by Kevin Meagher
It must feel like Groundhog Day in Whitehall. Ministers are now obliged to pay homage to the residents of Somerset on a daily basis. So they come, all wellies and wax jackets, with suitably solemn faces for the now perfunctory photo opportunity.
There they stand, knee deep in stagnant water, to receive their ritual ear-bashing from angry flood victims, unable to offer any reassurances about when normality will resume or even give a guarantee that the same thing will not happen again. As David Cameron put it at his press conference yesterday, these are the worst floods in that part of the country for 250 years. Translation: ‘I’m at the mercy of events, what can I be expected to do?’
But at least David Cameron can venture out to the flooded south-west of England. He dared not visit Scotland to deliver a keynote speech making the case for the Union last Friday, such is the toxicity of the Conservative brand north of the border. Instead, the Prime Minister delivered his call to “save the most extraordinary country in history” from the velodrome of the Olympic Park in London. A place, then, where people whizz round and round but don’t actually get anywhere.
Apt, perhaps, given the impotence of our politicians this week.
Despite their Canute-like assurances, even small changes in our climate pattern quickly overpower both our flood defences – and ministers’ good intentions. Adapting our infrastructure to meet this challenge is horrendously costly, which is why it has never been adequately done.
Yet David Cameron casually pledges that extra money to prevent future flooding will be “no object,” seemingly unaware that the unwritten rule of public spending is that to reap a political return, investment must build visible assets: schools, hospitals, even roads. There are few votes to be had investing in invisible assets: drainage systems and underground storm water tanks.
We also see this political impotence in the decision of Parliament to outlaw smoking in a car when children are present. As I argued yesterday, the proposal is hopelessly unenforceable, not to mention deeply illiberal; but our politicians, desperate for any vestige of control over the agenda, jump at a chance to show us they are decisive and in charge.
Meanwhile, Alex Salmond is itching at the prospect of going head-to-head with Cameron, knowing that every time he opens his mouth, the Prime Minister’s plummy English accent drives voters into the independence camp. The case for the Union cannot be put with any effect from the party that professes greatest attachment to it. Despite having half the seats in Scotland in the 1950s, there is now just a single Conservative MP from a total of 56 Scottish seats.
Meanwhile, the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats clump together to rule out a currency union with an independent Scotland. Salmond must be have been chortling over his porridge this morning at the site of his political opponents bandying together, desperate for a single killer argument that can knock him for six.
Would it not be better for the three main parties to accept that an independent Scotland is not the end of the world and cataclysmic predictions that it is simply makes the No campaign seem shrill and extreme? Alex Salmond’s open, optimistic face is a more than an effective response. A reasoned, positive discussion on the merits of the union might convince the large number of floating voters to opt for the devil they know.
Again, would it not have been more effective for ministers to have admitted weeks ago that they had got it wrong on flooding? That the emergency response has been slow and piecemeal and we are reaping the costs of years of building on flood plains and rapacious agricultural practices that have diminished the ability of the land to cope with the weather patterns we are now seeing.
The public isn’t listening; either in Somerset or Edinburgh, that much is clear. Our politicians are no longer in control of key events and seem powerless to convince sceptical voters that they have the answers. Yet they remain defiant, rather than contrite, in the face of their impotence.
At this rate, next week’s rota of ministers will need chest waders.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut