In 2007 the Pitt review told us that climate change was going to greatly increase the incidence of record breaking bursts of rainfall in the UK. The Labour government responded by substantially increasing their spending on flood defences in the spending review which ended in 2010/11.
The coalition government reversed those increases, leading to sharp falls in spending on flood prevention. Five years and many costly floods later, George Osborne has finally admitted he was wrong by announcing a substantial increase in money for flood defences. After being told by the government, one flood disaster after another, that they were doing everything that was possible, they have now decided that maybe it would be a good idea to spend more.
A bigger mea culpa you could not find. Yet if you google “austerity flooding”, it is still my blog post that comes top. When the floods hit around Christmas in 2013, no one seemed to want to connect the two. The government seemed immune to criticism, and successfully directed any culpability to the Environment Agency (who could not answer back). Even with the latest floods, outside the pages of the Guardian or Independent there was little criticism of earlier spending decisions. Yes Labour were slow out of the blocks in attacking the government, but are we really in a media world where if a senior politician does not talk about something it becomes a non-subject?
Chris Dillow asks why Osborne is not given the scorn and derision he deserves. As ever he gives many possible answers, but to many people one factor above all explains what is going on. It can be summarised by the following chart from the IFS, looking at who wins and who loses from this latest budget.
As I noted in my last post, Osborne felt he had to produce a budget like this for reasons that have only to do with who will be the next leader of the Conservative Party. Yet many will conclude that he (almost) gets away with it because it is in the interests of those who control the media to let him get away with it.
While there is undoubtedly some truth in this, I do not think this is quite the killer explanation that some suppose. Another important factor is that we have been living through a period in which the need to cut spending to reduce the deficit has entered the national consciousness as not only an undeniable truth, but an imperative that dominated all other concerns. So strong was that conviction that it helped win the Conservatives an election, despite the fact that they pledged to make the deficit worse by cutting taxes. Osborne had successfully characterised himself as the politician brave enough to ‘make the hard choices’ required to fulfil that imperative.
But as I have argued before, this belief that what George did and continues to do on cuts is an undeniable necessity is a product of the events of the recent past, rather than some immutable idea that the nation will forever hold. The most significant part of Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation letter is the following:
“I am unable to watch passively whilst certain policies are enacted in order to meet the fiscal self-imposed restraints that I believe are more and more perceived as distinctly political rather than in the national economic interest.”
So a plea to political journalists and commentators. Forget the spin that this resignation is all about the EU referendum (which, like all good spin, has an element of truth) and focus on this sentence. The idea that with his cuts George was and is only doing what had and has to be done is crumbling, and you do not want to be the last to notice. Start holding our government to account, not just for benefits cuts but also for the damage caused by flooding, and above all for the dire performance of the UK economy relative to the past.