’s contacts, a man called James Rennie, had an email address beginning “kplover”, standing for “kiddie porn lover”. When the case was coming to trial, though, the police faced a challenge. Strachan had sent messages to Rennie indicating that he was not only looking at child sex abuse images but abusing children. “I might have found us a contact with two boys, two and four, willing to share,” he wrote once. Another time, he boasted of “having fun” with an 18-month-old boy; police found a picture of a man abusing a child roughly that age around New Year, which became known as the “Hogmanay image”. They desperately wanted to know if Strachan was the man in the photograph, because the penalties for making child pornography are far greater than those for merely viewing it.

But how? The images didn’t show the man’s face. For some unknown reason, however, the defence counsel had taken images of Strachan’s thighs – and although his legs were entirely unremarkable, in one of the images he was holding the photographic scale. And there, on his thumb, was the mark that betrayed him. He had a deformation of the lunula, the crescent-shaped white area at the base of the nail. So did the man in the Hogmanay image. The evidence went to court and in 2009, Strachan was convicted of the ­attempted rape of the 18-month-old and sentenced to life.

Black and her team now examine dozens of similar images every year and in 80 per cent of the cases they work on, their identification of an anatomical feature convinces the defendant to change his plea to guilty. She is the only member of the team who has children and again the mantra – “This is  not something you caused . . .” – helps her, as does her day job in the dissecting room. “When you’ve worked in anatomy, where you spend your life with the deceased, when you then work in forensic anthropology, where you see individuals in all sorts of circumstances, whether it’s in burnings, whether it’s in explosions, whether it’s in murder, suicide, whatever it may be, all of these serve to help you find that ability to retain a detachment.”

Some of Black’s opinions are unexpected, such as her belief that defendants in rape and child abuse cases should not be named unless they are found guilty. “I can’t think of anything worse for a man than to be wrongly accused of being a child abuser,” she says. “Once that label’s been put on you . . . even though you’re found innocent, in the public’s mind there is still always this: ‘Is there no smoke without fire?’” She is wary, too, of investing too much in cases and feeling tempted to overegg the science or her certainty. “It’s incredibly important that we only say things that are backed up by research, because to put the wrong person on the wrong side of bars is unacceptable. That’s not justice working, that’s injustice.”

In almost all of her work, the forensic evidence is just part of a larger case built by the police. This can have unexpected consequences, as in an early case that used vein pattern analysis. “The very first one we did was a case of alleged child abuse where the girl alleged that her biological father was abusing her and she – bless her – had her Skype camera on her computer. And I don’t know if you know, but if you run it in night mode, it goes into infrared, so you had infrared capture through the night. And a picture was picked up on the camera at about half past four in the morning of a hand coming in and interfering with the girl under the covers.”

The infrared camera picked up the perpetrator’s hand and, from her years in the lab, Black knew that the veins that were visible were very distinctive. Her team compared the blood vessels in the images with the defendant’s. They matched. “But what I had no research on – and didn’t present [in court] – was what the likelihood was of anybody having the same veins, because we simply didn’t know,” she says.

After some back and forth between the judge, the prosecutors and the defence, the vein match was ruled admissible. “So the jury heard it. The jury then went away and they came back with a not guilty verdict.”

Black and her team wondered what they had done wrong, so they sent a note to ask whether the jury had not been convinced by the untested technique. “They said, ‘Oh, no, we had no problem with the science, that was fine.’” The trouble was that the members of the jury did not believe the girl, whom they had found to be too composed in the witness box. She sighs. “She was a young teenager. Who else would be in her room at half past four in the morning? But, you know, that’s not our case.”

***

Since then, Black and her team have discovered that the veins in the hand are, as they suspected, highly distinctive – even in identical twins. (Earlier, she told me with relish: “That’s the wholly wonderful thing about identical twins – that the one thing that they are not is identical.”)

This new information provides police with a more reliable method of identification than many of the better-known forms. In Scottish courts now, for instance, fingerprint matches are treated as matters of opinion rather than fact. This follows an inquiry into an eyebrow-raising case in which a police detective called Shirley McKie was suspended, then sacked, then charged with perjury, after her fingerprint was apparently found on a door frame at a murder scene, although she denied ever visiting it. Her father, a retired detective, took up the case and McKie was eventually acquitted and awarded £750,000 in compensation. It seems likely that although her prints matched those at the scene on all the points that had been sampled, they were not identical.

“It took her many, many years to prove that, in fact, the way in which fingerprints were being assessed was fundamentally flawed, so that all cases where convictions relied on fingerprints were now in jeopardy,” Black says. Other staples of forensic science, such as gait analysis, now face similar questions. “In America at the moment, they’re having horrendous problems – and we’re not surprised – with bite marks.”

She is also dismissive of iris identification, because it is possible to make a good-quality replica of an eyeball on acetate and print it on a contact lens. “If you can spoof the biometric, then ultimately it’s not a very good biometric. And they’ve now been able to spoof irises. Spoofing of fingerprints is child’s play now.”

Such concerns are why Black talks about a “crisis” in forensic science. For many years, DNA evidence has been a kind of deus ex machina in criminal cases – the DNA has spoken: that guy did it – but matches are based on probability rather than certainty and the modern techniques used to isolate very small strands of DNA are open to contamination.

Other types of evidence are prone to misunderstanding. In February 2014, she brought together a group of forensic scientists to discuss the limitations of their work. Without the scientists’ knowledge, Black also asked several senior judges and lawyers to attend. “We have two key players in the forensic world who only ever meet in an adversarial position, so they’re never, ever going to understand each other,” she says. “So, by the scientists being open and honest and not realising the judges were in the room, the judges were going, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is what the scientists think. Ooh!’”

The result of the meeting was that the scientists and lawyers agreed that 40 evidence types needed attention. “And that went from DNA, fingerprints, footwear marks, gunshot residue, bite marks – you go through the whole list – that said either we’ve got a problem in detecting it, or recognising it, or comparing it, or evaluating it, or communicating it.”

The scientists are now producing primers, written in simple English, to help juries and judges better understand the science they are being asked to weigh up. “That’s probably the biggest ever project attempted in public engagement with science, if you think that’s taking science into every single courtroom in the land, every single day.”

***

Alongside these grand plans, Sue Black’s attention in the past few years has been on a project closer to home. When I visit Dundee on a wind-whipped December day, the department is humming with quiet industry: there are students (95 per cent of them female), mortuary assistants and colleagues in Christmas jumpers. And there are bodies.

When Black arrived at Dundee in 2005, anatomy departments were in decline – they were either closing down altogether, or moving to “prosection”, in which an instructor dissects a cadaver in front of the class. But she is an evangelist for the importance of hands-on experience, and the department receives 80 new bodies every year for its students to cut into and explore.

Val McDermid was one of a group of crime writers who agreed to help Black raise the funds for a new mortuary a few years ago. They asked their fans to vote for a room to be named after them and to pay a pound to do so. It’s clear who won, as Sue Black guides me into the “Val McDermid Mortuary” and then to the “Stuart MacBride Dissecting Room”. The other eight writers each got their name on an embalming tank, with the exception of Lee Child, who decided to use that of his lead character Jack Reacher instead. “We realised early on we couldn’t have the Child Mortuary,” says Black dispassionately.

The dissecting rooms are cool, and – to my surprise – smell of very little, not even disinfectant. The air-conditioning draws the air downwards and the new Thiel embalming method stops the bodies from decomposing. This has been Black’s pet project for the past half-decade, as formalin, the old embalming fluid, is known to be carcinogenic and leaves dead bodies stiff and unyielding. Other departments tried “fresh frozen” – dismembering a cadaver and defrosting each section as it was needed. Black thought that this was “incredibly wasteful of the gift”, because each body part has a usable life of just a few days, and wasteful of money, too, because limbs and organs had to be bought in from abroad. “You could have 12 legs come in, shipped into Heathrow. They would carry a health certificate that they’re free from everything – I’m sorry, but I’d want to check – and then they’d go off and be dissected. Incredibly expensive.”

Black’s preferred alternative is the Thiel method, named after the Austrian anatomist Walter Thiel, which involves soaking bodies in a mixture of salts, chemicals and a smaller measure of formalin. It keeps the bodies soft and pliable, which Black says works better for everyone except trainee neurosurgeons and colorectal specialists (a living gut has more tension). McDermid says that the Thiel cadavers “look like people – albeit slightly strange, with no hair or fingernails. For the students, that’s a huge advantage, because it gives them a sense of what they are going to be working with in a way the old bodies didn’t.”

Downstairs, two of the department’s mortuary assistants, Claire and Sam, are dressed in scrubs and wellies, preparing a body using the Thiel method. The cadaver is propped up, almost upright, on a table, with tubes running into the top of his head and out of his thigh. He looks peaceful; the scene is not in the least Gothic. “I do tend to talk to them,” Claire says. “I applaud them if they have very good veins.” What’s the difference between picking up a live patient and a dead body? “The bodies are heavier, because they’re not helping you,” Sam says.

Black and her PA, Vivienne McGuire, meet many of the cadaver donors while they are still alive, offering them a cup of tea in her office, which is spangled with plaques and knick-knacks. (“To save time, let’s assume I know everything,” reads one slogan. “My job is secure – nobody wants it,” offers another.) There’s a skeleton in the corner, which might eventually be replaced with Black: she has said that she would be delighted to become a teaching aid in her old department one day.

There are many reasons why people agree to donate their bodies. For some, it is as simple as wanting not to burden their families with the £3,600 that the average funeral costs. Others want to pay back the medical profession, or hope to train doctors to cure the disease that killed them. As they leave her office, Black tells the donors, “Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but we really don’t want to see you soon.”

She takes me upstairs and shows me the book of remembrance: the donors for 2014 included Shelagh, James, Irene and Angus. On the first Wednesday of May every year, the department holds a memorial service for donors’ families, attended by the staff and students. “I found it quite moving to go into the mortuary and see the cadavers,” says McDermid. “There is a sense of respect for the people who have donated their bodies. This is not Doctor in the House. There’s no larking about in Sue’s mortuary.”

Throughout her career, Black has been close to death, often involving the most traumatic circumstances. Yet she is one of the most serene, untroubled people I have ever interviewed; serious when the occasion demands it but ready to laugh. “Her students are utterly devoted to her,” McDermid says. “It’s extraordinary. They’d walk on hot coals for her.”

Perhaps the cliché is true: contemplating death really does make you feel more alive? “It’s my view that we have, as a society, removed ourselves from death,” Black says. “We’ve built a wall around it that makes us uncomfortable, whereas if you go back just a few generations, when Granny died she was in the coffin in the front room. It was viewed as just as natural as birth.”

On my way out of the building, I think: I wouldn’t mind if my final resting place were Sue Black’s mortuary. I pull my coat around myself, happily, and walk out into the cold winter sunshine. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war