There’s a lot of water around at the moment and it seems to have washed a lot of political effluent along with it. This troubles me.
I’ve taken recently to expressing a sort of filial loyalty to my adopted home region of the West country since parts of it started to become submerged. This is despite the fact that the inland, upland bit of North Devon where I live is largely unaffected by the bad weather, I had to look up Dawlish on a map, and my very slight knowledge of the Somerset Levels comes entirely from seeing them through the window of a train. None of this has stopped me from tweeting heartfelt pleas for support for stricken Somerset farmers as if they were my own kin.
We should all support the West country, if only because it is gorgeous and filled will lovely people and delicious animals. Once we’ve finished mopping up, you should come and visit – we’d love to see you.
Today, lots of the country is underwater and in need of help. And where there’s distress, there’s blame and where there’s blame there’s bullshit. Whole catchment areas full of it.
I have seen bullshit flowing along two primary channels – let’s call them the River Bullshit and the King’s Bullshit Drain.
Rapidly silting up the River Bullshit is the demand to help the West country by conveniently diverting funding from some other, unconnected, area of public spending such as foreign aid or HS2.
The prime culprit here is Ukip leader and human weasel, Nigel Farage. Farage has demanded that Britain stop spending money on foreign aid and instead spend that money on helping those underwater in the Somerset Levels, where they have endured serious flooding for several weeks now.
I had a lot more time for Ukip when their paranoia was focused exclusively on the European Union. I may not agree with them on Europe, but I can see that Euroscpeticism is a coherent viewpoint, widely held. Now, though, Ukip has decided to move away from being a one-issue party and it has a policy platform that runs the full gamut from xenophobia to sexism, taking in homophobia and Islamophobia along the way. Basically, all the phobias. Perhaps they’ll incorporate arachnophobia next and promise every household a new vacuum cleaner.
Ukip describes itself as a “non-racist” party and the fact that they think that this needs spelling out tells you quite a lot about them. Hatred of foreigners seems to be pretty central to Ukip’s core values – in a way that would seriously piss me off if I were a genuinely non-racist conservative Eurosceptic. Ukip spent the whole of 2013 raging against the tsunami of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants they predicted would wash up in Dover as soon as the New Year arrived, and generally setting about demonstrating that, whilst it is theoretically possible to discuss immigration without being racist, they haven’t quite worked out how. Despite the hordes of Romanians and Bulgarians not materialising, the media continues to hang on every bit of populist, evidence-free, narrow-minded bullshit that falls out of Farage’s smug face and Ukip continue to ride high in opinion polls. I suspect that even some racists have become attracted to Ukip’s brand of non-racism, which must be very confusing for them.
There are serious debates to be had about how the foreign aid budget is spent – whether it is going to the right people in the right places; and how the budget is set – for example, whether fixing it as a percentage of gross national income is sensible. These debates may even be of interest to Farage. But he’s not interested in engaging in them now. His message is simple – the recipients of foreign aid are undeserving, particularly compared with Brits, wading through their own living rooms. Why are they undeserving? Because they’re foreign. That’s it. It really is no more nuanced than that. You can see why Ukip have to tell you they’re non-racist. It can be very hard to work it out on your own.
As an expression of national pride, stopping foreign aid is a curious proposal because it makes the world less safe and the UK less influential in it. Deployed effectively, foreign aid is about helping countries avoid becoming failed states, easily overrun by extremists. It’s about helping people find their way out of a life of extreme poverty and despair because – besides being the humanitarian, even human, thing to do – if we don’t offer hope, a fanatical lunatic will. Foreign aid makes the UK more influential because it is a tool of foreign policy, a mechanism of ‘soft power‘. Aid makes recipient countries better disposed towards us and helps to give us influence in subsequent international discussions on things like trade, security, human rights – stuff that perhaps Ukip hasn’t got round to thinking about, they’ve been so focused on finding novel ways to be non-racist. Personally, I support foreign aid because I think that we should help other human beings in need of help and I don’t see why their nationality is relevant. I always thought that helping those in need was one of Britain’s values as a nation. Thank goodness Ukip has set me straight on that one by giving voice to all those non-racists who hate the idea of foreigners having our money.
Foreign aid isn’t the only thing that’s been proposed for culling in order to help the South West. The other prominent target that I’ve seen has been HS2 – the plan to lay a strip of countryside to waste in order to help the nation’s biggest, best connected cities become even bigger by being even better connected. I have rather more sympathy with the ‘kill HS2 to save the West country’ campaign, partly because there is more of an internal logic to it (mostly, people want the money spent on improving rail links in the South West), but largely because I think HS2 is a daft idea that involves spending colossal sums of money that we keep being told we don’t have in order to help fewer people, and in less helpful ways, than spending just a proportion of that same money on other things. I also recognise that, whereas Farage is only interested in (1) winning votes and (2) hurting foreign people, some of those aboard the ‘HS2 to West country’ lifeboat actually care about the West country and genuinely want to help the people in it. If you cancelled the foreign aid budget tomorrow but didn’t give any of the money to the South West, Farage would say ‘thank you very much’ and probably never be seen in Somerset again until election time. Many of the currently-vocal HS2 crowd are very serious about the difficulty of travelling past Taunton without a hovercraft and will notice if nothing is done about it.
So, why do I object to both these campaigns? In part because it sets up a false choice that has no connection with how government spending works. Firstly, there is no evidence that the immediate help needed in flooded areas cannot be provided within existing budgets and contingency funds that will exist precisely for this kind of situation. To put it slightly more succinctly: helping flooded areas shouldn’t come at the expense of foreign aid because we can do both. Secondly, even if we do need to divert money from elsewhere to rebuild the West country, there isn’t necessarily any logic in taking it all from a single source, nor in draining that source completely.
Mostly, though, I object because setting up those false choices actually changes the subject, which is counter-productive to your stated aims, i.e. helping flooded areas. When you say “help the areas in need,” you’re talking about just that, and you can make some progress. When you say “cancel HS2 to help the areas in need,” you’re now talking about HS2. You force whoever you’re talking to to defend HS2, rather than finding ways to help areas hit by flooding. You go from having one objective which you can achieve, to having two and you’ve positioned one of them to obstruct the other.
So that’s Bullshit River. Let’s splash over to the King’s Bullshit Drain and see what’s blocking the flow of water over there. Oh, it appears that a dam has been built across the channel by that complete and utter beaver, Eric Pickles. Pickles really is a perfect Cnut because he thinks that the government could have held back the floodwaters, and he has built his dam out of little sticks of blame which are now getting in the way of anything useful happening.
‘Government’ and ‘politics’ are not the same thing. In an emergency, you need government. Pickles, unexpectedly put in charge of the bucket of cobras that apparently now runs the country, decided we needed a dose of politics. Pickles decided to make the argument that the flooding was all the fault of Chris Smith – the Chair of the Environment Agency and, conveniently, a former Labour Cabinet minister. Specifically, Pickles responded to the demands of waterlogged Somerset residents for local rivers and channels to be dredged by agreeing with them and apologising for this not happening.
I’m sure that the effectiveness of the Environment Agency, whose budget has already been heavily cut by this government, has been greatly improved by a minister setting out to destroy public confidence in them. Pickles’ intervention might have been worthwhile if he hadn’t been so totally, completely, utterly, 100 per cent, abjectly, comprehensively wrong about both the causes of the flooding and particularly the role of dredging.
Being pro-dredging is politically easy. Local residents in the Somerset Levels have been demanding it for months. The local MP, Ian Liddell-Grainger insists that dredging would have saved the Levels from flooding on the logic that dredging didn’t happen and flooding now has, and there couldn’t possibly be any other explanation for this bizarre coincidence. I expect Nigel Farage has called for dredging too, at some point, only he probably wants immigrants used to dredge the channels, but in a non-racist way.
The cause of the flooding – in Somerset, the Thames Valley and elsewhere – is not Chris Smith. We are flooded because an incredible amount of water has fallen – in Somerset, well over double the long-term average – and far more than either the ground or any man-made flood prevention measures can handle. We are flooded because, for generations, we have buggered up our climate so that extreme weather conditions are more likely more often, and we have buggered up our land so that it can’t cope when humongous amounts of water are dropped all over it. Far from apologising for not dredging, Pickles should have listened to the actual, genuine experts in and outside the Environment Agency who were trying to tell him that, in fact, dredging would have not have prevented the flooding but made it worse. (Here’s a bunch of expert opinions for you on this, and here’s a brilliant George Monbiot column explaining why we’re all a lot wetter than we should be.)
There are people who are flooded who need help. If they get it, I don’t imagine they’re too bothered what budget line it came from, or who they can blame for the rain falling. Later, we’ll recover and rebuild and, if we’re clever, we’ll start to do something effective to reduce our future flood risk, like plant lots of trees. Politics, stupidity and bullshit will not help us then, and they’re not helping us now. If you can’t say anything useful – I’m looking at you, Farage – shut up, and get out of everyone’s way.