Monday 20 December 2010

Cameron's Winter of Discontent

Over in The First Post, Neil Clark writes:

Britain crawls towards 2011 with petrol prices at a record high, unemployment rising and inflation catching hold. The trade unions, inspired by “the magnificent student movement”, are threatening nationwide strikes in response to the coalition’s “unprecedented assault” on the welfare state, according to the recently elected Unite leader, Len McCluskey, writing in today’s Guardian. While the Daily Mail counters that the Prime Minister is planning a showdown at Downing Street today with McCluskey and other union leaders.

2011 was always going to be a tough year for David Cameron and his coalition government. But Cameron’s biggest problem - and the one which could make or break his administration - is something no political commentator could possibly have predicted: the weather. The coldest December for 100 years has brought chaos to the roads. Our biggest airport, Heathrow, is at a virtual standstill, with hundreds of thousands of holiday plans ruined, never mind the cancelled business meetings. What people are looking for when such severe weather conditions strike is for the state to take control and get things sorted out. But the trouble is that we’ve got a ‘free market’ laissez-faire government that doesn’t believe in the state sorting anything out.

We certainly shouldn’t be expecting much in the way of help from Philip Hammond, the multi-millionaire uber-Thatcherite Transport Minister, who earlier this month called on people to grit their own roads. Part of the reason why Britain deals so poorly with extreme weather is that Hammond’s ‘small government’ ideology dominates. Our trains, buses, long-distance coaches, airline companies and most of our airports are owned not by the state, but by private companies, with little or no co-ordination between any of them.

As they’re all public limited companies, keeping shareholders satisfied comes before spending money on things like miniature snow ploughs to fit on trains, de-icing equipment for airplanes, or buying enough snow ploughs to clear airport runways. "We have known we were getting this weather for at least a week,” said David Reynolds of the pilots’ union Balpa on Saturday's airport chaos. “There should be no reason why these runways are not cleared. It is appalling”. The fact - unpalatable as it may be for Thatcherites - is that the more social democratic continental countries, where the state still plays a leading role in transport and infrastructure, cope far better with severe weather conditions than we do.

If this turns out to be Britain’s coldest winter since the ‘Big Freeze’ of 1962/63 - as forecasters predict - it will further expose the fundamental flaws in the neo-liberal model. With its rejection of state planning and co-ordination, neo-liberalism simply isn’t very good at organising things, or dealing with crises. Just think of how the Bush administration dealt with - or rather didn't deal with - the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

It’s been reported that Britain’s reserves of gas have plummeted to “dangerously low levels” with supplies at Rough, the main store in the North Sea, down by 38 per cent. And the Daily Telegraph has warned that an estimated two million homes, schools and hospitals face fuel rationing over Christmas due to a shortage of supply of heating oil. Energy Minister Charles Hendry concedes that the situation could become “very serious indeed”.

Add to this the large increases in rail fares due in January, the record price of petrol, rocketing food prices, the impact on jobs of the government cuts, McCluskey’s threat of widespread industrial action and we could be in for a winter of discontent which would make the events of 1979 seem like a mere ripple of protest. Ominously for David Cameron, as he prepared to greet McCluskey and co at Number 10, a new poll suggests that as many as one in five voters believe that students and others have every right to resort to violent protests if politicians break their promises.

If the freezing cold weather continues, the pressure on the coalition will become enormous. If energy supplies run out we will see a national emergency declared - as in January 1974 - with the prospect of restive non-Orange Book Liberal Democrats breaking away from supporting the government and triggering a new general election. It’s not known what seasonal music will be played in the Cameron household this Christmas. It’s highly unlikely that Let it Snow will be on the list.

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