No future for London
The third runway is not inevitable. It must be stopped, argues Paul Demarty
There is plenty to say about last week’s parliamentary vote on the expansion of Heathrow airport - none of it good.
For Marxists looking at the back and forth of bourgeois politics, there are two sorts of ‘bad decisions’. In the first sort, we face the successful operations of our enemies. Perhaps an imperialist war is decided upon, which has a good chance of aiding the interests of ‘our’ state in some unfortunate target country. A splendid recent example, in the sphere of domestic policy, would be Michael Gove’s tenure as education secretary, which was so harmful precisely because he was so successful in his agenda; and now politically accountable, purely public education is more or less at an end.
As environment secretary, however, Gove is the man who was left standing when the music stopped on the third runway. And that is a ‘bad decision’ of the other sort - an Iraq-war sort of decision: a predicable disaster, whose wrongness has a sort of fractal quality to it. It is wrong at a macro level, wrong in its broad implementation, and then wrong in almost every individual detail. The next time he starts talking like an eco-warrior about plastic bags, recall that Gove discreetly voted for this, in an act - at best - of total cowardice.
This decision has been hanging over successive governments for over a decade now. London-based readers might remember the duelling billboard adverts from Gatwick and Heathrow that colonised the tube for a few months before Heathrow went forward as the preferred scheme; as well as other ideas (like the laughable ‘Boris Island’ scheme to float a new airport in the Thames estuary and the crazy idea that extra airport capacity might go somewhere other than London). The contrast between the two campaigns was mildly interesting. The Gatwick ads barraged you with ‘facts’ about congestion, air quality and so on, with the implication that Heathrow would be an awful choice. This was plainly misleading - it was as if planes were silent over Crawley but not over Twickenham - but one almost has to applaud the effort.
The other side advertised purely on the basis of smug incumbency. The substantive arguments - such as they are - focused on, firstly, the ambition of making London a ‘hub city’, to which we will return in due course, and secondly on the proximity of the ‘M4 corridor’ - a JG Ballard-esque hellscape of flyovers and corporate office blocks that blights the final western approach to the capital by road. Nothing like a little taste of Merrie England as you’re passing through … Of course, Team Heathrow’s blasé sense of entitlement was well justified. To their cause attached the largest sums of lobbying money. To them belonged the greater proportion of business class flights and executive lounges, unlike the oik-infested alternatives elsewhere. So Heathrow gets its absurd boondoggle.
The other major theme of all this is the small matter of looming climate disaster. Donald Trump caught a lot of flak for pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord, but, looking at the decision to build a third runway, he must really wonder why he bothered. If anything, this is an even greater insult - it is one thing to abandon a commitment, but quite another to affirm it in words but then shit all over it in deeds. All climate-change concerns have been hand-waved between one government department and the next, nobody wanting to be seen taking responsibility for what is a flagrant act of irresponsibility to the Earth’s ecosystem. (Refusing to take responsibility for disasters is getting to be a habit for the mouth-breathing transport secretary, Chris Grayling, whose mismanagement of the railways has earned him the undying enmity of commuters, and whose bright idea to privatise parts of the probation service when he was justice secretary are currently collapsing. The man is not fit to run a shoe-shine stand.)
Building a third runway will, at typical levels of utilisation, increase British carbon emissions by 73 million tonnes a year, more than is produced by Cyprus.1 On top of that, nitrogen oxide emissions increase the amount of ozone in the upper troposphere, at which level it too contributes to warming (albeit locally, rather than globally).
The usually cited figures tell us that meeting the Paris targets will require reducing aviation emissions, and therefore - excepting some extraordinary technological breakthrough - passenger miles, to 2005 levels. In a useful op-ed for TheIndependent, Clive Lewis, the quasi-Corbynite shadow treasury minister, does the maths:
[The Airport Commission] concluded that big restrictions on traffic at regional airports would be needed in order to square expansion with climate targets. So either regional airports, who’ve been told this will mean more business for them, have been sold a pup or we’re going to drive a jumbo jet through our climate-change obligations. The government’s position to date? It doesn’t have one. That, they say, is all to come “in due course”.2
In other words, this is the sort of short-termism which actually prevails, giving the lie to the pious noises about climate change on the part of our rulers.
For what? Lewis is right to point out that this is a class issue - a subsidy to wealthy frequent flyers to be paid for by those unable to avoid the effects of climate change. There is another aspect to this, however, which has to do with this ‘hub city’ guff. The idea is that London should become a major layover point on the international flight map. It is in a good spot, after all, on one edge of the Atlantic, give or take a few hundred miles. It already has a vast, sprawling, self-satisfied airport.
The economic benefits of this, even from a capitalist point of view, are very dubious indeed. Such travellers will spend any money they do in duty-free. The exchequer will get whatever it can grasp from the bored till jockeys on a minimum wage selling them giant Toblerones and aftershave.
It is, however, a nice complement to a prolonged post-imperial dotage as an offshore centre. Note that the greatest hub city of them all is Dubai. Such is clearly the glorious future envisaged by cracked Brexiteers like Daniel Hannan. We can’t wait.
The third runway is, in fact, an ideal illustration of the contradictions of this sort of offshore-metropolis model of urban prosperity. It requires a city, after a fashion, to service such an airport, but not a terrifically exciting one - perhaps they went with Heathrow over Gatwick because to choose the latter would be to reveal that sleepy Crawley would be just as good for it as the ancient seat of power in this country. A ‘hub city’ is a city that is grateful to be noticed at all - thus London might outlive its exhausted imperial past, just as Dubai has survived the exhaustion of its oil wells. And what better synecdoche for the whole world of tax-efficient financial skulduggery than the duty-free shop, surely the industry most likely to boom after Brexit?
In return, Londoners - at least on the western edges of the city - need only subject themselves to further interminable jet noise, and choke down a few more toxic particulates with each grubby lungful of air. What a future for the capital’s 10 million residents - an increasingly hollow city, with its luxury flats empty, as they circulate as tokens of wealth among the global elite; its actual population squeezed down the Thames and up the M4, its air unbreathable - a comprehensive picture of the inhuman terminus of capitalist social life.
Opposing all this ought to be a no-brainer for the left and labour movement, and indeed Labour policy was officially one of opposition to expansion, but, of course, that is not how it turned out on the day, with a free vote permitted and 119 rebel Labour MPs making for a huge majority in favour.
Partly this is a matter of the treason of the pro-capitalist right, who will always be trapped by capitalism’s purely quantitative measures of progress, according to which more is always better, so long as somebody is making more money. But it is also, unfortunately, a reflection of the sort of trade union sectionalism that sees only another quantity at issue - that of jobs created.
This gives a farcical aspect to Clive Lewis’s rousing promise: “The next Labour government is going to break with the tired dogma of growth for growth’s sake, consequences be damned.” Two problems present themselves: first of all, that slightly less than half of Labour’s sitting MPs are clearly happy to vote for “growth for growth’s sake”.
The other, of course, is the small matter of what exactly those consequences are that are scoffed at by our defiant eco-warrior. The ‘dogma’ of growth for growth’s sake, to push the metaphor a little further, is less like the dogma of transubstantiation - a matter for intramural squabbles of religious pedants - but rather like the dogma of the divine right of kings, emerging from the fundamental relations of society. To get rid of it - really get rid of it - would be to get rid of capitalism entirely. Capital multiplies or it dies; and not only do capitalist firms compete: so do capitalist states, for the success of their economies. It is these two concentric realities that drive the assumption that 200,000 more flights in and out of London is a great boon. We hope, but do not expect, that this is what our shadow treasury minister has in mind.
As capitalism declines, a particular contradiction opens up further - planning is ever more extensive, both at the level of the individual firm and of the state in its coordinating capacity; yet anarchy reigns ever more imperiously. So we propose, instead, the sort of planning we do not get under capitalism - the democratic socialist planning that would allow us to work where we live, to travel by clean and efficient mass transit systems, and to fly for a holiday long enough to bother with in one of the millions of seats no longer needed by jet-setting financiers for afternoon meetings in New York.3
There is no place for a third Heathrow runway in such a world - and it is not built yet. Let us stop this madness.
3. Lewis points out inter alia that better communication technology has already obviated the need for these extraordinary wasteful passenger-miles, and business travel is already in decline. Together with the rapid-fire city breaks of exhausted yuppies, we get the salient fact that 70% of all flights are taken by 15% of the population - and no prizes for guessing where they are in terms of income distribution.