Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
I’ve decided that politics is like the weather. Sometimes it’s good, and far too often it lets you down. At least in this country we’re used to variable weather, and we don’t usually feel threatened by it because it’s reasonably kind to us, at least most of the time. We get a bit of snow, more rain that we’d like quite a lot of the time, and some occasional annoying wind. Although we have, I believe, more twisters than the United States, they’re so small that we don’t even notice them.
We’re used to dealing with a small range of not-bad-really weather crises. We have the wrong kind of leaves on the railway lines, and we know that a centimetre or two of snow is going to cause everything to grind to a halt, and we put up with that, because we just don’t have enough bad weather to spend all that money on the heavy equipment you need if you get heavy snow and real tornadoes. Real storms are so rare that our beloved weatherpersons have been known to ignore scare warnings.
It felt like the end of the world
I remember the two storms of 1987 and 1990, the first because of poor old Michael Fish, although it happened in the night and didn’t even wake me up. The second storm was during the day, and I had to get home from near Portsmouth to Berkshire. I remember being sent all over the South East because so many roads were blocked everywhere by fallen trees, and a journey that usually took me an hour was completed in six. It felt like the end of the world, but of course it wasn’t.
I also remember the last time we had a lot of snow, at the end of 1962 and the beginning of 1963. Even in Brighton we had nearly a metre of snow, and everything simply stopped for weeks. Even the sea froze, in Herne Bay. I have photos of that time, and I can remember the cold and the struggle to get anywhere. You had to walk because a car or bicycle was out of the question, and if you needed to go to a place where nobody had trodden yet, every footstep involved lifting your leg right up and making a new hole.
Our pipes were safe
My dad became very paranoid back then about burst pipes. He used to campaign fearlessly about putting the plug in every basin at night, because he was worried about ice forming in the pipes and splitting them. Of course, nobody would know until the weather warmed up and the snow thawed, and that’s when the plumbers of the time had a lot of work to do, with all those flooded houses. Hopefully it compensated them for not being able to work for so long. My dad was entirely vindicated, because our pipes were safe.
Back in those days not so many people had cars, and the roads were much slower. Nowadays all the councils everywhere have to have plans and equipment to grit the roads every time there might be a frost, and probably countless lives have been saved by that. There weren’t any gritter lorries around then. So we have learned.
Crawl under a piece of wood
The whole question of danger protection wasn’t taken so seriously then. There were films in schools about ‘Civil Defence’, which generally meant a nuclear attack. I remember that we had to watch out for ‘maroon flares’, and the air raid sirens would call out, just like they did during what was still called ‘The War’. The advice wasn’t at all reassuring, even to my young ears. Cellars were mentioned, and stout wooden tables, and we were encouraged to crawl under a piece of wood leaning against a wall with a mattress against it. But at the same time, we were implementing the Clean Air Act, which saved an enormous number of people in our cities, and we made sure that ships had enough lifeboats should they sink.
We may find it ludicrous that our airports cease functioning after a bit of snow, when Helsinki Airport has only closed once, in 2003, for 30 minutes. They have bad weather every year, and they have the equipment to handle it, because it’s normal for them. We just don’t expect bad things to happen here. And that’s mostly our problem in this country. Our politics is like our weather. It’s mild, infinitely variable within a small margin, and often disappointing.
There were no plans for what to do next
I got used to the idea that things would never change here, and then a coalition government appeared. I was excited by this, and thought it might become normal, but the people didn’t like that, so they voted for a party that decided we needed a referendum on Brexit, and then failed to campaign in any meaningful way, because they were so sure they would win. So when they lost, there were no plans for what to do next. Then they regrouped and decided it was a good idea to have another election, which they nearly lost.
All this is because nothing is supposed to happen in this country. That’s why we talk about the weather so much, because it’s usually the most interesting thing out there in Newsland. Governmentville, the capital of Newsland, just has MPs walking through large wood-lined corridors being counted, and a lot of shouting across a room. All our laws are written on vellum and stored in great shelving systems underground, even though the building above is going to cost several billion to repair, because it wants to collapse on the lot of them.
When the Archers was about farming rather than marital abuse
The idea that English politicians might do something extraordinary is a bit alien to us. I can imagine a hapless political commentator on the television, telling us there are rumours of some heavy political weather, but it’s never going to happen, just before the roof falls in. We’re all in danger of becoming grumpy, because the disorientated politicians have had to dance around a set of unexpected obstacles on their way to government or opposition, when the whole landscape has been changed. They don’t like it, and we don’t like it either.
So what are we going to do? We’re going to have to get on with our normal lives as best as we can while the ill-prepared political clean-up teams get to work clearing all the debris that they caused in the first place. And we don’t know what the landscape’s going to look like when they’ve removed all the wreckage. I suspect we’ll all want to go back to the good old days when the news politely followed the Archers, when it was about farming rather than marital abuse.
We wouldn’t like it if our homes were flattened regularly
Elsewhere, of course, things can be very different. They have hurricanes and tropical storms, and everything is flattened. The generally poor people who live in the Caribbean take a few years to rebuild their lives before the next weather catastrophe comes and knocks it all down again. They’re not used to it, but it does keep happening, whether they like it or not. We’re not used to anything like that, and we wouldn’t like it if our homes were flattened regularly. We wouldn’t like it at all.
Much of Europe, and indeed this country, was flattened during the Second World War, and the landscape was dotted for years with bombsites in odd places. But it has all been rebuilt now, sometimes exactly like it was before, and often houses and flats were thrown up in a hurry because of the pressures to rehouse so many people so fast. We are now having to deal with the problems that a lot of these buildings and neighbourhoods have generated, and many of them are being flattened and rebuilt again.
We mistake familiarity for love
There are whole cities, or at least city centres, mainly in the rest of Europe, which have been literally re-created, copied from any records that remain. I don’t know how I feel about that. Back in the nineteenth century the French decided to rebuild the whole of Paris after it was flattened during the Great Siege of 1870. They hired an architect called Eugene Haussmann, and his model remains today the epitome of city planning, allowing new adventurous buildings to stand out from their surroundings. The Eiffel Tower was built for the World Fair in 1889, and was meant to be dismantled in 1909, but it’s still there, and it’s brilliant.
There was huge argument and controversy when these things were planned and the work started, but it all settled down when people got used to it, and it remains in place. Sometimes the background to our lives has just become what it is over time, and sometimes it has been planned meticulously. Any changes are always hotly contested, and it always settles down, even if it isn’t beautiful or loved. Sometimes I think we let things settle too easily, and we mistake familiarity for love.
Be proud of it because it works well, rather than how old it is
I confess that I don’t much like a lot of this background that we cling to as ‘the British way’. I’d like to change the way we vote and the way that MPs behave, and I’d like us to become a more rational place, where our politicians think ahead and don’t just make decisions that they won’t be blamed for because they’ll have changed jobs or become the Opposition before the excrement hits the wind turbine somewhere down the line. I’d like a Housing Minister who could well be still in place many years hence, and won’t be able to wriggle free of responsibility for bad decisions or wasted money.
I’d like Governmentville to be a place that works, rather than a rebuilt obsolete fake palace that could be a wonderful museum, but simply isn’t fit for the business of government. I’d like us to get used to that, and be proud of it because it works well, rather than how old it is and how marvellous it can still creak on despite everything threatening to fall apart all the time.
They’re often described as being boring
They’re voting again in Germany. They have Proportional Representation, their leader has been Angela Merkel for many years, and she stands to be re-elected again. They share the government between different parties, who have to work together, and responsibilities and performance are long-term. Germany’s doing all right. They aren’t glamorous, they don’t shout a lot, they get on with the job. They’re often described as being boring.
Our weather is usually referred to like this. Maybe we need a bit of stormy political weather, so our government gets flattened. Then maybe we could rebuild it properly, in a way that works.
If you have been, thank you for reading this.
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