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The Politics of the Great British Weather

Drought Control Is a Political Hot Potato  - Leyo
UK’s most talked about topics are weather & politics. Put together, they can be a potent barometer of public opinion, ignored by politicians at their peril.

Bob Dylan sang: ‘You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows,’ (Subterranean Homesick Blues, 1965), but in politics, those who keep an eye on the weather usually do themselves big favours. British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan (1894-1986) is attributed with warning in response to a question from a journalist about what is most likely to blow a government off course: ‘Events, dear boy, events’. The weather is the ultimate event.

When sporting events go well at a national level (like England winning the football World Cup in 1966, tennis doing better than normal or Olympic golds coming home), politicians bask in the glow of success of others. A lovely day on election day is said to favour Labour; while bad weather brings out more Conservative supporters. Weather influences well-being, opinion polls and the knee-jerks of administrations in their ‘blue sky thinking’.

Weather Clearly has Political Dimension

Societies create laws governing their air, water pollution, global warming, transport, buildings, food preparation and chemical usage everywhere. In that sense, climate is a huge influence on day-to-day politics. When things go wrong, and there are droughts, floods, incapacitating snow and ice, hurricanes and other extremes, then the responses of the authorities top the news agendas.

Even weather outside Britain causes political upheaval. In 2010, erupting Icelandic volcanoes disrupted air travel to such an extent that the entire travel/tourism industry feared for its future. People panicked and the skies were empty of planes across half Europe. In early and late 2010, extreme snowfalls across most of Britain brought the nation to a standstill: schools and shopping centres closed, railways halted, airports iced up and shut.

Political demands that new ‘resilience-planning’ must be begun immediately led politicians to start blaming each other and governments. It became the news story, alongside people’s suffering and difficulties. Inextricable links between weather and politics was first noted by Bill McKibben in his 1989 book, The End of Nature, which blew global warming/climate change onto the international stage. That his views and those of his subsequent disciples were not unanimously accepted, confirms that weather is a political hot potato.

Uniquely British Weather and Politics

Russia, Scandanavia and northern Europe regularly experience winter temperatures below 20 degrees. Mountainous areas like Switzerland have huge snowfalls, regularly. They have equipment to clear runways, railways and roads. Harsh winter, usually described as ‘a cold snap’ by the media, seems to catch the UK by surprise. That is why weather politics is so entrenched.

For a relatively small area of land mass, the United Kingdom has extremely varied and frequently changeable weather. Heavy rains in many areas made the verdant green pastures that led poets to wax lyrical. William Blake wrote in 1808: ‘And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green?/And was the holy Lamb of God/On England’s pleasant pastures seen?’

Disasters in stormy waters offshore, crashes, explosions, collapses, crumbling of mountains, hills, flatlands, floods and deluges are all somewhere, sometime deemed to be a failure of government, a lack of public funding, incompetent officials, complacent ministers, a political party or a particular policy. Rarely are catastrophes seen as natural part of living on earth: it must be somebody’s fault. Politics must respond.

Local Difficulties

Wyn Grant, writing about British politics in December 2010, remarked that when Scottish transport minister Stewart Stevenson resigned over the bad weather in December 2010, it ‘wasn’t because the weather was bad, but because information was not released quickly enough about how bad conditions were leading lorry drivers and motorists to be trapped overnight in their cars. The minister then compounded his errors by going on television and declaring that there’d been a ‘first class response’.

In 2001 in Weather Online Philip Eden recalled ‘the greatest drought on record’ in Britain. Summer 1976 marked ‘the culmination of a prolonged drought which had begun in April 1975. By April 1976 the drought had become very serious, not only for the water-supply industry but also for agriculture. The topsoil in East Anglia had turned to dust and was being systematically eroded by stiff easterly winds. Farmers warned of poor yields unless the rains came soon. They didn’t’.

In response to the feeling that the government of the day (Labour) should be seen to do something they did two things, neither of which were the ‘rain dance’ some people demanded, but where typical political responses. A Drought Bill was rushed through Parliament to restrict water consumption, some areas were rationed through standpipes in the streets. Health fears were heightened by the absence of air conditioning in most workplaces, and fires broke out without the means to extinguish them.

A ‘Minister for Drought’ was also appointed. This was Mr Denis Howell, MP, who was minister for sport, and found drought added to his brief. Howell toured the country, reported to Cabinet, Parliament and a special crisis management committee that was set up. Within three days it had started raining! Politics was seen to have ‘done something’.

As UK Parliamentarians and governments dance about making laws, holding meetings and trying to manage the news, British voters despair. They grumble about bad planning, lack of foresight and common sense. Oppositions have their hour in the spotlights, saying what they would/wouldn’t have done.

The possibly poisoned chalice of the 2012 Olympic Games coming to Britain has yet to be tasted in full. If there is a hot summer of drought andwater is in short supply again, then the ‘blame game’ will be the main show, the political activities will flourish. But in politics, every day’s weather backdrop is a photo-opportunity for somebody.

Weather unites the Brits; pointing out the obvious (‘Such a lovely day!’) is a British trait. It’s the politics that divides people.

First published on Suite 101, 20th December 2010.

Photo: Drought Control Is a Political Hot Potato – Leyo

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