The TV pictures from Kabul last weekend were apocalyptic: thousands of desperate Afghans converging on the airport, families and a handful of belongings crammed into their cars. Already refugees in the face of the breaking wave of Taliban at the city’s gates, many of them chose to spend the night parked up around the airport rather than risk a return to the dangerous vacuum of Kabul and its roaming bands of jihadists. The following day, some of these fleeing Afghans were killed in front of the world’s cameras as they clung to an enormous USAF aircraft in the process of taking off.
A vacuum is what happens when all law and order has abruptly disappeared, and a nation surrenders to the anarchy of what NGOs describe as ‘ungoverned space’. Thanks to the Taliban, order of a sort may very soon return but even Sharia law has its limits. Just now, if you happen to be Afghan, especially a woman, you have all kinds of pressing concerns. You don’t want the barrel of a gun to force you into marriage with a Taliban fighter; you’d quite like to finish your education. And beyond that, you cling to the thought of a life quietly conducted on your own terms.
What are our own terms?
That same weekend, my wife and I happened to be returning from a wedding on the other side of the country. Our route back to the West Country took us onto the M25. The London Orbital is routinely plagued by multiple gridlocks and this Saturday morning was no exception. After the unnatural peace of lockdown, we were back with the blessings of roaring growth, booming GNP, and mile after mile of stop-start traffic. If you were looking for another version of the apocalypse, another taste of what probably awaits every major artery in our blighted country, then here it was: hell on wheels.
Mercifully, there were no Taliban checkpoints, no summary removal of a hand or two for that broken speed limit (fat chance). There may be no army of religious zealots, but we do currently have a regime, hostage to a different bunch of ultras, that is perfectly capable of making life very ugly indeed.
At the end of our journey lay the East Devon seaside town of Exmouth. This has been home for decades, and we love it. When we first arrived, there were donkey rides on the beach and a low-rise fifties vibe, and it still draws delight and a fierce energy from a fabulous natural setting and an interesting demographic. Exmouth Community College is one of the biggest in the country. Unlike neighbouring seaside towns, Exmouth is full of young families – most of them locally born – though rocketing house prices are beginning to attract London money.
But nowhere in the country is immune from the twin shadows that seem to lengthen by the day. Both of them are man-made, our own doing, and both of them have consequences that some of us, to our shame, never saw coming.
The first is climate change, and here Exmouth is blessed. The dangers of rising sea levels are all too obvious and engineers at the Environment Agency are investing millions of pounds defending areas of the town from catastrophic flooding. The major elements of the scheme are now complete, especially on the seafront, and the level of detail in the finish – beautifully engineered containment gates, immaculate stonework, imaginative plantings – would be a credit to any administration. Here, beyond doubt, is the proof that we have the skills and the drive and the vision to make a real investment in all our futures. So far, so very good. But that same government, so prescient when it comes to the global rise in sea levels, has imposed more than a decade of savage budget cuts: crude, unsharpened axes that fall largely on the necks of local authorities and public services. Which means, ultimately, us.
The merciless Whitehall logic is all too obvious. If you notice that the potholes are getting deeper, and the library has begun to mysteriously close, you’ll blame the local council. If class sizes at your local school have begun to balloon, you’ll blame feckless education chiefs. If a rash of local housing estates – shorn of any sense of community – begin to un-green those glorious Devon views, you’ll blame the greedy developers. When the peace of a summer’s evening falls victim to boy racers, openly flouting the speed limits, you’ll blame the police for never turning up. And if the courts are at a near-standstill, choked with unheard cases, it must have something to do with lawyers lining their pockets.
The assault on the public sector
The many victims of our merciless dog-eat-dog society – think child poverty, think food banks, think zero-hours contracts – have been tossed aside by the new political settlement. None of this is a pretty sight but the real blame for the growing squalor and enveloping chaos has to be laid at the feet of calculated government indifference. Johnson and his chums know very well that for nothing you get nothing, and as a direct result of this carefully planned assault on the public sector, the spaces we need for civilised day-to-day life are themselves becoming ungoverned.
And thus we, like the hapless Afghans, find ourselves living in a vacuum. Remove the props from society, force the guardians of law and order and the angels of public provision to survive on drip-feed funding from Whitehall, and the daily business of getting by becomes dirtier, noisier, and more ugly. “None of this” insist the governing Tories “is down to us. The country has an appetite for a smaller state and that’s exactly what we’re pledged to deliver.” You get what you voted for. This is civic life on the cheap. End of.
So should we all make our way to some airport or other? Desperate to sample a better life? Or do we pledge to resist the Downing Street vandals with their muddle of sound bites, and press releases, and cynical promises of a bright shiny levelled-up future they know they can never deliver? And all this from a government that has just installed those astonishing flood gates?
The answer, for me, is ‘yes’. Fight the good fight. Make the Tories acknowledge the consequences of their recklessness and their sheer incompetence. We, and they, are better than this. Hell or High Water is a choice we should never have to make.