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Heat wave culture warriors should cool it and enjoy the sun

James Randerson is editorial director of Innovation and Platforms at POLITICO Europe.

Europe is scorching, and the intense heat has Britain’s right-wing culture warriors particularly hot under the collar.

It isn’t the sunshine itself that has them hot and bothered though. Rather, it’s the idea that anyone — the government, health agencies, local authorities or even the Red Cross — should dare offer advice about how to avoid severe health consequences.

The sun may be pushing up the mercury, but it’s their “nanny state” fantasies that are really making their blood boil.

Why all the fuss? Last week, the United Kingdom Met Office issued its first ever “red warning” for exceptional heat, meaning “it is very likely that there will be a risk to life, with substantial disruption to travel, energy supplies and possibly widespread damage to property and infrastructure.”

Forecasters reckon there’s a 50 percent chance that somewhere on the usually damp and tepid British Isles will reach over 40 degrees Celsius — which would smash the previous record of 38.7 degrees, recorded in Cambridge Botanic Garden in 2019.

The extreme weather’s triggered some common sense advice from the Met Office and the U.K. Health Security Agency on how to stay healthy, which was then amplified by government ministers — yes, there are still some left — and others. It’s also had plenty of air time in a media that is — like many Brits — obsessed with the weather. 

So far, so summer silly season, but culture warriors sense a deeper plot here. John Hayes, a former energy minister, objected, for example, to the idea that older people should be warned of the dangers: “These are people who lived through a world war. They are well equipped to deal with risk,” he told the BBC. 

He recalled the long hot summer of 1976 — he actually said 1975 in the interview, but presumably meant the following year — which is the archetypal case study in hot weather for these commentators. “I remember doing school exams. The only concession was being allowed to take our blazers and ties off. That was a really big concession by the way.” And his advice for younger generations was to toughen up. “No surprise, when the weather gets hot the snowflakes melt.”

Neil Oliver, a TV presenter and a commentator for the Times, describes the health messages as not only patronizing but “insidious and borderline sinister.”

“Government and the powers that be, [have] already nudged, slithered and forced themselves, by law, into almost every aspect of our daily lives,” he lamented. Oliver seems to view the health advice as a continuation of his last battle against COVID-19 mask “diktats” — the logical conclusion of a government intoxicated with pandemic meddling. He had his own 1976 anecdotes as well: “As I recall, it was exciting. It was summer, we were off school for the holidays and the sun was out, day after day.”

There was more harrumphing from Philip Johnston in the Telegraph. “Why the panic? It is not as if we are facing anything on a par with the long, hot summer of 1976.” He asked: “How did people cope before air conditioning, refrigeration and the sartorial dispensation to walk around shirtless (men) or in the skimpiest of attires (women)?”

People flocked to sunbathe and relax in Hyde Park, London during the hot summer of 1976 | Allan Olley/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

And then there’s the acid pen of Spiked columnist Julie Burchill who, en route to her own 1976 recollection, manages to swipe at the BBC, “baby burquas,” “climate-change carp,” the Red Cross, and even Meghan, duchess of Sussex.

“None of my classmates ever fainted, not even during the drought of 1976, which lasted for two months and saw temperatures of 96 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. There was no neurotic nannying from a government that had mistaken itself for a nursemaid,” she writes.

I confess, I have my own personal obsession with the summer of 1976. I was born just after the worst of the heat wave — sorry, mom — and while I can’t speak with the authority of someone who took their jacket off once during an exam, or larked about with their mates in the 70s heat, it’s worth examining whether these halcyon days of hands-off government really existed.

For a start, it wasn’t all ice creams and swimming in the Serpentine. There were wildfires, factory shutdowns and £500 million of crop damage. Total deaths in London increased by 30 percent during the heat wave, and the government appointed a minister for drought, whose job it was to persuade the public to use less water. He later revealed that he and his wife had shared baths together to avoid wasting water.

By August, the government had introduced the Drought Act, which granted emergency powers to turn off domestic and industrial water supplies. So, the idea that ministers just left it up to everyone to go out and enjoy the sun is a rose-tinted myth. 

We know that extreme heat is dangerous and more prevalent due to climate change. The 2003 European heat wave caused 35,000 deaths, and scientists estimate that over 350,000 deaths worldwide could be attributed to extreme heat in 2019. 

So, let’s not turn the weather into yet another front in the culture war. Many deaths from extreme heat are preventable. And what’s the harm in government agencies issuing warnings and offering information that might save some lives?

My health advice for the culture warriors: Leave off the hot takes and go out and enjoy the sunshine. Nobody — nanny state included — is telling you that you can’t.

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