Matthew Norman: Could hosepipe bans rip the Union asunder?

Alex Salmond would seek to inveigle a chunk of sub-Saharan England to join a Greater Caledonia
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The Independent Online

The last time Britain suffered a really gruesome drought, as a myriad of "the hazy summer of '76?" articles may soon remind us, the singles chart was headed by The Wurzels. Lest the subtle, subliminal messaging in their novelty hit tempt any farmers in the rainless South, East, South-east and parts of the midlands to race to the agricultural hardware showroom, I offer this warning. There is minimal point in buying a brand new combine harvester, in purest farming terms at least, in the present climactic conditions.

I cannot speak for the vehicle's aphrodisiac qualities, though The Wurzels thought it the oyster of farmyard machinery. For the song's heroic suitor, it was the last throw of the dice in pursuit of a woman (quite a catch she was, owning 43 acres to his meagre 20) who had resisted such erotic enticements as him driving his tractor through her haystack. But then The Wurzels were a trio of lovably daft hayseeds from Mummerzet, and by no means even arable farming's answer to Casanova, Don Juan and Lembit Opik.

Even if they were right about it being as potent a babe magnet in bucolic parts as a Bentley convertible in Mayfair, the problem is this. Spending something like £400,000 on a brand new combine harvester blurs the borderline between extravagance and insanity when there are absolutely no crops to harvest.

Exactly how monstrous the coming drought will be, we cannot know. But judging by the doomy report in yesterday's Independent and the air of crisis underlined by the summit held yesterday by Defra Secretary Caroline Spelman, it doesn't look great. As if the Olympics and the avalanche of sycophantic drivel about the Queen were not reason enough to flee to the Highlands this summer, the spectre of severe water rationing finishes the job.

Already I find myself tormented by the mental image of being at the Diamond Jubilee street party in equatorial Shepherds Bush when the water cannon truck arrives to hose celebrants down; and then, on charging into the house to towel off, seeing the telly footage from Inverness of militant republicans taunting parched southern loyalists by pouring buckets of plentiful H2O down drains, to the drolly dirgeful backing of Travis's "Why Does It Always Rain On Me?".

Why it no longer seems to rain on us here in the South and East when it should is a question for the experts, though climate change hasn't been implicated so far. Drought warnings have always been regular occurrences, albeit seldom if ever before has a hosepipe ban been openly considered in February. The question of why no national water grid has been developed, having being debated for decades, is more easily answered. Such a project requires imagination, investment, political will and long-term planning. Who in the name of sanity do you imagine we are? Germany?

In a third world country manqué like ours, where vast tracts of the railway network remain unelectrified, the idea is both too challenging and too overwhelmingly sensible to stand a chance. It will remain a literal pipedream unless and until water shortages become a political issue capable of affecting elections. Long before it was finished, of course, it might have become a white elephant. Alex Salmond would not merely use any rapidly worsening north-south rainfall divide to swing the independence vote on the "Keep Scottish water for the Scottish... and let the Sassenachs die of thirst!" platform. Inevitably, that clever old bruiser would also seek to inveigle a chunk of sub-Saharan England , to leave the Union and be subsumed within a Greater Caledonia. The English couldn't tolerate that. Water wars have long been predicted elsewhere on the planet, but another 10 years of this would bring reruns of Bannockburn and Flodden Field (or Sodden Field as the Sun on Sunday will dub it).

But we needn't look beyond the very short term to quench the thirst for dystopian horror. The festering armpits on public transport; the hiring of the Native American rain dancer ("Spelman's Spell Man"); a Minister for Drought no sooner handed the Denis Howell Memorial Water-Diviner than publicly taking an exemplary five-inch bath with the spouse; the scapegoating of immigrants for coming over here and using our precious water; looters eschewing JD Sports to nick the standpipes; filthy spectators invading the Olympic pool and filling it with suds; Her Maj making a televised appeal for calm with a tall nonagenarian chap clearly visible in the background spraying the Sandringham azaleas; and, yes, the afeared Wurzels revival for which we must start preparing ourselves now. "I am a cider drinker, I drinks it all of the day," those hayseed troubadors further revealed in the summer of 1976. "I am a cider drinker, it soothes all me troubles away/ Oh arr arr aay, oh arr oh arr aay." But barring an unprecedented sustained deluge between now and May, it will take more than lashings of scrumpy to insulate swathes of England from imminent descent into Dante's long lost tenth circle of hell. Does anyone have contact details for a choice purveyor of finest hemlock?