Sunday, 31 January 2016

What explains the age of rage?

Whether billionaire sentence-shredder Donald Trump (above) wins this week's Republican caucus in Iowa or not, there's absolutely no doubt that his political rise and success tells us something about the machinery driving public opinion today. The bolts, bands, cogs and wheels are made up of frustration; rage; fear; and a little dash of hatred. The Tea Party movement that's in part fueling Trump's rise. Podemos in Spain. The Five Star Movement in Italy. The United Kingdom Independence Party in Britain. Syriza in Greece. The National Front in France. The first, most striking primary characteristic of all these populisms of Left and Right? Well, we're not telling you anything you don't know here, but it's this: anger. Rage against established politicians. Rage against experienced players on the national stage (especially Hillary Clinton, if you're a Trump supporter). Anger about 'broken promises', everyone in public life being 'the same', average people's apparent loss of power and influence, the movement of peoples, the globalisation of the economy, a lack of secure jobs: you name it, everyone's angry about it.

Which is strange, because in many ways most denizens of the developed West have never had it so good. They fly abroad on city breaks that their grandparents could never have dreamed of. Their children learn more, and can access more, than ever before in the history of the world. They stare at 50-inch plasma screens displaying high definition pictures. They pick and choose what film to download into the home cinema. They monitor their body weight and physical achievements in the gym using applications straight out of science fiction. They drink less. They smoke less. They eat much, much better - and with more choice - than their forebears. Across the world, the numbers living in poverty have crashed downwards. Although wealth inequality has begun to climb again (largely due to the importance of housing wealth), income inequality - at least in the UK - hasn't risen much since its precipitous leap upwards in the 1980s - and actual poverty, especially child poverty, has until recently been on a sharply downward trajectory in large part due to the policies Labour pursued in government. Most people who live in wealthy democracies are even pretty personally happy (and in Britain getting happier), most of the time. The reasons for our outbursts of furious, chest-beating fury are by no means self-explanatory or transparent. We need to explain this strange 'age of rage', so incongruous in a period that's a time of plenty for the majority. Here's a first sketch of what we might be looking at - four reasons for the ragefulness of our times.

Popular segmentation. Yes, most people are doing pretty well - especially in the more dynamic economies such as the United States and United Kingdom, where jobs (even full-time jobs) are fairly plentiful and wages have been on the rise since 2013/14. If you drive anywhere, or you buy a lot of consumer goods, and you've got a job, the last couple of years have felt pretty good, thank you very much. Falling prices (of petrol, for instance) have pushed your purchasing power right up. But there's a problem here. There is a great deal of suffering amidst the widespread prosperity, including a sharp rise in homelessness and rough sleeping. If you have to endure the diktats of - for instance - Britain's increasingly harsh and cruel welfare system, then depression and despair might better characterise how you're feeling right now than anything like the uplift enjoyed by the majority of voters. If you're on the edge - if your employment is very marginal, your wages low, your terms insecure - you're much more likely to look at the majority's lotus eating and get all the angrier. This is particularly true if you're young. In Spain, Italy and Greece the very, very high rates of youth unemployment is a grotesque stain on the European Union, and on the promises of capitalism itself. Even in the UK, where there are jobs, if you're under 35, and you live in Southern England, if you really think that you're ever going to have a property bigger than a shoebox or a pension, you haven't been paying attention. All those young people flocking to Bernie Sanders' rallies, or queuing up to see Jeremy Corbyn speak? Well, it's not as much of a surprise if you look at it like this.

Dizzying change. Imagine you're pretty conservative about social issues - sexuality, marriage, the 'traditional' family, you know the sort of thing. Well, the last few years probably felt pretty gritty for you. The increasingly overwhelming acceptance of gay marriage, for instance, has probably left you gasping for air and wondering what on earth has happened to your fellow citizens. Voters who support Britain's right-wing UKIP grouping tend to be older and less well-educated than other Britons, and to live far away from cosmopolitan liberal areas in towns literally at the end of the road - in seaside resorts, for instance. These voters often feel that they 'can't say what they really want' - that they are constrained by a Politically Correct thought police that censors the views that they, and most of their friends, hold very deeply and dearly. If you look at a map of UKIP support, it basically approximates to where there are very large numbers of British-born white old men with few qualifications, disappointed and angry about the way the rest of the country's seemingly settled social views have rapidly and inexplicably changed.

Social media. Now, let's not be partisan here. Every party and every shade of ideology has got a problem with a deeply unpleasant fringe of shouty activists on social media. Let's face it: their ridiculous posturing is often hard to take. Put up some poll numbers and you get told you're an idiot. Speculate about the sources of economic growth and you're suddenly 'a Tory'. That's not the biggest problem, though. The real problem is the echo chamber that you can get into with only your friends and the like-minded gathered around you on Twitter and Facebook. The recent election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour's leader originated on social media; paid-for Conservative advertising on Facebook (for the most part disingenuous) helped win them the General Election, because it was targeted at exactly those groups in marginal constituencies whose liking and sharing might push the Conservatives' vote over the top; the Scottish National Party's more (shall we say) committed supporters make a point of seeking out their opponents on social media to have a good old row with them; crowdsourced campaigners such as 38 Degrees do well, for instance heading off the privatisation of the Forestry Commission, by mobilising tens of thousands of clicktivists at a moment's notice. The contribution to our angry new politics of red-faced ranting? You can spend all day scrolling through stuff that agrees with you. When someone with opposing or contesting views happens to stumble into that group, it can feel like they are risking being eaten alive. They are crossing invisible boundaries that we have put up between ourselves, probably without meaning to.

Time-poor voters hounded by complexity. Public life is increasingly complex. It's our job to understand policymaking, especially economic policymaking. You know what? Faced with the increasingly-precarious nature of our pension contributions and its hard-to-understand granular detail, we want to hide our head in our hands. It's not big and it's not very clever, but it's the natural thing to do when faced with a load of contribution bands and yields that apply many decades in the future. The whole thing undermines the sense that one can ever get a handle on everything - pensions, especially, more and more important but harder and harder to understand - and pushes many people back on political verities that just aren't true. So we get a load of blaming: attacks on corrupt politicians (UK politicians aren't very corrupt), immigrants (who actually boost economic growth) and 'immorality' (young people are probably better behaved than their parents) for society's ills. Complexity does two other things, as well: it makes for a governing class which is reluctant to say anything that sounds definite, aware of every tradeoff and shade of grey, thereby slipping further and further away from speaking like 'normal people'. Lastly, who wants, these days, to wait patiently for any argument or debate to unfold? With two children that you're trying to get to and from schools across the city because you've got 'choice' as to where they go, three or four jobs between two parents, and caring for elderly relatives to attend to, who's got any time to be tolerant and take a breath when someone offends your political sensibilities? Try to park in a really crowded Tesco's car park on a Sunday. Then you'll see some rage.

That's our first best guesses list complete: a combination of increasingly assertive groups who have been locked out of the general prosperity, and who have decided that they don't have to meekly acquiesce to it all any more; rapid, confusing, frightening social change; the development of a rent-a-mouth social media that allows people to escape from opposing points of view; and a complex world that's becoming harder and harder to get a grip on. Here are some of the reasons for the age of rage - some of the mechanics behind the rise of Trump. Let's hope that the countervailing forces (and we'll come to them next week) prove stronger than the machinery of fury.

Saturday, 23 January 2016

The real question: might we have got it all wrong?

One of big advantage that should help academics in their chosen tasks is the fact that they are professionally required to keep asking themselves: am I wrong? Might I be mistaken? On what grounds might my error rest? How can I test, and keep on looking over, my potential errors? That's the point of peer review, presentations, seminars, even informal discussions over a coffee: any scholarly process at all is not worthy of the name if it lacks the vital element of self-scrutiny.

Anyone who doesn't do this - who doesn't admit to doubt, imprecision, contingency - is a fraud. No-one knows exactly what has just happened, let alone what is going to happen. Nothing is as clear as politicians, newspaper columnists, banks, betting markets, even commercial economists want you to think it is. Everything is uncertain.

So that's what we want to look at today. Recently we've been very, very clear that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is not only headed for a bad defeat in 2020, but a crushing rout and humiliation that might make the party electorally uncompetitive for a generation or more. But what - horror of horrors - if we've got it all wrong?

Historians of all people ought to be alive to this danger, because they are aware how quickly things can change. One of Winston Churchill's best speeches was about just this phenomenon, when he gave the following House of Commons tribute to his old adversary Neville Chamberlain on the latter's death in 1940:

It is not given to human beings, happily for them, for otherwise life would be intolerable, to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes, and kindle with pale gleams the passion of former days.

Everything changes. There weren't many voices raised prophesying the immediate end of the Soviet Union's Eastern European empire in 1989. No-one seems to have imagined Saddam Hussein was going to invade Kuwait in 1990. Not that many people foresaw John Major's remarkable against-the-odds election victory in 1992. Who thought, early on in the campaign, that a hitherto obscure Illinois Senator named Barack Obama would seize the Presidency from Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008? Did anyone predict the recent oil rout? Some thought the price would fall - but perhaps not so far. What did the commentariat say about the 2015 British General Election? That it would be a Hung Parliament. Well, it wasn't. Even on this blog, though we knew Labour would lose, we were very surprised to see a Conservative majority administration emerge from the morass. We could go on and on (we tend to do that sometimes).

So we can look back and see that, in Churchill's words, 'history with its flickering lamp' can only stumble 'along the trail of the past' - and, even more so, of the future. We can also see the long view and wait to form our judgements, as our fellow UCL alumnus Charlotte Riley has recently reminded us in the New Statesman:

The most a historian can say confidently about Corbyn at this moment is that he is a polarising figure. The historical narrative will be shaped by how long he holds on to the leadership, and whether he contests a general election... [as well as] the result: Gordon Brown’s first hundred days as leader, when he enjoyed support from media and public alike, are now a footnote to the election loss in 2010. If Corbyn leads the Labour party to victory, these last few months will be pored over far less than his first hundred days as Prime Minister.

If Churchill's career had ended in the late 1930s, it would have been considered a failure. Michael Foot's best years were probably thought behind him when he was elevated to the leadership of the Labour Party in the early 1980s. Harold Wilson's reputation was in the mud for years, but following Ben Pimlott's remarkable 1992 biography his stock has risen and risen. Write Corbyn off? Maybe it's too early to tell - something historians are well equipped to tell us.

Statistics are complex things - a mix of raw information, perception, judgement and skill. The polls might still be misleading us (though it's much more likely that they're still overstating Labour). More seriously, the Conservative Party might be split wide open by a vote to leave the European Union, not overwhelmingly likely but still possible this year. There might be a deep recession that seems once more to challenge Chancellor George Osborne's reliance on spending restraint in the public sector. Perhaps the United Kingdom Independence Party will fall apart after a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union, and many of those voters will return to choosing Labour. We doubt it very much, given what we know about UKIP voters' views and preferences. But still. Nothing is fixed. Nothing is immutable. We have to make predictions, in order in part to understand the information we're seeing and what it might mean; and also, as the political scientist Colin Hay has recently pointed out, to try to affect future events, to head them off or bring them about - to see the trends and likely outcomes so that they can be altered or avoided.

Let us give you an example of what we mean. It has long been a claim, though in our view endlessly and comprehensively rebuffed, that non-voters and ex-voters might come back to the Labour fold now that something apparently 'honest' and 'straightforward' has come back into British politics. We believe also of course that the Corbyn phenomenon is nothing of the sort, but let's leave that to one side for a moment. Two elections have produced straws in the wind that Corbynites might clutch at. The first, in Canada and ending in a remarkable majority for the Liberals under Justin Trudeau (above), did indeed see the turnout rise when a reformist platform built around 'honesty' was put to Canadian voters. Not only did Mr Trudeau manage to raise the turnout, but he seems to have pushed it up the most where the Liberals did best, strongly suggesting that he was able to mobilise the disengaged, the apathetic and the previously disenfranchised. The Spanish Leftist Party Podemos has just done very, very well (given its only recent creation) after turnout in Spain went up by a few points on the previous contest. And who thought that Mr Trudeau would win a majority when he took up the leadership of his party? Who thought that Podemos could come from nowhere and contend to be a serious party of government? Almost no-one.

Now Mr Corbyn is no Trudeau - no good-looking, young, media-savvy fresh face who can ride to power on the back of a very unpopular, lacklustre and tired Conservative administration. Though hardly popular, Britain's Conservatives have attracted nothing like the opprobrium brought forth by ex-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper's rather nasty and unattractive last few years in power. And the economic situation in Britain, though not exactly sunny, is nothing like that in Spain, enduring a decade of enormously high (especially youth) unemployment, falling wages and painful credit contraction. Even so, there is enough of a hint here that things might not be quite so cut and dried that we should be cautious about reaching utterly settled conclusions. Don't believe us? Well, Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh's indispensable The British General Election of 2015 (available from all good bookshops) ends with a similar conclusion:

Almost all psephological analysis of Labour's support bbetween 2010 and 2015, as well as what we know about non-voters, the UKIP vote or indeed the nature of support for the SNP, would indicate that the Corbyn strategy is a route to an electoral brick wall. Yet psephological analysis had not predicted a Conservative victory in 2015... Similarly, at the beginning of the 2010 Parliament, few people - however eminent - predicted that the SNP would win a majority in the Scottish Parliament and secure a referendum that they would come (relatively) close to winning. Even by early 2014, almost no one predicted that the SNP would do well in the following year's general election, let alone achieve a near-clean sweep. And almost no one - least of all the man himself - predicted that Jeremy Corbyn would become leader of Her Majesty's Opposition. It is therefore perhaps better to approach the road to 2020 with a more open mind.

We do still expect to see Labour crushed, perhaps irrevocably, in the next General Election. But we don't know that: perhaps Mr Corbyn will do slightly better than expected, and avoid a really bad defeat. It's unlikely, especially after four months of disastrous errors; but it's still just about possible. We will constantly be on the lookout for evidence that contradicts our established prejudice. We've said as much before. Maybe no such new data will emerge. But the academic, the historian - and the realist - should always be scanning the horizon for their own impending mistakes.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

So how are Labour doing now?

First, a warning: a lot of what follows has involved some quick and dirty detective work, and a bit of guessing. But second, a claim we hope will outweigh all that: all our workings will be clear, transparent, consistent and (we hope) compelling.

Back in early November, we took a historically-informed look at the data to sketch out UK Labour's likely score at the next General Election, now due just over four years away in May 2020. Our conclusion? Well, given where its ratings were then, we decided that Labour was dicing with a really heavy, heavy defeat.

That was two months ago: and we thought we'd return to the numbers now we're in the New Year, and take another look at how Labour are doing. The answer is: about the same really, and to be honest a bit worse. Gradually, Labour's hopes of getting anywhere in this Parliament are draining away. Take a look at the quotation above if you don't want to take our word for it. It's taken, with all copyright and rights reserved, from a new article by Professor Tim Bale, of Queen Mary, University of London. The article from which we've taken this just been published in The Political Quarterly. It predicts 'total and utter disaster' for Labour. And we concur, completely.

In this blog, we're going to show exactly why, as we to try to refine and to reapply our early-November techniques, and to take a closer look at what the numbers we have now - and we have quite a lot - tell us about the likely scale of Labour's vote in 2020. In the end, the conclusion is exactly the same as Prof. Bale's, and here we're going to give you lots of numbers as to exactly why. 

Let's start with where Labour are in the polls now. During December (the last month for which we have a full round of data), Labour stood at 31.2% in the public opinion polls. Their position has since deteriorated a little - again - but we'll leave that to one side. Since 1979, from this point in each Parliament, there has been an average 3.55% fall between the main Opposition party's score right now and its vote share at the subsequent General Election. That implies a Labour score next time of 27.6%. Labour has, historically, always under-performed its mid-term scores much more seriously than the Conservatives have. If we applied that party's fall from this point in each Parliament (7.7%), we'd get to a prediction of just 23.5% next time. Grim stuff, we're sure you'll agree.

Ah, we can hear you thinking. But it's not as simple as that, is it? The polls usually overstate Labour when we actually get to elections, and given that the apparent 'fall' from this point in each Parliament might be a statistical artefact - a trick of the polling light. If pollsters have now fixed that propensity to overstate Labour's position, then we need to adjust for the fact that their poll ratings will not 'fall' by quite so much - since they will never have been quite so strongly ahead in the first place. Now that's totally fair enough. A more-than-justified objection. So what we propose is this. We can use the average 'error' at each General Election to look at the size of that polling gap, and then subtract that from Labour's supposed decline from this point in each successive Parliament. Then we might get a truer picture of the 'real' fall away in voters' inclination to put their trust in Labour between the end of Parliaments' first year and their end. It's a very gritty and quite nasty way of looking at the problem, but it is one way of trying to anchor projections in reality - a benchmark for polling error, if you will. The adjustment probably flatters Labour, as telephone polls are probably still overrating the party in their original sampling; and the polling industry has not yet settled on a total overhaul that might make us entirely confident that all of this 'bias' has been eliminated. So techniques are not quite as different now as you may imagine, as compared with the those deployed in the last Parliament. But let's be generous to Labour for a bit. No-one else is at the moment.

Still with us? Thanks for getting this far. The mean overstatement for all Oppositions in the polling is only 0.7% since 1979, but for Labour alone it's 1.7% - a small but in some ways slightly heartening part of the party's failure to turn polls into votes that might just have been created by pollsters' sampling or other methods all along. If we apply this overstatement from each Parliament (ranging from a pretty large 4.2% in 1992-97 to an actual understatement of Labour's position of 2.7% in 1979-83), we get rather less of a fall from here to the next General Election: of 5.9% (the figure is 2.8% if we look at all Oppositions). So from this 'adjusted' data, we can say that Labour's vote if we look only at Labour's performance from this point might be around 25.3%, or 28.4% if we use the slightly more generous measure of 'all Oppositions', including Conservative Oppositions, performance. So on the basis of past polls and past Parliaments, adjusting in a very crude way for polling error? Labour might get between about 25% and 28% at the next election.

There's another way of confirming this - via local election results. Now, yes, we know that the 2016 local elections haven't happened yet. But the eagle-eyed among you will have spotted that the most respected experts in this field, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, are predicting that Labour will only get about 31% as a National Equivalent Share of the Vote in those contests (as against 32% for the Conservatives). Here again we can make a straightforward, crude and linear extrapolation of what that might mean if it does happen. Here there is no 'error' to look out for: there are real votes in proper ballot boxes that we're dealing with. On average, since 1979 there has been a 3.2% fall in Opposition's poll numbers from their first set of local elections to the next General Election. Labour's fall has, again, been worse here - of about 4.5%. If we use the 'all Oppositions' score to suggest from here Labour's support in 2020, that might indicate a vote share of 27.8%; if we look just at Labour's numbers, the party might receive 26.5% of the popular vote. Now, again, this is only an average, but only once has an Opposition done better in a Parliamentary election than it did in its first set of local elections - in 1993 looking forward to 1997, a period which was of course marked by the election of a charismatic and centrist new Labour leader. We can't recall his name right now, but we think he was pretty successful at this elections business. Anyway, the headline is this. If Rallings and Thrasher are anything like right, Labour in 2020 will be in very much the same range, on a historical basis, that the polls now suggest - these numbers giving us projections very tightly inside the bounds that the polls right now suggest.

So here's the headline: we have an upper bound of 28.4% on Labour's performance in 2020 (not, perhaps, quite by coincidence almost exactly their vote share in 1983); and a lower limit of 25.3%. If as in November we limit the Conservatives to a very modest 40%, that would produce a Conservative majority in a 'reformed' 600-seat House of Commons of about 130, with Labour reduced to maybe just around 160 or so MPs. In the best-case scenario based on these past historical relationships, there would be a Conservative overall majority of 90, and about 185 Labour MPs might get into Parliament.

We said in November that Labour was likely, on these assumptions, to receive between 26.4% and 28.7% of the vote in 2020. Things have moved on two months, and we've tried to refine our techniques. The result? The range is 25.3% to 28.4% - a little less optimistic for Labour in terms of both its mean and its range. The party is sinking in the morass that its own leadership deficiencies and divisions represent - running a series of scenarios, remember, that have been designed to be favourable to Labour. We've not included the crudest, simplest calculation - of past declines in the polls just mapped on to Labour's present score. We've adjusted for the fact that they might have been overestimated in the past, by working out a gap between polls and performance that might just reflect voters' second thoughts on the day rather than some distance from an unreadable 'true' score; we've assumed in those calculation that many of the problems of over-egging Labour's ratings have mostly been solved; we've not included the latest polls, which are slightly worse for Labour.

What all this would mean for the scale of Labour's defeat is rather easier to say. It's by no means quite certain yet that the present government will achieve its aims of reducing the Commons seat total to 600, thus weakening Labour's position by reducing the number of smaller English urban and Welsh seats that it holds now. But it is likely. And in that case - there's no nice way to say this - between 54 and 79 Labour MPs are going to be looking for new jobs (we put that minimum number at 'only' 42 just two months ago). They can keep their heads down for now. They can avoid confrontation with Left-wing activists and their own Leader's office if they want. But every day brings them closer to a General Election. They can't avoid their rendezvous with the electorate - which, on present trends, looks for many Labour MPs like it is going to be a very short, sharp clash with public opinion indeed.

Now we know that stuff happens - one of the reasons for all those poll declines for most Oppositions struggling through most Parliaments. In 1982-83, the economy began to recover, and the Government enjoyed a bit of a boost from the Falklands War. In 1987, the economy boomed. The damage to Labour's reputation wrought by the Scottish independence referendum and the SNP scare in England could not have been foreseen in 2014-15. And in the next few years there is almost certainly going to be a new Conservative leader. Perhaps there'll be a recession. Maybe the Conservatives will be riven by internal strife. All quite possible. But all things being equal and on average we would not expect Labour's position to improve from here. Quite the opposite. They are in a big, big hole - and they just keep on digging.

Everything confirms it. Local by-elections confirm it, with Labour's vote down across the board from the last Parliament. Leader ratings confirm it. Private donors' reluctance to waste their money confirms it. Everyone knows what is going to happen in 2020. We know it. The betting markets know it. You know it, dear reader, in your heart of hearts. The dogs in the street know it. 

There is only one conclusion that we can possibly draw, on exactly the same lines as Prof. Bale's: if nothing changes radically between now and 2020, Labour is headed for disaster. And yet the party's membership appear to welcome that fate. They resemble nothing more than a pirate ship storming directly towards the rocks, the crew high on and thrilled by the impending wreck as if enjoying their dizzying participation in some dark revel that they don't want to end - all the better, perhaps, to prove their bravery and bravado. It is a strange sight. It is hard to take one's eyes off it. But the impact, the destruction? Well, that'll be much harder to look at - even if anyone is left, or wants, to sort through the debris.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

What does the history of flooding tell us about Britain?

Has anything happened while we've been away? Oh, we see that it is has - splits on both sides of the political landscape, confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran (probably the most significant thing that's happened overall, to be honest), and yet another wave of floods across England, Wales and Scotland.

Since in the day job we've been writing a book about water politics in post-war Britain, and since one of the chapters is about the momentous East Anglian flooding crisis of 1953, let's take the latter first, shall we? The other elements can wait. They don't seem to be going anywhere fast, and the floods tell us quite a lot about the modern United Kingdom that might not be enormously and immediately apparent. And - who knows? - we might be able to bring a bit of history and research (as well as History with a capital 'H') to the understanding of events that are likely to become more and more common as our weather and climate changes.

First, the reaction to recent flooding tells us that the comradeship, the charity and the sheer solidarity of the British is pretty well intact. In 1953, offers flooded in to the Government to help the people of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex and London when thousands were made homeless - with over three hundred people killed on land - when an enormous storm surge and very high spring tides overtopped outdated and in some places non-existent defences (above). If you take a look at the files in the UK National Archives (believe us, we've been through them so you don't have to do it), individuals, companies, charities and fellow-feeling local authorities flooded Whitehall with offers of help - including, touchingly, lots of lots of not-so-well-off Britons and very precariously-situated companies who offered cars, vans, trucks, blankets, clothes, toys, shelter and (perhaps just as important) plain old sympathy. In the end, the Lord Mayor's Appeal alone raised over £5m - perhaps over £130m today. The Women's Institute and the Women's Voluntary Service were singled out for praise across the board; even the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, and the Blue Cross, pulled legions of struggling dogs, cats and rabbits out of the morass. And similarly today, small donations and apparently little sums are helping with the clean-up in (for instance) Aberdeenshire, volunteers including carpenters and builders have been turning up to help out, and Daily Mail readers (whatever one thinks of the merits of the paper) have raised over £1m in just a few days. Perhaps it doesn't seem like such a big point. I bet it does if you're standing knee-deep in dirty water in what used to be your front room. The charitable impulse of 1953? It's still there.

The second thing we might point out is that something rather less uncontroversial is still more than with us. That's our adversarial political system, in which each disaster must be a catastrophe in part caused by the Government, and each disaster must see the Opposition in full cry. In 1953, Labour's deputy leader Herbert Morrison went in hard on 'austerity' and 'cuts' to the flood defence budget, only to get the wrong end of a verbal beating from Housing Minister Harold Macmillan, saying that though coastal erosion budgets going to local authorities had been cut, coastal defence budgets had always stayed much as they were under Labour. Who, Macmillan made clear, had mounted their own cuts during the Korean War rearmament, all the better to redirect resources towards the Cold War struggle in East Asia. You can read the whole debate here, if you'd like, via the wonders of the internet. Morrison later had to backtrack a bit (though only a bit, given the disingenuous nature of some of Macmillan's remarks) after his remarks went down like a lead balloon while people were still baling out their homes. Labour has actually done rather better on this front in 2015, asking pointed questions rather than shouting - and probably has a much better case, given the number and scale of the flood defence operations that were cancelled in the Coalition's early infrastructure-eating austerity phase early in the last Parliament. As well as being bolstered in their focused and detailed sallies by the extent to which Labour increased flood defence spending after the disastrous floods of 2007. Now the less-than-noisy tone is partly down to the fact that the Labour Party is busy forming a circular firing squad right now, but at least the Shadow Chancellor's call for a national consensus - and cross-party agreements - on this one is to be applauded. There's no point chucking the blame around for now. There'll be plenty of time for that later.

The third and last element here concerns the wider picture. It's just far, far too easy to focus on 'hard' defence - sea walls, barriers, barrages and the like. That's not how this is going to work out, and it was an entirely understandable mistake for the Government in 1953 to entrust the post-floods enquiry into the hands of oceanographers and hydrographic experts. As one might expect, they recommended better forecasting, mapping, meteorology - all very important, but not really getting to grips with some of the planning and housing issues that had made many Britons living (for instance) in temporary accommodation very near the coast far, far more vulnerable than they might otherwise have been. Much better to look at the estuarial system as a whole, to think about where the housing was going to be put in, to give back and retreat rather than just employ steel and sand, to in a word be more flexible. Actually, the previous government once issued quite a good consultative paper on this - Making Space for Water (2004), which eventually helped to inform the Flood and Water Management Act of 2010. Key to all that? The idea that some areas along Britain's vast coastline would have to be given up to the surrounding oceans, that a single authority should be in charge of all these issues in each region, and that all individual and collective planning decisions should be informed by, and feed into, the single strategy that's settled across the country. Ever since the massive over-emphasis on dredging that seemed all that our elected policymakers could find to pander to during and after South West England's 2014 flood crisis, all our energies seem to have gone into 'hard' solutions such as making our rivers drain more quickly via the simple-but-misguided technique of just throwing technology at the problem. That's as badly-informed (and with less excuse) as the reaction in 1953. We need much 'softer' ideas, including thinking about our land use and farming modes among the watersources of upland Britain, and not just a load of our money turned into seawalls.

So although there are no direct 'lessons from history' - that would be much too crass and straightforward a claim - there are definitely cadences and approaches that we can adapt from past flooding experiences. The first is to rely on the little battalions of local people, churches, volunteers and charities to come to the aid of our fellow Britons. That'll probably always remain a thick and sturdy crutch to lean on. The second conclusion we can draw is that Westminster and Whitehall and highly adversarial. We knew that already, but it hasn't got us all that far in the past when we've been faced with these crises. Can we do better, and establish long-term policies that run across and between governments? Lastly, we know now that we face stormier seas and wetter, more unpredictable futures. We have to get prepared, raise our eyes from our mere concrete 'defences', and think how we're going to adapt to a warmer world. History and policy? Maybe there's something in it.