She is often tirelessly irritating and just plain wrong, but writing for The Guardian here Deborah Orr is pretty much on the money: “The volume of the water overwhelms them. And I’m overwhelmed by the volumes they speak. Those little pumps, pa-tumping away, absurd in the great, flat expanses of water. Then those vast behemoth-pumps, driven in by the army – the state – on huge trucks. What more is there to say?
Those small pumps, liberated from garages and storerooms in response to the ceaseless rain, represent for me the inadequacy of individual, private attempts to stem this winter’s tide. Sure, one admires the testimony of doughty householders, who appear on television to explain that they called and called the council to request sandbags, and eventually ordered sand and bags themselves, in the hope of holding off the floods. But one also understands that small communities, however tough they are in spirit, cannot battle alone against nature and its unpredictable vicissitudes. Everybody gets that now, even the Tories.
This has been a significant winter for the people who have suffered under its relentless storms, of course. But it has been important for Britain and its future as well. On Newsnight the other evening, confronted by an audience of flood victims, Philip Hammond, the cabinet’s God of Defence, reiterated what many in his party have suddenly started to say. Individuals have some responsibility for protecting themselves against floods. Local councils have some responsibility for protecting their boroughs against floods. But infrastructural protection against floods is a huge job, a national job, a job that the state has to oversee. There is no private-sector solution here, not even in the spacious realm of neoliberal fantasy.
I’m not given to jingoistic pronouncements about Britain’s standing in the world. But I do think that it’s a national embarrassment, this parlous display of our island’s vulnerability. Maybe it’s poetic justice – the way that the country that began the industrial revolution has found itself so unprepared against the climate change it has ushered in. But one can’t help thinking, nonetheless, that Brunel must be turning in his grave. Half a century – at least – of failure to invest in a resilient national infrastructure has brought us to this. Individuals can’t cope. But nor can our transport links, our power networks or our sewerage systems.
I saw a nice line on Twitter, the author of which I can’t recall, about how quickly the Conservatives sprang into action when “the effluent hit the affluent”. Something like that. And indeed it has been interesting, seeing people you feel comfortable in assuming have voted Tory all their lives, lining up to let the media know how betrayed they feel when they become vulnerable and the state doesn’t help them. They are quite right to feel aggrieved.
In a real sense the state itself has become too individualistic – intervening, not very well, to assuage individual suffering caused by the failure to invest in general, infrastructural improvement, whether that be lack of housing, or lack of work or lack of a basic feeling of belonging to a cohesive society in which you have your own part to play. Margaret Thatcher, who accelerated Britain’s retreat from big public projects into a short-sighted political advantage, was always boasting about her housewifely discipline. David Cameron and George Osborne continue to believe that if you look after the pennies, then the pounds will take care of themselves. But as far as state infrastructure is concerned, the opposite is true. Look after the pounds, and the pennies will take care of themselves.
For decades now, we have been ignoring John Maynard Keynes’s warning that it’s wise to employ a man to dig a hole, even if you then must simply employ him to fill it back in again. By turning infrastructural investment over to the private sector, we have dug a huge hole, and we certainly haven’t received much in the way of payment for it. Now is the time to start filling it in, with intelligence, forethought and large-scale planning. Now is the time to start preparing, with ambition and with care, for an intemperate and unpredictable future.
There’s some excitement in the thought, even though it is born of profound adversity. It has been the missing element in political rhetoric for such a long time now. Here is a project that can provide strong, sustainable growth, and by no means only in the south-east. Here is a project that can truly address the problem of long-term unemployment, allowing people once again to be part of grand projects they can feel justifiably proud to be a part of. Here is a project than can really assist the small businesses that our political parties are supposedly so keen to support. Small businesses cannot provide infrastructure. But they can benefit from it. They can play their own small part in it. They can grow with it.
It is predicted that David Cameron will come to regret his declaration, in the face of the floods, that “money is no object”. That must not happen. He has never said a truer word. It is stupid, pouring money into the management of decline, as successive governments have been doing for a long time now. But pouring money into the management of progress – that is smart. That is a genuine and meaningful investment.
This is a good time to marvel at the short-sightedness of the neoliberal project. The idea that a private sector obliged to provide yearly dividends to shareholders and yearly bonuses to employees would be likely to provide infrastructural improvements that would be of benefit to future generations was always absurd. Infrastructural investment, almost by definition, is undertaken to provide profit for others, who can prosper from it, and pay taxes for their prosperity, taxes that can be reinvested in providing healthy, well-educated citizens who can in turn maintain, improve and exploit that infrastructure. It’s pretty simple, really.
So I hope this winter can be a turning point. I hope that 2014 can be the year Britain woke up and started investing in its own future, instead of waiting for multinationals to find a way of doing it for them. The profit comes from ensuring that the population is safe, secure and resilient, able to plan and to travel and to budget with a sense of security, able to take some risks at an individual level, because those risks are taken in a stable and reliable infrastructural environment. I hope the Conservatives, who even in their time out of government made so much of the political weather, end their love affair with the global financial elite, and rediscover their patriotism.
I hope that all politicians start to understand that Britain, as a matter of simple fact, is a big state, one that needs to be husbanded and nurtured, made able to withstand storms whether real or metaphorical. I hope that the next election will be fought on a positive platform, on which the party with the best and most exciting ideas for improving and developing the infrastructure of the country wins. That would solve one hell of a lot of Britain’s problems, not least among them the sad, neglected problem of so-called voter apathy. Those destructive, terrifying 108mph gusts – they may yet prove to be the welcome winds of change.” (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/14/storms-catalyst-for-major-works-britain-needs)