It’s not stopped raining in Somerset for about a solid month. Arbitrarily, Bem Towers happens to be up a reasonably steep slope, water runs downhill, and thus our books, pot-plants and stacks of David Bowie CDs remain nice and dry. A few miles down the road in the villages of Moorland and Burrowbridge, though, people are dealing with a level of devastation you don’t often see in First World countries.
It’s quite inconvenient for the government. Ministers have been relying on the worst effects of their budget butchery not being felt for years, giving them time to finish the job then bail out into lucrative post-political careers on the boards of big private companies before people start brandishing pitchforks.
When the Coalition entered office in 2010, it cut the annual flood protection budget by roughly £100m. Suddenly, Defra and the Environment Agency were left with 15% less funding than the year before, and dozens of flood defence projects were quickly scrapped – including a £2.2m plan to improve flood management on the main river draining the Somerset Levels, and a £300,000 scheme where the River Parrett has now overflowed and engulfed Burrowbridge.
Further West, the always-precariously positioned coastal railway line from Bristol through to Cornwall has been partially destroyed at Dawlish. It’ll prove commercially dire if it’s not sorted out by the tourist season, neoliberalism having left the far West Country with little else to rely on than selling postcards and Cornish pasties. Awkwardly, a years-old Environment Agency plan to improve defences on the very same stretch of Devon’s coast had been another victim of the cuts.
Unsurprisingly, the Coalition has tried to dodge the blame. Local government secretary Eric Pickles claimed they’d been given ‘bad advice’, in a fairly cowardly attempt to shift the focus onto Chris Smith, the ineffectual Environment Agency head and Labour peer. It was a laughable excuse – they weren’t given ‘bad advice’ and the flood cuts weren’t some kind of mistake. Tories are fundamentally hostile to publically-funded resources, no matter how vital.
Since the crash, the Tories’ whole agenda has been to convince people that a massive, global financial crisis caused by precisely the kind of things the Right stand for – deregulating the economy most of all – actually came about because Labour spent too much in power. And the only way to plug the resulting deficit, they claim, while presenting the D-word as a near-apocalyptic phenomenon threatening to turn Britain into a third world country, is to drastically cut back on government spending.
Actually, most of the time Labour was in power it was spending less than Mrs Thatcher, and Britain’s budget deficit was one of the smallest in Europe until the government had to bail out the banks. But the Tories have used the recession as an excuse to shrink the already shrivelled post-Thatcherite state even smaller, hand the Post Office and increasingly large chunks of the NHS and state school system to private companies and ensure the highest earners keep as much of their grossly bloated incomes as possible – all at the expense of the poorest and most vulnerable.
But the floods have proved especially uncomfortable for the Tories, because the main victims haven’t been the poorest and most vulnerable. Largely, they’ve been well-to-do rural types who vote Tory in their droves.
The Conservatives had to act quickly to sound tough on floods and the causes of floods, or risk alienating one of the Bluest places in the country. So both Pickles and David Cameron himself took to boasting that they’d spent more on flood defences than any British government in history. It was a classic case of fiddled statistics. Technically, it was just about true – but only if you counted their first year in power, when they had to follow the more generous flood protection budget left for them by their Labour predecessors. The first chance they got, the Coalition cut flood spending.
The government didn’t have to worry too much, though. Unsurprisingly for such an unflinchingly right-wing part of the country, locals are lashing out at easily-scapegoatable Environment Agency bureaucrats rather than the austerity agenda. And in the reactionary maelstrom that’s ensued, two very dubious figures have become grim popular heroes – flat-capped Nigel Farage, who turned up to court the already blazingly Eurosceptic voters of the south-west by looking more like a farmer than any of the other party leaders. And HRH Prince Charles, who arrived on a tractor-drawn wagon like some kind of post-apocalyptic messiah.
Of the two, Charles is by far the least-worst – at least he brought a £50,000 donation to the recovery effort with him. He’s also a fairly passionate environmentalist and, most impressively of all, wrote the foreword to Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth, the nearest (least furthest away?) the kind of anti-growth economics needed to avert ecological disaster has ever got to a mainstream audience.
Farage, meanwhile, is a right-wing libertarian climate change denialist capitalising on people’s misery. Last election UKIP campaigned on cutting £90bn of public spending. Rest assured, if they got in and the same happened again, we wouldn’t even have the dinghies they’re using to pull people out of their flooded homes.
We’ll see what happens over the next few weeks. Hopefully the rain will stop.