Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West. She is the Spectator’s Backbencher of the Year.
If it ever does stop raining, and if the waters ever do subside, the question that will inevitably be left is: “What could we have done to avoid this?” Thousands have had their homes and livelihoods decimated and are now facing conditions that we are more used to seeing on our TV screens, commentated upon by a foreign correspondent. Underlying all the questions about who to blame, and what more could be done, is the simple question of what we can expect Government to do for us.
I was very struck by the comment of a Cornish fisherman who had just watched his boat, and his livelihood, destroyed as the harbour wall of Porthleven was smashed to bits by the wild sea. “Well, that’s life, isn’t it?” he said, not jovially, but almost. It wasn’t with the resigned sigh of someone who is about to crumple into a heap and wait for others to pick him up. It was with the determination and resilience of a man who has seen bad things happen, and knows that there are two responses possible: either collapse and let everything crumble around you, or simply start rebuilding from the rubble; and that the first one isn’t really an option at all.
As a former surf-lifeguard, I have a huge admiration for fishermen, and those who work on or with the sea. Anyone who works with nature knows how unpredictable it can be, but there are fewer examples of nature at its least tame, right on our doorstep, than the ocean. When I worked as a lifeguard, I used to love and fear the sea’s awesome inevitability. In a world where we often talk about our rights, about fairness and all sorts of social constructs of civilisation, the ocean and nature around it have no regard for these bastions of society at all. It would wash away Prime Ministers and paupers regardless, all in the same wave.
It was always a stark reminder of how small and fragile we and our social constructs actually are in reality. I recall a time when a surfer with a dislocated shoulder was stuck on a rock in a whomping six-foot surf on a large incoming tide, and the lads went to get him on rescue-boards while I managed the tannoy and arranged the ambulance. There was no way to get that surfer off the rock, except action – no press release, no words, no spin would do it; no appeal to his ‘human rights’, just simple action, which may or may not work in a dangerous sea, where ‘right and wrong’ and ‘fair’ simply don’t apply.
The Cornish fisherman’s philosophical and resilient reaction was striking because it was in such contrast to what I confess my, and I suspect many others’, reaction would have been on witnessing the loss of livelihood. For him, that was life, and life meant bad things happen and you have to fight on. That attitude seems to be becoming rarer and rarer, possibly because fewer of us are faced with such impermeable forces such as the sea on a daily basis.
Why is this of any interest to a politician? Because in the world of 24 hour news and Twitter, we politicians always have to be seen to be doing something, regardless of whether or not we are or even can, and regardless of whether our frenetic activity will make any real difference. When Alok Sharma confronted Ed Miliband in Reading last week, he asked that all-too-rare question: “What are you actually doing?” The answer, of course, was not a lot – Miliband was there wandering around in his wellies simply because that is what Leaders of the Opposition are supposed to do in these situations.
The futility of this goes unnoticed in a media cycle that demands that senior politicians be seen and heard as much as possible. The floods have caused untold devastation to so many. Politicians floating their electoral boats on this is an insult to those quite literally in deep water, struggling to regain any semblance of normal life. The action that can now be taken, the PM has decisively taken: he has prioritised helping those whose lives have been devastated and is prioritising rebuilding infrastructure – but even that has been criticised.
We must also have a good hard look at what went wrong, and what must be done better next time. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and has produced much wisdom over the past week or so. But the stark fact is that we cannot stop the rain, and we cannot hold back inevitable tides. We can only recognise possible dangers, and strategically plan for them as best we can.
Cornwall is further from Westminster than simple mileage would suggest. Although many argue that Cornwall has been historically less well served by Westminster than other regions, there still remains the stoical wisdom there that knows that no-one, not King Canute, nor David Cameron, can hold back the forces of nature and its inevitable tides, swell and rains.
This humbling shock to the Westminster system, that so often seems to think it can reverse the tide, just by making a clever speech, should breed more focus on long-term practical infrastructure solutions to impending ‘unthinkables’, like the triple-whammy storm Britain is enduring, and less faith in wandering about looking sorrowful in wellies. Why? Because other tides, like an ageing population, soaring health-costs in the UK, and the challenges a record world population present, are building, and they won’t be tackled by a press conference, a sad face, and putting on some metaphorical wellies.