‘Culture wars’: the phrase seems to have originated in 1990s America but is now bandied about in many contexts. Events of this summer – 2023 – have opened a clear new front in today’s culture wars in the UK, by actually engaging Joe Public in the question of whether there is a climate emergency, and if so, what we should do about it.
There was a consensus that the Labour party failed to win the Uxbridge and South Ruislip parliamentary seat because the Conservative candidate ‘weaponised’ the proposed extension of the ULEZ (Ultra-Low Emissions Zone) to outer London boroughs. If I have understood correctly, the new ULEZ charge would affect only one in 12 drivers, but the issue seems to have attracted Joe Public’s attention in a way politics generally fail to do. ULEZ is a progressive policy and a ‘green’ one, designed partly for health reasons and partly to address global warming, but this seems to have been less important a consideration than the potential impact on people wishing, or needing, to drive around Uxbridge; and Joe Public seems to have a view on it, one way or the other.
It’s also been impossible to avoid media coverage (including social media video) of the devastating fires in many of the Mediterranean destinations which Joe Public favours for his annual two weeks in the sun. (10,000 Brits were holidaying – or trying to – on Rhodes alone, when the fires were at their peak.) Lives and livelihoods were lost, and many UK nationals were directly affected, so if nothing else were to convince people about climate change, this summer’s dreadful events might be expected to bring about a better understanding and a wider acceptance that its effects are already upon us.
However, in the UK …
Against the background of comments like those from David, Lord Frost (a trustee of the deceptively-named Global Warming Policy Foundation) that rising temperatures could be “beneficial”, and historian and GB News presenter Neil Oliver’s claim that temperature measurements were being manipulated, the consensus about voters’ behaviour in the Uxbridge by-election is bad news: that despite wider issues which we know will affect future generations even more severely than our own, many people react most strongly to what hits their pocket, and they will vote accordingly.
Even worse news was the report that Keir Starmer was urging the London Mayor to rethink the ULEZ policy. If Labour are so frightened of selfish voters that they start abandoning ‘green’ policies, another reason for hope goes by the board.
In the wake of the Uxbridge and South Ruislip result, the Conservatives – whose commitment to dealing with environmental issues seems uncertain – have identified the concerns of ‘ordinary motorists’ as a potential ‘wedge issue’ which can be exploited. Indeed, this has already started: the so-called Net Zero Scrutiny Group, which includes such luminaries as Jacob Rees-Mogg, has appealed to Sunak to jettison the ban on new petrol and diesel cars from 2030. Sunak – who, himself, enjoys travelling by helicopter and private jet – has announced a review of traffic-calming projects, some of which have been developed by councils using government (ie, taxpayers’) money, which will presumably be wasted, like so much more, if any such schemes are dismantled.
And, just in case we are still in any doubt, Sunak has given an interview to the Sunday Telegraph of 30 July, making it clear that he is “on motorists’ side” – there are officially sides now? – and, in the usual populo-speak, he is just “supporting people to use their cars to do all the things that matter to them”.
He describes this, as he likes to do, as being ‘pragmatic’; but it’s definitely not subtle; it is not grown-up politics. It is manipulative, cynical, and another way of widening divisions between one part of the population and another. Another front in the culture wars.