The political event of the year? Floods

Ah, the rituals of autumn. From Hallowe'en, with its amoral conversion of the nation's children into tiny bandits threatening trick or treat; to Bonfire Night, which seems to extend a cracking, thumping ten days either side of 5 November itself; and in politics, the autumn statement, now renamed the pre-Budget statement, with its promises of jam for some, dry bread for others; and finally, the Queen's Speech, endlessly delayed this year. Yet the most important political event is none of the above - not even Gordon Brown's statement, still awaited as the NS went to press. If you want something that asks big questions of our political system, it is surely the floods.

Although some still dispute it, the vast majority of scientists have come to the conclusion that the freak weather is caused by global warming, which is probably of our own making. As in the days of Noah, it isn't the economy, stupid: the real message is in the rain.

The immediate political response seems almost trivial. Yes, the one and a half million people already affected by the high waters want to know about the flood defences, apparently botched and skimped in the traditional British way. Yes, the storms will have an impact on the insurance industry and on our premiums. Yes, ministers must look again at a planning strategy that has put so many new houses on the vulnerable flood plains. But none of that really matters beside the larger question: can a world dominated by consumerist democracies deal with the causes of global warming?

The answer so far is: probably not. Look at it this way. In former times, it was the monarch who visited the scene of major disasters to dole out concern, shake hands and shrug sympathetically; the politicians then had to get on with the tougher, more prosaic tasks of asking where policy had failed, and changing tack. But with these floods, it was Tony Blair who donned a raincoat, helicoptered in to the waterlogged towns and expressed a sort of helpless sympathy for the flood victims. In the very vaguest way, he acknowledged that it all might have something to tell us about how we live our lives - but he seemed more like Edward VIII on a visit to coalminers than an energised politician.

Meanwhile, who was it who actually came up with the hard-edged, front-page-grabbing political analysis? Surprise, surprise, Prince Charles, who can err towards the nutty; on this, however, he is surely right.

He says he is in no doubt that the severe storms are the consequences of "mankind's arrogant disregard of the delicate balance of nature". You do not need to agree with all of his agenda to accept that it has been Charles, more than the government, who has thought long term and concluded that, without a radical change in our energy use and carbon dioxide emissions, the great experiment with the earth's climate will go on.

As most moderate environmentalists would accept, this government has been no worse than its predecessors. On carbon emissions, on tax breaks for energy efficiency and so on, it has given a little. Blair struggles to get on top of the science and brings in people like Jonathon Porritt. John Prescott says all the right things about wake-up calls, although his transport policy hardly suggests he has woken up. And in Michael Meacher, Labour boasts probably the most intelligent environment minister Britain has ever had.

Yet environmental issues still flutter around the edge of new Labour. When such issues are in competition with faster growth targets, more cars and ever greater consumer choice, they do not even register. They are decoration, and no more. Our political culture has been changed not one jot by global warming, and probably won't be, even after several years of more storms, floods, erosion and battered coastal towns. After all, the fish have all but disappeared - and has that led to a big rethink of fishing policy?

Parliamentary politics, like any other system, is at its most active when things come down to self-preservation. Different MPs may be good at different things, but what they are all best at is thinking about and plotting for their own survival. With four- or five-year parliaments, and the hungry press, which constantly push the latest in consumerism and are paid for by corporate power, it is not really surprising that long-term issues such as global warming just don't bite. The bizarre result is that, in a week when we have seen what is presumably only the beginning of the havoc to be wreaked on us by our "reckless disregard of nature", the main political debate in this country has been about whether fuel taxes should be lowered and, if not, what other measures can be taken to help the motorist.

Bizarre, but perhaps not surprising. One Cabinet minister I spoke to recently about the government's troubles blamed the "call-centre culture": we have become so so used to phoning helplines and demanding instant solutions that we cannot see beyond our immediate problems.

True, no doubt; but the historians will not remember Brown's pre-Budget statement of 2000. It is these floods, part of the bigger picture, that they will recall. The great test of democratic politics is not the euro or regional government, or even a penny on or off taxes, but whether or not these bigger, harder challenges are ever confronted. Doing so would require a government that wasn't frightened of not being re-elected, led by someone of the intelligence, energy and youth to see the long-term threats, facing an opposition too discredited to get in the way.

That sounds rather like new Labour in 1997. It was probably our best chance of ever getting a government that was serious about the big green agenda - and it didn't really bother. For millions of people, flooded homes could well become just another of autumn's rituals.

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The fall of civic culture