AS public appearances go, it was not Ed Miliband’s finest hour. He’d hardly had time to pull on his wellies before Alok Sharma, the Tory MP for Reading West, ambushed him. With the flood-waters of Purley on Thames lapping around their ankles, and television cameras and smartphones there to capture it all, Sharma demanded some answers. The Labour leader spluttered like a struggling duck, so the local MP went in for the kill. He wanted to know what everyone watching wanted to know: “The issue Mr Miliband, is why are you actually here?”
Every resident, in every flood-affected area, must ask themselves this every time an official car draws up. Miliband’s response, predictably, was mostly bluster with the underlying theme that the floods were not about politics.
We could all have told Mr Miliband that. The devastating storms which continue to affect huge swathes of England are a natural occurrence. There is nothing that Mr Miliband, or any other politician for that matter, can do to stop the rain falling from the sky. It’s not about politics. It’s about people. Their homes, their businesses, their livestock, their way of life. Unfortunately the response has shown up politics in its worst possible light.
Wherever we live, this natural disaster has brought to the surface a lot of things we would rather not think about. It’s shown politicians to be nothing more useful than “flood tourists”. They might be squabbling amongst themselves like children, but all creeds are coming together with one common aim: to be seen to be there. The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Ukip leader Nigel Farage, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, Defence Secretary Philip Hammond and others, all deployed to flood zones to stride about purposefully in the rising water and point at things. It’s a wonder there are any Hunter wellies left on the shelves.
Imagine if you were a resident in a flooded street. Your kitchen is under water. Your children are terrified. The dog has bolted. And you face six months staying in a hotel until your home is fit to live in again. Would the sight of Nick Clegg in a fleece jacket cheer you up even one little bit?
It’s a tough one, I know. The same people who are criticising politicians for public appearances are the same ones who would complain if they stayed in the cosy confines of Westminster.
Yet all this grandstanding is counter-productive. It puts Ministers smack in the firing line. And, as Miliband discovered in Purley on Thames, the floods are no respecter of political allegiance. Alok Sharma laid into the Labour government for failing to instigate recommended prevention measures following severe flooding in 2003. The biggest question of all remains: where were politicians and public officials when all the contingencies needed checking? How could something as serious as flood prevention and defence appear to have been left to chance?
The official response has been monumentally badly-handled. Too little, too late, scant evidence of strategic thinking and a bunch of Ministers and officials whose response was characterised by typical metropolitan nonchalance. Or arrogance. The immediate response is one thing. The inherent attitude of the people in charge another thing altogether.
David Cameron has just about managed to stop himself from uttering the words “keep calm and carry on”. His approach comes straight from the classic British upper class reaction to any disaster, whether carnage on the Western Front or an unmarried daughter pregnant by the groom. It’s kind of excusable in a way.
What isn’t excusable, however, is the complete lack of decorum, leadership, team work and accountability displayed by those who are paid to sort things out. Can there be a sight less edifying to the rest of the world than a catfight between three middle-aged men? The scrap which embroiled the head of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith, Eric Pickles and the Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, beggared belief. Meanwhile the Army turn up without their wellies and denizens of leafy Datchet in Berkshire fight over sandbags.
When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005, the disaster exposed not just how out-of-touch George W Bush’s administration had become, but a contempt for ordinary people. And ordinary people never forget. In the 20th century, major industrial conflicts destroyed communities and created instinctive distrust of politicians. If nature continues to wreak havoc, will this century by characterised by a gradual breakdown of the political establishment and people taking matters into their own hands? Is this what David Cameron really meant by the Big Society?
When the floodwaters eventually subside, insurance claims will attempt to piece back together broken lives. Amongst the sodden family photographs and smashed plates, the dead livestock and the businesses ruined will be a different kind of carnage. The shameful reputations of self-interested Westminster politicians, hapless local government executives, useless quango “experts” and all those who have failed in their jobs to keep people safe and free from harm. No insurance claim in the world could cover that.