Tuesday, 29 December 2015
A Test of National Solidarity
Martin Kettle writes:
Growing up in postwar Leeds, you always knew where the Yorkshire Post stood on the issues of the day. You knew where its sister paper the Yorkshire Evening Post stood, too.
The clue was in the name of the Victorian-era company that owned them both – Yorkshire Conservative Newspapers Limited.
These were monopoly local papers which, in the manner of Tories of the Harold Macmillan era, routinely refused to use the word Labour, always preferring to talk about the Socialists.
The Tory bias was a big reason why, though we lived in Yorkshire, my family always took, along with the Daily Worker, the more liberal Manchester Guardian.
The Yorkshire Post has been through various ownerships and incarnations since the owners finally dropped the C-word in the 1960s.
But it’s a paper whose political loyalties to the Conservative cause have rarely wavered until quite recently.
Which is precisely why David Cameron and his party ought to take the Post’s angry localist eloquence about the Christmas floods in Leeds and elsewhere very seriously indeed.
Monday’s Evening Post front page was a devastating piece of local journalism, but the timing ensured it also attracted national political attention.
Under the one-word headline “Indefensible”, it marked the Leeds floods with a rare and excoriating front-page editorial.
“Rain and the inevitable rise in river levels is a fact of life in England, and always will be,” the paper wrote.
“The fact remains, however, that such events as witnessed in Leeds this weekend are unthinkable in the capital and much of the south-east, where state-of‑the-art flood defences have long been in place.”
Leeds was “the beating heart of northern England” it continued – a claim that will be read with scepticism on the other side of the Pennines [and, indeed of the Tees].
But the conclusion surely spoke for Lancashire and Cumbria as well as Yorkshire and the north-east.
“We demand that prime minister David Cameron announces immediate action to ensure that this situation is not repeated in Leeds, or anywhere else, EVER AGAIN.”
Whether or not you accept all the premises in the argument, and some of them are questionable, the Post spoke with great force for two pressing national priorities.
Any political party that fails to speak for both of them may find itself as much at risk of destruction as the inadequate flood defences around York proved to be last weekend.
As the Post itself said, a northern powerhouse is nothing when it’s under water.
The first is the recognition that flooding is now an imminent threat to ordinary people in large swaths of the north of England, from farming areas like Cumbria’s Eden Valley and the Yorkshire Ouse catchment area, to northern towns from Carlisle in the north-west down to Selby in the south-east.
With the arrival of serious flooding in larger cities such as Leeds, however, the stakes have got much higher.
Not only does the flooding of cities affect far more people, it also threatens to make a mockery of things that hold a nation together, like transport and essential services.
The scale of this shared awareness of the threat of floods to devastate lives on a wide and enduring scale is something new.
There have, of course, been serious floods before – ask an inhabitant of Cockermouth or York. What is new is that flood prevention has become a national economic and societal priority to a previously unimagined degree.
The scale and repeated nature of the recent damage require it. The need reaches everywhere that the waters have reached, and beyond.
But there is only one agency that can grip the task decisively, fairly and in the shared interest – and that is the state. Nothing else can do this. No one else has the money or authority.
So flood prevention has become a test of the credibility not just of this government but of the British government in general.
That’s where the second big threat to the established order comes in. These floods are not just a security issue but a northern issue too.
They have highlighted the reality of the north’s subordinate place in the London-dominated scheme of English things and the potent bubbling resentment against it expressed by the Evening Post’s outburst of passion.
Yorkshire, with its large population and its strong sense of identity and pride, is a much more troublesome tribune for this outlook than any other area in the north.
It’s not just that most of the floods happen to be in the north, as last weekend’s map of flood warnings eloquently illustrates.
It’s that people in the north feel their needs have consistently been given less priority than those of people in the south and London.
Only the absence of nationalism stops the north being, politically speaking, another Scotland.
Whether it feels unfair in low-lying parts of the Thames or Severn valleys I’m not so sure. As the Bible says, it rains on the just and the unjust alike.
But you only have to look at the London focus of so much infrastructural renewal, never mind the mere existence of the Thames Barrier, to see why there is a genuine grievance here.
London gets the projects it wants, while the people of Kirkstall and Rochdale have to brush the water and the dirt out of their flooded homes.
The most important thing about the Christmas floods of 2015 is, without doubt, the misery of having your house, your street, your village and now even your city under water.
But it’s almost as important that it is our country, northern England, where this is happening, though perhaps it just doesn’t feel like that in Chelsea or Shoreditch.
This is a test of national solidarity as well as government.
Unless we also see the floods as an episode in the continued loosening and perhaps even the collapse of the UK, we will not see their full danger and potency.
It will take more than a visit by Cameron in his wellies to persuade the victims that the government is on their side. It will take more even than government money, projects and activism, even supposing these are on offer.
It will take an enduring conviction that the north matters just as much as anywhere else in Britain. And at the moment, that conviction just is not there.