Saturday, February 07, 2009

State of politics is snow joke

Has inability to deal with a few inches of snow turned Britain into an international laughing stock? No, but there's plenty of other things which should have done. Here's today's Journal column.

For those of us of a certain age, it has become an inevitable source of amusement that whenever a few inches of snow falls in Britain these days, the country's entire transport infrastructure invariably appears to grind to a halt.

The country that survived the Blitz and which was once a by-word for phlegm and indomitability now seemingly crumbles at the slightest onset of bad weather.

To some extent it's a reflection of environmental change, and the fact that winter snow has become such an increasing rarity in some parts of the UK that we are less and less prepared for how to deal with it.

It’s also a reflection of trends in modern society - for instance, the tendency of people to live further away from their places of work, and the consequent pressure this places on an already fragile transport system.

Few will ever forget the “wrong kind of snow” excuse trotted out by what was then known as British Rail the last time the country had a “snow event” as serious as this week’s.

Mayor of London Boris Johnson duly paid homage to it this week with another memorable bon mot: “It's the right kind of snow, but unfortunately it's the wrong kind of quantity."

But while it’s fair game to laugh and joke about this sort of thing, we probably ought to keep a sense of perspective.

There is probably a legitimate debate to be had about whether we could have been better prepared for this week’s events, but to argue, as some did, that this makes us the “laughing stock of Europe” is a trifle OTT.

Much of the blame for the failure to grit the roads will, as ever, fall on local councils, but in my experience, if local government is failing to do something, it’s invariably because central government has cut its budget.

Either way, my view for what it’s worth is that while we undoubtedly could have done some things differently, we shouldn’t spend too much time and energy holding a national inquest about it.

The bottom line is that the snowstorms provided most of us with an opportunity for some much needed chilling-out – in more ways than one.

Schoolkids who are being tested and assessed within an inch of their lives got a chance to go out and play – remember that? - while their mums and dads were able to spend some quality time with them for once instead of fretting over computer screens.

In any case, if we want to avoid being an international laughing stock, there are far more pressing things we should be addressing.

Take, for instance, the House of Lords. It is outrageous enough that there is still a part of our legislature which is chosen by patronage, and in a few cases by accident of birth, rather than by election as in most other civilised countries.

But if that were not enough to make us an international joke, four Labour peers were recently tape-recorded suggesting they could help with amending legislation in return for cash.

All four have denied any wrongdoing, but even if the ongoing inquiries result in a traditional British whitewash, it has scarcely improved the image of an already deeply flawed institution.

Inevitably, the allegations have led to renewed calls to ban convicted criminals from membership of the Upper House – but on the subject of international jokes, is it not even slightly laughable that this hasn’t been done already?

It is not just well-known convicts like Lord Jeffrey Archer and Lord Conrad Black whose continued entitlement to sit in the British legislature makes a mockery of our system of government.

One Labour peer, Lord Watson, was convicted by a Scottish court a few years back of wilful fire-raising after deliberately setting a pair of Edinburgh hotel curtains ablaze while drunk.

Since being freed on 23 May, 2006, he has attended the Lords on at least 102 occasions, and claimed £37,538 in attendance allowances.

Then of course there are those who, with monumental hypocrisy, continue to sit in the British Parliament while simultaneously refusing to pay tax to the British Treasury.

Last week, in a debate on reforms to both Houses of Parliament, the government put forward an amendment which would prevent so-called “non-doms” from sitting in the Upper House.

The move would potentially lead to the exclusion of major party donors on both sides of the chamber, including Tory Lord Ashcroft, and Lord Paul, a large funder of the Labour party.

It’s doubtless a welcome sign of the government’s determination to rebuild trust in politics, but once more, why is it even necessary in the first place?

And if the continued existence of the House of Lords isn’t enough cause for international mirth, how about our Prime Minister’s repeated boasts about his handling of the UK economy?

As I pointed out last week, Mr Brown’s claims to have left Britain better prepared for the economic downturn have received a belly-laugh not just from the public, but from the International Monetary Fund itself.

Then there’s the spectacle of seeing a British Foreign Secretary reduced to defending the decision of an American government to threaten refuse to share intelligence with us if allegations that a British resident was tortured were made public.

It is this kind of thing which causes cinema audiences to burst into spontaneous applause when fictional Prime Ministers make speeches about how bad the “special relationship” has become.

Don’t get me wrong. There are plenty of things we can be proud of in this country –but much of which we should be rightly ashamed as well.

Our inability to deal with a bit of snow, amusing though it may be, is not one of them.

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Ted Foan said...

It all has the whiff of decay about it, doesn't it Paul?

A failing government, an economy that has plummeted into recession, an unelected Prime Minister, skilled workers in uproar about their employment prospects....

Jim Callaghan would be spinning in his grave if he were alive today....OK, I know it's been done before!

angry voter said...

Talking about decay,we now have a Home Secretary that's got her snout stuck in the trough.

No more lectures please about greedy bankers.

skipper said...

Good piece Paul. Shocking about that arsonmist peer and his exes. My former wife is swedish and she was always amazed at our inability to cope with a few cm of snow, when back home for her there is 5 feet of snow from November and temperatures of -15 to -50 centigrade.