The thaw has set in (for now) here in the west of Scotland, but from just before Christmas until last week the UK has been experiencing its worst winter weather since… well that depended on which paper or TV programme you were watching which varied somewhat on what year the weather was last as bad as this. Some put forward 20 years, some 30 and some even ventured 40 years ago, though the general consensus seemed to settle on 20. Whatever, the winter snow and ice has been exceptionally severe, particularly coming against the background of generally mild winters over the last decade (though last winter was also quite cold).
But what has been interesting is the response to the dreadful weather: traffic stuck in snow, highways brought to a halt, bus and train services cancelled, people unable to get to work, schools closed, pensioners trapped in their houses, people unable to negotiate pavements and roads that had turned into ice rinks, shortage of salt supplies for gritting and so on. Truly the word disruption is probably an understatement to characterise what the media had taken to calling “frozen Britain”.
In the 20th century Britain was hit by two great freezing winters: that of 1947 and 19662/63 when sub-arctic weather lasted for months on both occasions. So far, and there’s still plenty of time for the severe weather to return, the cold conditions at the start of 2010 cannot compare with the sheer depth and duration of those two winters. But the question that lingers when looking at the virtual crisis the country got itself into in the past three weeks is this: is Britain less resilient at coping with adverse conditions than it was in earlier times? Three events over the past few weeks give some pause for thought.
Point one: Just before Christmas 5 Eurostar trains became stuck in the Channel Tunnel causing massive backlogs which brought Eurostar services to a halt for nearly a week and left people trapped in the Tunnel for hours. The cause of the train breakdowns was eventually traced to a particular type of drifting snow swirling about the French countryside in sub-zero temperatures. The snow got into the air grills of the Eurostar train engines and when the trains entered the Tunnel the much warmer ambient temperatures melted the snow. This alerted automatic sensors on the trains of water penetration which could potentially damage the train’s electrical systems activating the trains’ failsafe safety systems and stopping the trains dead in the Tunnel. In all probability conventional electric trains and certainly diesel trains wouldn’t have had such problems (indeed it was a combination of diesel and electric engines that eventually had to shunt the disabled Eurostars out of the Tunnel). The fact was a state of the art system was brought to a shuddering, cold long halt mid-tunnel by highly sensitive safety systems.
Point two: At the height of the big freeze BBC news featured smiling, happy kids in the north of England merrily sleighing away and having a great time in the snow as their schools had shut because of the snow. For those schools which had managed to stay open, the children were confined to their classrooms as health and safety rules prohibited teachers from allowing the kids onto playgrounds covered in ice and snow lest they sustain injuries through falling on the ice (this was confirmed to me by a friend who is the head teacher of a primary school outside Glasgow who told me the kids were “up the wall” all week because they were indoors all day). So children can batter and bash themselves when unsupervised or with their parents, but not risk anything in the school grounds when under the watchful eye of the school staff.
Point three: A bonspiel is a curling tournament, traditionally held outdoors on a frozen freshwater loch (thank you Google and Wikipedia for that handy definition). Scotland’s only lake is called the Lake of Menteith, which is in fact a loch (don’t ask, its too complicated!). Bonspiels are big, almost spontaneous affairs which are organised rapidly to bring together large numbers of people to take advantage of frozen lochs (or lakes) to have a good old curling fest. The last time the Lake of Menteith had frozen sufficiently to allow a bonspiel to take place was in 1979. Last weekend conditions were such that the Lake was frozen solid and plans were laid to hold a bonspiel for the first time in 30 years.
Except: it never happened. The ‘organisers’ of the bonspiel found that they couldn’t get insurance cover for the event, local police refused to give it the go-ahead for health and safety and crowd control reasons and local officialdom basically made it clear that it was too risky. An event that had taken place in prolonged icy weather for centuries and had become a Scottish tradition will now probably never ever take place again. To be sure a backlash of sorts was underway with droves of people saying “bugger it” and heading for the Lake to hold what would have been a people’s bonspiel, but by the time most people got to the Lake the thaw had begun.
What are the common factors behind these three events and what do they say about Britain as the second decade of the 21st century starts.
Organisations of all descriptions, whether private sector companies, statutory bodies or voluntary agencies are simply hard-wired to be risk-averse nowadays, particularly, but not exclusively, in the area of health and safety. This is buttressed by a whole raft of legislation, the transgressing of which can incur massive fines, irremediable damage to reputation, loss of custom, can force businesses to close or dry up funding for voluntary bodies.
Now, you may say, so what’s the problem? After all, surely it’s right and proper that organisations should discharge a duty of care for their employees and customers with the emphasis being on health and safety? Yes, but there’s probable risk and possible risk. At the end of the day everything’s possible but we have to live our lives by what is probable and that’s the rational calculus that most of us make in our daily lives to estimate risks. Organisations, unlike individuals, are in the invidious position that all risk, no matter how improbable, has to be accounted for on the same level as risk which is very probable.
This leads you to a situation where trains come to a grinding halt because snow is melting and a light on a circuit is pinging that the electrical system may be faulty. Or children are kept in school lest they fall on icy playgrounds (God forbid children falling!) Or responsible adults are deterred from engaging in a centuries old tradition of curling on frozen lakes (or lochs) because it’s too risky. And these are just a few examples of many that could be cited.
The focus on risk aversion and health and safety rules and regulations that attempt to cover all possibilities effectively stymies initiative (because risk is an inevitable adjunct to initiative) and infantilises society as a whole. Right Kids you’ll be indoors today because the playground is too slippery and you lot, yes you adults over there, don’t even think about going out playing on that frozen loch! Irrespective of age, we are all seen as vulnerable and helpless, prone to disaster unless swaddled in the protective blanket proffered by the zealous guardians policing the land of the risk averse.
There are two other factors buttressing risk aversion and playing safe. One is the increasing tendency of Britons to opt for litigation. We’re not quite as litigious as our American friends, but we’re getting there and so strenuous health and safety and other risk minimisation procedures are one way organisations try to avert paying out heavy claims. The other is the media.
The media are always an easy target for blame. But in the case of risk aversion there are some grounds for justification for the simple reason that when it comes down to health and safety and risk, the media can have it both ways. Suppose a school allows its children to play on an icy playground. A child falls and fractures its arm. A parent complains and goes to the media and a report appears chastising negligent, careless teachers for being so reckless in putting children at risk. That’s bad news and no head teacher would want such a story about their school.
On the other hand a child is cooped up in school all day and tells his or her mother that they can’t get out to play. Said mother takes this story to the press and we have a story about “politically correct” schools gone safety mad. Don’t believe me? The last story appeared in the press on a number of occasions over the past few weeks. You can be dam sure that if kids had slipped on playgrounds the “schools are reckless” stories would have made up some headlines.
Similarly with the bonspiel; cancel the intended event and again its political correctness and safety first on overdrive. Go ahead and if, God forbid, people slip through the ice and injure themselves or worse then in all probability the very same journalists and pundits who were criticising the decision to cancel the bonspiel would be equally as loud in their condemnation of the “stupidity” and “madness” in letting it go ahead! Tails I win, heads you lose.
It is no surprise then that in this culture of risk aversion, litigation and media surveillance, come double standards, if you hold a position of responsibility anywhere in the UK whether it be a head teacher, local authority chief executive or even just a managerial role in an organisation, your first instinct in any situation will be: Safety first, don’t, whatever you do, take risks.
The risk in this is not only in producing an infantilised society but one which ultimately considers any form of risk-taking, daring or innovation to be a liability. And the consequence of that is a society which stagnates, where each individual looks only to themselves as there is no premium to be placed and plenty of risk incurred by looking out for others which in turn encourages selfishness.
There is a balance, a very delicate one, between risk minimisation, caution and safety, and recklessness, negligence and foolhardiness when it comes to questions of health and safety. I think, given the evidence of some of the events that have occurred in our recent state of severe weather that balance has gone too far in favour of risk aversion. And, given factors like litigation and the media, the forces propping up risk aversion are possibly too well-entrenched to be shifted. But, for sanity’s sake, we urgently need a proper healthy debate about the level of safety, caution and risk minimisation that meets the right balance between avoiding recklessness and taking legitimate risks.
But that will require someone in a position of authority or decision-making, or a leading politician to break silence and cry halt to those who in their zeal to be risk averse are stifling our culture and society. Whosoever does that, will be taking risks themselves, but given the smouldering dissatisfaction that now lies latent in Britain re health and safety and all manner of regulation, will probably reap a great dividend, not least at the ballot box. Now, who will be ready to go first?
In conclusion I don’t know if the resilience of the great British public to cope with adverse weather was any better during the dreadful winters of 63’ and 47’ but in all likelihood on both occasions, trains didn’t stop because of melting snow, children played merrily on slushy, icy playgrounds (and parents didn’t rush to the courts or the local paper if they fell) and bonspiels went ahead. If so, then Britain was a more adult, mature society than now.