The worst hit settlements have been gutted by floodwater, and hundreds of people have been evacuated. Prospects for the future look grim – and not just because the rain shows no sign of letting up.
The bill for repairing extensively water-damaged homes and replacing destroyed household appliances looks set to run into the tens of thousands of pounds, and if the big insurers prove as compassionate as usual, stricken residents could be left paying for most if not all of the reconstruction themselves. That’s on top of the emotional hammer-blow of seeing your home suddenly and unexpectedly ripped apart before your eyes, along with the kind of sentimentally valuable bits and pieces you care a lot more about losing than your microwave.
It’s a horrible predicament for anyone to find themselves in. That doesn’t stop The Daily Mail’s campaign to suspend Britain’s foreign aid commitments and divert the funds to flooded parts of the South-West being morally sick.
It’s not surprising, of course, because The Daily Mail is a) vociferously hostile to aid, any kind of wealth redistribution, and anywhere that isn’t the south of England, and b) the papery embodiment of the very worst of human nature. But down here in anything-but-progressive Somerset, it’s a suggestion that’s gaining a lot of popular support, especially among flood victims themselves.
Local people are understandably very angry about what’s happened to them. Partly, it’s the kind of directionless, impotent rage that results from random acts of god we can’t do anything about. Alas, traumatising experiences aren’t the best basis for cool, rational thinking, and a very good start for anyone wanting to whip up genuine upset into a frenzy of politically-motivated scapegoating. Now, thanks to political grief counsellors Paul Dacre and Nigel Farage, heartbroken flood victims are being helped to vent their ire at penniless African children with the sheer cheek to be starving to death.
But devastated communities weren’t exactly placated by the state’s lightning quick response when the flood crisis spread from the South-West to the elite’s Home Counties backyard either. On the Levels, it took seven weeks of misery before army units were finally dispatched to help the recovery effort. When the Thames started to overflow, troops were out sandbagging within days, and Prince Austerity David Cameron was proclaiming that money was no object.
To be fairer than we should be, you could argue that while the Somerset floods came out of the blue, by the time the crisis hit the South-East the state was more prepared, and could mobilise its resources much more quickly. Either way, it certainly didn’t help weaken the – largely accurate – impression that the government only looks after its own.
Even despite the livelihood-ruining floods, nowhere in Britain has experienced a hundredth of the kind of needless, wrenching suffering that persists elsewhere in the world, and that our paltry aid contributions very modestly help to sticking plaster.
What the well-meaning but angry clearly don’t realise – and the rightist mind-manipulators clearly don’t give a damn about – is that if one of the richest countries on the planet stops giving aid, people will die. At the time of writing, not a single human life has been claimed by the flood crisis, and we’re hoping beyond hope that this continues to be the case.
There is absolutely no doubt that we need to pour funding at areas smashed by flooding, especially here in the ever-neglected West Country. We can’t let flood victims be bankrupted by the cost of rebuilding their lives – the state needs to pile in and cover the costs that insurance companies won’t, assess whether it’s still tenable to live on such low-lying ground as the effects of climate change worsen, and either invest hugely in local flood defences of pay for those living in at-risk areas to be relocated.
But it’s a grim testament to how much the Right’s austerity narrative has leaked into people’s everyday thinking that we’re even willing to consider taking life-saving funds away from the neediest people on the planet to mop up First World disasters. Bamboozled by the corporate media and elite-serving politicians, we talk about money like it’s gold or coal or oil – that’s there’s only a limited amount of it, and that it could run out if we use too much of it.
That’s completely wrong. When big banks lend out, they don’t dip into the money people have deposited in them – they create new money out of thin air. Like the Bank of England itself, they literally have a license to print money.
The only reason governments are ruthlessly cutting spending and there seems to be less money to go around is because the richest are taking greater and greater chunks of the world’s disposable wealth for themselves. Between 1997 and 2008, the wealth of the thousand richest people in Britain quadrupled from £99bn to £413bn – this while the share of the national income that went on wages steadily shrunk and inequality skyrocketed. The biggest financial crisis in generations didn’t stop them from squeezing another billion out of the rest of us by 2012.
Rather than troubling the international aid budget, that’s a very good place to start if you’re looking for money in a national emergency. Less than 1% of that £414bn would probably do for an extensive reconstruction of the flooded areas, leaving more than enough to fund the full renationalisation of the health service, build thousands of council houses, revitalise public transport and carry out a radical green overhaul of our energy infrastructure, all of which would employ hundreds of thousands of people. And then, as a kind of progressive victory lap, we could wipe out Britain’s entire £155bn budget deficit then double our foreign aid contributions, all without a single cut in government spending.
Before the current crisis, flooding didn’t feature on the national political agenda. Climate change presents the biggest threat to humanity in the two hundred thousand history of the species. There’s no hard evidence to suggest that the torrential rain we’ve seen over the past few weeks is a result of global warming. But you only have to think back over the last decade to conclude that this kind of freak weather is becoming far more common – hammering rain all summer, generations who’d never seen snow suddenly becoming acquainted with it every winter – and assume there’s going to be a lot more of it to come in future.
For the sake of every low-lying town, hamlet and flock of sheep in the country, we’d better hope that one government or other throws a lot of money at flood protection before it’s too late.