Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

6 February 2009

A Tale of Two Nations, or the grit is always greater on the other side

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. To the north of the border, the citizens were protected from the worst effects of the gathering storms. The provisions were as plentiful as an RBS senior executive’s bonuses – in good times and in bad. The difference was really not that great up there, in any case.

South of the border, by contrast, things were slowing down so much they were grinding to a halt. The climate had deteriorated to such an extent that workplaces and schools were shut down; and people were in any case unable to get to them, even if they were still employing the locals. There was nothing for it but to head into the streets and the parks, and fight it out.

And that’s only talking about the weather, the grit and the snowball fights! Yes, we’ve shown true Brit grit this week, even – or especially – where the grit has run out. Desperate folk have still battled their way into work (there is, after all, a lot of job insecurity about) and have ensured that the essential services kept running; apart from one or two refineries and power stations that we’ll talk about elsewhere, perhaps. Where necessary, selfless individuals have gone out into the bleak conditions on their own initiative to help pull cars out of snow drifts, and bring comfort and relief to stranded motorists. Whole communities have rallied round and shown their best side, providing emergency accommodation to those who were caught out unprepared. It’s the blitz spirit all over again; except this time, perhaps we should call it the ‘blizzard spirit’.

Where have these epic tales of dire emergency, valiant rescue and communal cheer been played out? Where indeed? The media, whose staff miraculously managed to make it into work this week (again, keeping those ‘essential’ services going), would have you believe it was in some place known as ‘Britain’ or ‘the UK’. ‘All across the UK’ they chimed, and ‘across the eastern parts of the UK’ they echoed. By my reckoning, though, almost all the places mentioned were in England, with a few incidental allusions to parts of Wales and Northern Ireland. But 95% of it has referred to England. Not one mention of Scotland until this evening; it appears that the poor climate may finally have caught up with them there, too, after all.

OK, not even I can try to lay blame for the relatively clement weather in Scotland on asymmetric devolution and the Barnett Formula, tempting though that might be in a bloody-minded sort of way. But I do blame these things for the way the weather was reported and, more importantly, for the way the media has dealt with the right-royal English farce of our being once again unprepared for wintry weather and running out of grit, of all things.

Yes, it’s an English farce, not a British one – just as the snow has fallen mostly on England and hardly at all on Scotland. Or rather, it’s a farce that has unfolded in England but been orchestrated by the (English) Department of Transport. I listened with not inconsiderable schadenfreude this evening to the report on BBC Radio Four’s PM programme on the too-little-too-late efforts of the “English Transport Secretary” to co-ordinate the distribution of the English counties’ dwindling reserves of gritting salt amongst themselves, with those that had more supplies sharing them out with the less well provisioned areas. Yes, they actually described the hapless minister as ‘English’, which I notice that the PM programme now does regularly when referring to a UK-government minister whose portfolio is limited to England, owing to devolution. Well done, BBC – you’ll be calling yourself the English BBC next!

What a fiasco that the English counties should be having to ration their gritting operations precisely as winter is winding up to its climax because the English government-that-isn’t-a-government-for-England has neglected to put in place proper processes and supplies to deal with all contingencies. Ah, rationing – that blitz spirit again!

But why, I asked myself, aren’t the English counties looking to their northern-British ‘compatriots’ who, we learnt earlier this week, have absolutely plentiful supplies of grit as well as armies of gritters on stand-by should they be needed. Needed in Scotland, that is. Oh yes, there’s no danger of them running out of grit up there! Why? Because they have a national government that is genuinely accountable to the people and who can, and would, be voted out if they endangered people’s lives and let everything grind to a halt because they neglected their duty to prepare for severe weather conditions. And because, thanks to the generosity of the English taxpayer, they have more of a budget for that sort of thing.

Well, after all, the Barnett Formula is about ‘need’, isn’t it; and, in respect to snow and ice, the needs of Scotland are undoubtedly greater, aren’t they? Usually, maybe; but not this time. So, given that the English counties are in danger of running out of grit, and their teams of gritter drivers were in danger of collapsing with exhaustion at their wheels, why didn’t we hear of generous blitz-spirited offers of grit and gritters from the Scottish counties to their English counterparts? Even if they wanted paying for them, which would have been a bit like paying for them twice over, quite frankly.

Well, it’s a different system, you see; and a different country. Why should one country whose government has taken the necessary precautions sacrifice its own precious resources to help out another whose government (or what passes as it) has neglected its duties? Why indeed? You can see their point.

But the media can’t, apparently. For the media, it was a time of extreme weather for all of Britain; and they made no reference to any idea of English counties borrowing or purchasing salt from the Scottish or Welsh ones that weren’t in danger of running out – though that fact was also not generally reported. No, the media was about as blind to the devolutionary aspects of the gritting crisis as were those English motorists battling their way to work and home through the drifting snow. Well, we don’t want the people of England becoming too aware of the superior provisions made by the respective governments of Scotland and Wales – backed by English taxpayer pounds – compared to the negligence towards England of the English UK government. Better to turn a blind eye to it.

Now that reminds me of someone! Idiot he isn’t; Scottish he most certainly is. And blind to the injustices his unelected English government heaps upon the English people like a snowstorm coming in from the continent of Europe, while the Scottish people yet enjoy good times at their expense.

Are we sure it wasn’t a snowball that blinded him in one eye: the one pointing towards England, that is? Well, at least I know who I’d like to chuck my snowballs at!

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