My 2022 Cycle Trip Across Europe

[Note my later updates below]

I retired early at the end of 2021 so that I can cycle across Europe. I will be leaving on March 1st, roughly following the route below, which uses several Eurovelo routes, at least as far as Croatia.

Why Croatia? I have already written about how Brexit has made longer travel much more difficult for UK citizens. I will have a maximum of 90 days to ride through the Schengen Zone (the passport-free area which covers most of Europe). Then I will have to spend at least 90 days in non-Schengen countries before continuing to Greece, where the clock will start ticking again for another 90 days to return home. All of that means that I won’t be getting back until late autumn.

I had originally planned to ride all the way home, but the prospect of riding through France and Southern England in November is not very enticing, so I plan to spend more time around the Mediterranean and take a train home from Southern France.

I decided to stop flying in 2005 and I haven’t been outside Western Europe since then. I have been thinking for many years: when I retire, I will go further. I won’t be riding very far or very fast each day – I will be carrying too much weight for that. “Credit card touring” may be fine for a few days, but not for 9 months. My wife is planning to join me for a while in Croatia, travelling by train and ferry.

I will be making occasional posts on Facebook. I intend to make my Facebook account private, because I might use some of this material in articles, or even a book, and I don’t want to make it public in the meantime. So if you are interested in following my progress – and I know who you are – then please send me a friend request.


Brexit and Toothache Delay My Progress

As I have been posting on Facebook, I was having a great ride through France, when I started to develop toothache, which may require treatment lasting for some weeks. It was difficult enough finding a dentist willing to see me in France: I went to the dental hospital in Clermont-Ferrand in the end. They advised me that if got any worse I would probably need root canal treatment. That takes time, which would have eaten into the 90-day Schengen allowance if I had tried to get it done in France. So reluctantly, I have come home for a while, but left my bike and baggage at a friend’s house in Paris. As soon as this problem is fixed I plan to return and re-start the ride.

This is what I have done so far. I took a train from Le Creusot to Paris and will return by train, possibly a bit further East to gain some time.

Under my original plan, I was going to spend 90 days in non-Schengen countries, particularly Croatia, before continuing to Greece, but if this treatment takes some weeks, that could delay my return home to December or January, which I don’t want. So instead, I will try to reach the Croatian border with some of my 90-day allowance in hand. Then I should be able to cross the non-Schengen countries at my leisure, spend a few days in Greece then head home by ferry and rail. It was all so much simpler before Brexit…

I should add that it has been a great ride apart from all that. I have ridden through some beautiful places, along the chateaux of the Loire, for example, and stayed with some really interesting people.

The River Creuse at Saint-Gaultier

I will be writing about all this for Cycle Magazine, and I have also written an article for Celtic Life about the first of several Iron Age sites I am planning to visit: Gergovie near Clermont-Ferrand.

Interpretation Board overlooking the battle site on the Plateau of Gergovie

You’re Reading a Map – Are You Lost?

If you are one of the dwindling group of people able to navigate with a map you may appreciate my frustration at the growing assumption that anyone reading a map in public must be lost.  I used to smile and say “no I’m fine thank you”, but as the problem has grown into a form of harassment, I have developed two responses.  I sometimes try to hide my map-reading, particularly at junctions.  I turn my back, wrap my jacket around the offending article and hope that no-one will realise what I am up to.

That doesn’t always work.  Sometimes people catch me unawares, in which case I have begun challenging them.  One question that no-one has ever been able to answer is this:

What is the connection between reading a map and being lost?

I genuinely don’t understand the thinking (if there is any) which leads someone to that conclusion.  Do you know people who carry maps but only take them out when they are lost – and then discover that it doesn’t help them because they don’t know how to read one? No? Neither do I.  If you see someone brave enough to read a map in public nowadays, you can be pretty sure that they know what they are doing.  If they really are lost, they will ask you.

Another question which often follows is “where are you trying to get to?” Now, if I am carrying a briefcase and hurrying along a city street, looking bewildered, that might make some sort of sense.  But if I am wearing khaki, carrying a rucksack, ambling through the countryside, can you understand what a stupid question that is?

When challenged, some of these people say: “but I was only trying to help.”  I want to ask them: “I am sorry, how is that trying to help? Would you go up to a man eating a sandwich and say: ‘are you hungry? Do you want something to eat?’” But by that time, one or both of us usually wants to get away from an embarrassing situation.

I was wondering how many people are still able to navigate with a map.  This article mentioned a survey back in 2013 which suggested that the growth in sat navs was reducing the wayfinding ability of car drivers.  The article was prompted by a Belgian woman who wanted to drive to Brussels, but followed her faulty sat nav 900 miles to Zagreb instead!

I generally find that people who travel everywhere by car have a distorted view of geography, in any case – which is one reason why I would only ask for directions as a last resort.  I will never forget the conversation I had in a café on the Welsh side of the Severn Bridge.  When I told the owner that I was cycling to Cardiff he looked puzzled and asked “so how does that work, with the motorway?” I thought afterwards: perhaps we should be grateful for that sort of ignorance – at least it keeps them off the minor roads, (unless, of course, they are instructed to rat run by their sat nav!)

Map reading is about far more than getting from A to B.  It is a fundamental human skill, like reading, writing, mathematics or speaking languages.  Like all of those things, it can help us to broaden our understanding and make sense of the world around us.  If we lose those skills we narrow our range of experience.

So next time you see someone reading a map in a public place, please don’t ask them: ‘are you lost? Can I help you?’

The Free-Speech Hypocrisy of Spiked

A few years ago, a little-known online magazine called Spiked published a league table of universities allegedly threatening free speech. I was surprised to see my own university ranked amongst the worst offenders. On closer inspection the criteria used were questionable, to put it mildly. Naively, I wrote the article below and sent it to Spiked, believing that they were a normal media outlet. I have been investigating their activities more recently and discovered that they are more like the mouthpiece for a cult. That did not prevent respectable mainstream media, including the Guardian, from reprinting their propaganda as it if it came from a trustworthy source.

A key element of their campaigning is that “no platforming” is a threat to free speech. With that in mind, I invite you to read their email response to the article below:

Unfortunately, while it is an interesting piece, I don’t think it’s something we could really publish on spiked, not least because it runs counter to spiked’s own project, the Free Speech University Rankings. While we appreciate that not everyone will agree with our criteria for assessing free speech in universities, we believe the criteria to be fair and robust.

Tim Black, Spiked

Why Universities Should Encourage Self-Censorship

Seeing the University of the West of England (UWE) where I work at the bottom of Spiked’s free speech ranking made me reflect on what free speech means in higher education and where it might be under threat.  I recall two potential threats to my own freedom to express and offend during my time at UWE.  A colleague once told me an article I was planning to write would offend a section of a government department he was involved in sensitive negotiations with.  I heard him out and appreciated his concerns but explained that we a contract of employment guaranteeing academic freedom.  If we start imposing self-censorship for commercial reasons, we will lose that freedom.  I published and no one seemed to damn me for it.

On another occasion a senior manager intimated in that ambiguously deniable manner of senior managers that I might want to refrain from offending government departments that give us research contracts.  My head of department said: “that is an outrageous thing for any academic to say” and I have taken that as my green light ever since.  My forthcoming book, Urban Transport Without the Hot Air, could offend the Department for Transport, the bus industry, the rail industry and much of the urban design profession, all of whom we have worked with and applied for money with or from in the past.

One factor in UWE’s ranking as a suppressor of free speech was a student union ban on advertising by payday loan companies, which raises some interesting questions about the definition of free speech.  There is an intrinsic tension in the concept of freedom, between the freedom to act and the freedom from the actions of people or organisations with the power to exploit others.  In classifying commercial advertising as ‘free speech’, the authors of that league have erred too far towards the freedom to, whilst ignoring the freedom from exploitation.

Freedom of speech has never been, and arguably can never, be absolute.  Looking elsewhere on the table, I would agree that a blanket ban on talks by Israeli academics is an unwarranted attack on free speech, but where violent conflict is involved the situation becomes less clear.  I don’t often agree with Teresa May, but stopping jihadists and suicide bombers making their case on British campuses seems sensible to me.  If we accept that argument, should we also allow people to advocate Israel’s right to bomb Palestinian residential areas?  At what point a nationalist argument becomes incitement to racial hatred or a religious fanatic crosses a line threatening gays or transsexuals is difficult to judge.  There are risks in both directions; either way threatens somebody’s freedom.

Another black mark on the league table was awarded to UWE for its ban on ‘transphobic propaganda’.  I can’t say I’ve ever noticed anyone scrutinising our publications for diatribes against transsexuals.  This type of policy is really an appeal to self-censorship.  Whereas self-censorship towards terrorists, governments or commercial interests is dangerous and must be resisted, self-censorship to avoid offending vulnerable people is an essential element of human decency.  All of us self-censor at times, whether it is the unwanted Christmas present we accept with good grace or the condemnation of a foreign custom we keep to ourselves when travelling through another country.  A society with no self-censorship would be fractious, brutal and inhuman.

All employing organisations have their faults but I don’t agree with your assessment of free speech at UWE.  I could never have written such a provocative book when I worked in the private sector.  The quiet suggestions that I should avoid biting the hand that feeds us would have come with a P45.  Commercial confidentiality is a ready-made excuse for private companies to avoid the scrutiny we expect of public bodies.  Commercialisation and privatisation of higher education pose much greater threats to free speech than student unions or diversity policies.

Why I am Withdrawing from Phone-based Social Media

I have decided to uninstall all the social media apps from my phone.  I will retain Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, changing the passwords to make sure they are only accessible from my computer, where I will look at them less.  I am deleting my WhatsApp account.  If anyone asks me in future to join something requiring social media I will politely decline, referring them to this article.  I am sorry if this causes inconvenience to any friends or groups I am involved in, but if you read on I hope you will appreciate why.

A couple of days ago I watched the film The Social Dilemma, which interviews people from Silicon Valley who helped to create social media and are now concerned about the monster they have unleashed.  I already knew the crux of their message – how the business model relies on creating addictive behaviour, to maximise the time people spend on each competing platform.   I was also aware of the mental health consequences of social media, particularly where it is used on phones that are always to hand.  My wife, who works in adolescent mental health, had told me about the consequences for adolescents, which are often far more serious.

Like many films of its kind, it overstates the cause-and-effect evidence in some places (the statement about social media reducing driving amongst young adults, I know is exaggerated because we did some research on this).  Social media is not the only cause of fake news, conspiracy theories or political polarisation.  That said, the main arguments and conclusions are supported by solid evidence.  Let’s face it, we all know that we are being manipulated in ways that are bad for us – and wider society.  I knew all this before I reluctantly succumbed to buying a smart phone three or four years ago.  I told myself that I would never use one for social media, so how did I get sucked in?

Activism was the main cause.  Extinction Rebellion, being such a diverse movement, uses a bewildering array of communication methods.  Since I joined two years ago I have used seven different social media or messaging platforms and signed in and out of many email lists. Within each one of these platforms there are often multiple channels generating a combined volume which no-one could possibly read, if they work and want a life.   Two of these channels relate to the campaign against Bristol Airport Expansion.  These groups are doing fantastic work, which I want to support, but I realised that trying to keep up with those channels, as well as everything else, was making me feel guilty that I wasn’t doing more.  Guilt and fear of being left out are vital elements of the business model pushing us to accept our own manipulation.

Since the start of the pandemic I (like many others) have started using the ‘social’ part of social media much more.  I had already noted the early signs of addiction: constant checking, irritation when somebody (usually my wife) was interrupting me doing something on the phone, impulsive urges to check things or to photograph and post online when cycling or walking in wild places.  I already knew about the dopamine effect of social media; I started to wonder whether this was reducing my concentration and contributing to the boredom and ‘flatness’ I had been feeling since the first lockdown.

I have been out a couple of times without the phone.  To begin with I found myself reaching for it until I got used to the fact that it wasn’t there.  On the second day I began to appreciate the natural world a bit more like I used to.

But here’s the problem.  I bought a smart phone for practical reasons like public transport information, weather and local facilities.  If you like walking in remote areas without a car, all of this is extremely useful.  So it possible to retain the practical advantages of a phone without the addictive/manipulative elements? I don’t know how well this strategy will work, but it has to be worth a try.  I had Facebook and LinkedIn accounts for many years before I bought a smart phone.  They can also be useful but I know that I won’t check them very often.  If you want to contact me, please email, text or call.

Two Views on why the Left Keeps Failing

This Land – the Story of a Movement, Owen Jones. 2020, Allen Lane.

The Road to Somewhere: The New Tribes Shaping British Politics, David Goodhart, 2017, Penguin.

Sometimes, reading two books together conveys something more than each of them separately.  Amongst the many things I have read during the long nights of lockdown, I happened to read two such books: This Land by Owen Jones and The Road to Somewhere by David Goodhart.  Read together, these two contrasting books provide great insight into the problems afflicting British public life, and the political left in particular.

This Land is the view of a critical insider on the rise and fall of Corbynism in the Labour Party.  Goodhart started writing his explanation of Britain’s cultural and political schism shortly before the EU referendum, and was lucky to publish it as Brexit was dominating the news and paralysing parliament. 

Both books provoked strong reactions, positive and negative.  Some reviewers have conflated their assessments with personal political opinions (“this book fails where the author doesn’t agree with me”).  I will try to avoid doing that here.  I will argue that both authors have missed one obvious conclusion, that we must change our voting system.  That is my personal conclusion but it doesn’t alter my assessment of either book.

A good political book will provoke a different mixture of agreement and disagreement for each reader; on that measure both of these succeeded for me.  Both of them kept me reading and wanting more.  Both books argue for a certain type of politics.  Jones is a socialist, and was a strong supporter of Corbyn and Momentum, although he has sometimes fallen out with both.  Goodhart is more difficult to pigeon-hole, but he seems to be following a well-worn path of left-wingers from elite backgrounds who migrate towards the right as they grow older.

Jones aims to tell a good story and draw personal conclusions – on those measures he succeeds.  His account of how Labour Party staff set out to undermine their own leader is fascinating; so is his assessment of the strengths, weaknesses and twists of fate which propelled Corbyn to a position he never expected and then destroyed his project.  Before reading this book, I could not understand why Labour members regarded the 2017 election result as a success.  Viewed from the inside, Corbyn’s survival and the rebuff to his critics, were unexpected reasons for celebration.

This Land also provides a good explanation of Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis, acknowledging the seriousness of the problem and the incompetent response but also its use and distortion by political opponents.  Jones’ status as a semi-detached insider was critical to his ability to tell these stories.  The conclusions are his own; he makes no claim to scientific objectivity – a point which some of the more critical reviewers seem to overlook.

By contrast, Goodhart’s book claims to analyse and explain the widening schism in Britain’s culture and politics.  It is a bold claim, partially fulfilled, but underpinned by little objective analysis.  Goodhart divides Britain’s voters into two main ‘tribes’ plus outliers and ‘in-betweeners’.  The biggest tribe, the ‘Somewheres’ are rooted in local communities, socially conservative and patriotic.  On the opposite side, the ‘Anywheres’ are geographically mobile, socially liberal and internationalist.  This tribe “dominates our culture and society”, according to Goodhart, although it suffered a shock when the Somewhere majority voted to leave the European Union. 

Goodhart presents survey evidence of public opinion on specific issues (e.g. immigration or gender roles), which differentiate the two main tribes.  He mentions “clusters” of opinion, but admits in the introduction that he did no cluster analysis.  So he is unable to say, for example, how many people who hold patriotic views are also opposed to immigration and free trade.  In the absence of such analysis he makes “common sense” assumptions about the packages of views people hold.  If you have ever done any social opinion research, you will realise how those assumptions are often wide of the mark.  People’s views on most subjects are diverse and sometimes inconsistent.  They rarely fit the boxes created for them by political parties or media commentators.

In some places Goodhart compounds the error by assuming that people act consistently with their beliefs – there is plenty of research evidence debunking that assumption.  So for example, he attributes the TTIP free trade agreement between Europe and the USA (scrapped by Donald Trump) to ‘Global Villagers’ – the smaller, more extreme tribe of Anywheres.  In reality, David Cameron who promoted TTIP in Britain, was very far from a Global Villager – and many of the activists who fought against TTIP held ‘Global Villager’ views on issues such as unrestricted immigration.

Goodhart exaggerates the political and media influence of the Anywheres – as if British governments quaked in fear of Guardian editorials, whilst comfortably ignoring what the Daily Mail has to say about immigration or crime.  At times his descriptions of the Anywheres seem unduly coloured by his personal experience as an Old Etonian living in London, working in the media and mixing with elites.

Despite those criticisms, treated with appropriate scepticism, The Road to Somewhere is well worth reading, particularly as a complement and contrast to This Land.  The broad sweep of Goodhart’s argument is thought-provoking.  The cultural and political divisions he discusses are real.  His explanation of why populism hurts the left more than the right foreshadowed some of Jones’ observations three years later.

Coincidentally, the cluster analysis Goodhart failed to do was done by Opinium, as he was writing the book.   Their report, Dead Centre, provides some support for his arguments, although the picture they paint is less clear-cut.  The eight ‘tribes’ they identify reflect the diversity and inconsistency of political views held by real people.  One of Opinium’s most important conclusions was that two tribes, holding broadly conservative views, encompass half the adult population.  That makes it much easier for one party, the Conservative Party, to achieve the 40% needed to win majorities under Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system.  By contrast, the remaining six tribes are highly diverse; deep divisions exist between them, particularly on issues such as immigration, protection of British workers and Britain’s relationship with Europe – the same issues which divide the Somewheres from the Anywheres in Goodhart’s book.

This diversity and division help to explain the perennial conflict within the Labour Party, of which This Land tells only the most recent episodes.  Although individual policies, such as renationalising the railways, may be widely supported, only a small proportion of the voting public has ever supported the package of policies offered by ‘Corbynism’ or ‘Blairism’ – a fact which Britain’s “lesser evil” electoral system sometimes obscures.  Although public opinion on specific issues is constantly shifting, the most divisive issues reflect deeper differences of values, which are more likely to endure.  Brexit was the issue that ripped apart the factions supporting Corbyn, but the value differences between ‘Leavers’ and ‘Remainers’ (or Somewheres and Anywheres) would have surfaced in other ways if the referendum had never occurred.

Goodhart’s recommendations – to shift British politics towards Somewhere values – has struck a chord within the Conservative establishment, which now seems to have welcomed him as one of their own.  By contrast, Jones’ concluding chapter talks about learning lessons but does not explain what Labour should now do to win the next election.  Jones is a journalist, not a politician, so perhaps he decided to leave that for others, or perhaps he considered the question but failed to find an answer. 

If so, I agree: there is no answer.  People involved in party politics tend to believe that their tactical successes and failures have more impact on elections than they really do.  I remember that from my own time in party politics and I make some similar observations in my forthcoming book about  environmental activists.  To motivate ourselves, we have to convince ourselves that what we are doing is making a big difference.  That is understandable, but if we want to understand the big picture we have to set our feelings aside – something which Jones attempts to do in places, but does not always succeed.

The unfortunate truth for Labour is that no change of tactics, of policies, of fresh new faces on the front bench will unite the diverse anti-Conservative majority in Britain.  At present Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens project all rely on middle-class Anywhere memberships and project that image to the public.  Whilst they compete for the same type of voters, there is no left-wing Somewhere party, and under the current electoral system any attempt to create one would only strengthen the Conservatives.

For Labour, no formula to win back the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies of the North will satisfy the voters where I live in Bristol West, nor vice-versa.  That means, under first-past-the-post, the Conservatives will continue to win unless they screw up so badly that they alienate many of their natural supporters.  Labour might occasionally win by default, but not through their own efforts.  A longer-term alternative to Conservative rule will require a change to Britain’s voting system, and a realignment of parties on the left.  To achieve that, Labour must first repudiate its culture of hopeful denial and face the reality which these two books, plus the Opinium report, reveal.

Slow Tourism and the Surrender of Our Freedom to Travel

If you are a UK citizen, are you aware how Brexit will constrain your freedom to travel after January 1st? If, like me, you value that freedom, but haven’t paid much attention to all this, please read on.

Fifteen years ago, when I started looking more deeply into the threats we faced from climate change I decided to stop flying.  I flew once for work about eight years ago, but have not been outside Western Europe since 2005, and have often turned down requests to attend conferences elsewhere.  Since making that decision I have become more interested in ‘slow tourism’, how taking more time can enrich the travel experience.  You have to dispense with the idea of going somewhere for a holiday, and plan the travel as part of the holiday.  So if we are travelling in Europe by train, we will often spend time with a friend in Paris, or stop over somewhere like Munich or Geneva on the way to Italy. 

As the latest report from the Climate Change Committee makes clear, whatever happens at Heathrow, the age of ever-expanding air travel is over.  In the years to come, affluent people in hyper-mobile societies like Britain will have to re-learn how to live without frequent flying.  A couple of years ago I co-wrote an article with Paul Purnell, who did his Masters dissertation on people who have stopped or reduced their flying.  This identified many barriers such people currently face.  Some of those barriers relate to employment practices.  Frequent short holidays, combined with cheap (and subsidised) flying encourage a culture of ‘fast tourism’.  A more sustainable future would combine short breaks closer to home with longer breaks every few years.  If you have ever been able to do that, you will understand what I mean by enriching travel experience. 

Over the three summers of my PhD between 2006 and 2008 I was able to take three long breaks – the longest was three and a half months.  I cycled across seven countries, acquiring a wealth of material, which I have been using in lectures, writing and conference presentations ever since.  This travel was entirely informal; in government statistics I would have counted as a tourist.  Since then, like most employees, work pressures have constrained me to one summer holiday each year, with odd days taken at other times. 

Over recent years I have been nurturing a dream.  When I retire, which I plan to do before I get too old, I want to cycle across Europe.  I originally planned to stop in Germany to improve my German and then follow some of the Eurovelo routes, through Vienna and along the Adriatic Coast to Greece, to visit the home city of my friend Athena.  I would then meander my way back across Southern Italy, Sardinia and France with no itinerary and no timetable.  This dream has kept me going through the boring, claustrophobic days of the COVID lockdown.

After I turned 58 this year I started to plan for this trip.  At the back of my mind was one potential dream-wrecker, which I had mentally shelved until recently: Brexit.  Like many people I had hoped, and assumed, that one way or another uncontroversial things like tourist travel would remain unaffected.  Studying the detail has given me great shock. 

From January 1st 2021, British citizens will be constrained to a maximum of 90 days in the Schengen area, which covers 26 countries of continental Europe within any 180-day period.  If you sit down and work out the maths, you realise that short stays outside the Schengen area won’t really help you to get home in time.  You would need to spend a full 90 days outside the Schengen area to ‘reset the clock’.  At the moment, there are three non-Schengen countries on my route: Croatia, Montenegro and Albania, but Croatia may be joining Schengen fairly soon.

Most people I have talked to about this assume “there must be some way round it”.  The simple answer is: for most people, no there isn’t.  The UK government, who have shamefully ignored this problem throughout the Brexit negotiations, advise people to apply for individual country visas if they want to stay longer.  But those visas are only granted under specific circumstances, which do not include tourism; they are not designed for people travelling across multiple countries within the Schengen area.  This article explains the situation in more detail.  It contains some cautionary tales of what can happen to people who overstay their Schengen visas.

I might be relatively lucky.  I have family members in France, which is one criterion for a one-year French visa, allowing up to 90 days in the rest of the Schengen area.  That would require some changes to my plans.  I won’t be able to study in Germany but I might be able to ride to Greece and hurry back to France before the 90 days expire.  My dream of “no itinerary, no timetable” will remain just a dream.  And there is no guarantee that my visa application will be approved. 

European visitors will be allowed to stay in Britain for up to 180 days.  Some EU countries have said they would be receptive to a proposal for parity, so why has the British government not tried to negotiate equal treatment? The answer seems to be: because they see it as a low priority.   At the moment, the vast majority of trips by British citizens to the EU are short (the average duration is 10 days); longer-stays are less common.  This campaign for visa parity, which made some very good points to MPs, was run by second home owners, one of the affected groups, but not the most likely to attract public sympathy.

Why then, does any of this matter? Going back to where this post began, when we finally begin to tackle the threat of rising aviation emissions, we will need to rethink the role of tourism in the lives of ordinary people.  If the idea of occasional longer breaks seems like a luxury for the rich, think of religious pilgrimages in earlier centuries, and for many followers of different religions today.  It requires some saving, but doesn’t necessarily cost any more than what most of us do at the moment.

The vast majority of aviation emissions come from long-haul flights; they are the ones we urgently need to reduce.  These new rules will create a perverse incentive for British citizens to avoid Europe and fly further for longer-term travel.  That might affect only a small proportion of travellers at the moment, but it will create a serious barrier to more sustainable tourism in future.

During the Cold War the ease of travel enjoyed in the West was often contrasted with the constraints imposed by Communist authorities on their unfortunate citizens.  Our freedom of travel was held up as a measure of the wider freedom we enjoyed.  Today, it’s impossible to write about free movement without acknowledging the suffering of refugees trying to enter Europe.  Compared to their plight, our loss of freedom to travel may seem pretty trivial, but those people are victims of a system in which they have no say.  We elected the leaders who support that system with its free movement of capital but are happy to surrender our freedom to travel.

Steve Melia

Steve ‘s New Book, Roads, Runways and Resistance, from the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion will be published in January 2021 by Pluto Press

The Green Left Should Beware ‘The Magic Money Tree’

The reaction of governments to the coronavirus is spawning a new form of “progressive” conventional wisdom (for example), which runs as follows: Western governments have always used financial constraints as an excuse for their inactivity.  They claimed that levels of debt were too high, that ‘austerity’ was unavoidable, that borrowing was limited.  The current crisis has disproved all of that.

The sight of governments abandoning their fiscal rules has raised hopes of a Green New Deal to lead economies out of the current recession.  That is an aim worth fighting for, but the belief that governments can borrow as much as they want is misleading, and could rebound against the left and environmental campaigners.

In the short-term governments can borrow as much as domestic or foreign lenders are willing to lend them.  In short periods of economic crisis rapid borrowing can moderate a fall in economic output.  In extreme circumstances, more borrowing may be less expensive (for the government as well as wider society) than doing nothing or raising taxes.  That may be true at the moment, but the debts incurred during the crisis will still have to be repaid at some point and in some way.  That statement remains true even if governments decide to carry more debt, print more money or default, making future borrowing more expensive.

The short-term benefits of higher government borrowing are often confused with arguments about the alleged longer-term benefits of public ‘investment’.  As I found researching my forthcoming book the ‘economic’ arguments for spending more public money on road building gained ground during the early 2000s although the evidence for or against road building didn’t really change.  Few influential people opposed those arguments; politicians and commentators of right and left chose to believe that building public infrastructure boosts the economy.

As I have written elsewhere, there is no proof that road building – or any other form of transport ‘investment’ – makes any significant difference to national economies.  Local benefits and disbenefits tend to cancel each other out – even if we ignore the environmental costs.  If there is any national benefit it is small, certainly not enough to reimburse governments for their extra borrowing. 

The same is likely to be true of most other forms of capital spending financed through government borrowing.  We may well need better schools, hospitals and homes for homeless people but the idea that governments can borrow the money to build them and they will pay for themselves is wishful thinking.

Supporters of a Green New Deal often argue that it would “boost the economy”.  The thinking behind that argument is similar to the dubious beliefs of politicians about the economic benefits of roads, airports and high-speed rail.  It would be difficult to convincingly argue in favour of one, whilst rejecting the other.

A stronger argument for a Green New Deal would be to protect and transfer employment away from activities that are bound to decline towards more sustainable activities for the future.  Some more borrowing may be necessary to finance the transition.  In the longer-term, a more sustainable economy would spend less on new infrastructure and borrow less for that purpose.

We might like to see more renewable energy, insulation of homes and electrification of vehicles but our leaders may hear those arguments differently.  If those things boost the economy, then why not more roads, airports, coal and fracking? Or why not some of both? I have noticed how local authorities justify their road building plans by saying they will expand public transport as well.  The net result of expanding both is more movement, which is worse than doing nothing for the climate and the natural world.

The current spending and borrowing spree will not last.  Future governments of any persuasion will have to start repaying at least some of the debt.  Instead of calling for more yet borrowing, we should talk the language of priorities.  In a time of recovery and transition, we cannot afford £29 billion for road building or £88 billion for HS2.  We cannot afford to bail out the aviation industry.  We should tax polluters and the holders of wealth to pay for the debt.  We should invest in the technologies of the future instead of the technologies of the past.  We should learn the big lesson of this crisis about failing to prepare for a known threat, and reorient the priorities of government towards the biggest threat of all from climate breakdown

2019 Election – The Lessons Were Already Known Three Years Ago

Three years ago, I read the most important lessons the left and centre-left need to learn from their defeat in the 2019 election. I wondered how many people noticed at the time. I wonder how many are ready to take notice now.

This report from think tank Opinium studied the political views and core beliefs of the British public. They divided the public into eight ‘political tribes’ cutting across the traditional divisions of left, right and centre. Two of these tribes, ‘Our Britain’ and ‘Common Sense’ account for around half the population. Their views, and their fundamental values, make it easier for one party, the Conservative Party, to win the 40% it needs to secure a majority under the first-past-the-post system. The ‘Our Britain’ tribe holds strongly protectionist, anti-European anti-immigration views, but 15% of these people described themselves as ‘left-wing’ and 19% of them voted Labour in 2015.

In a Guardian article, one of the report’s authors identified immigration as the key issue “uniting the right and dividing the left”; but the significance of immigration, like Brexit, goes deeper than the specific issue; it signals a difference of world-view: internationalist or protectionist?

The other six ‘political tribes’ in the study were smaller and more disparate, making it difficult, if not impossible, for any one party to appeal to all of them. Opinium found strong support for some left-wing economic ideas, such as taxing the rich and banning zero-hours contracts, spread across protectionists (the majority) and internationalists. The ‘not as bad as expected’ result in 2017 allowed the left, and the Labour Party in particular, to defer any recognition of these realities. Both Labour and the Lib Dems mainly appeal to voters with left-leaning economic views and an internationalist outlook. That combination is found amongst less than a quarter of the population. No party currently appeals to the left-leaning protectionists and it is difficult to see how one party could do that without alienating the internationalists. Criticism of Labour’s Brexit policy misses the point – the party faced a lose-lose-lose choice, between supporting remain, supporting Brexit or something in between. Opinium’s analysis would also cast doubt on the suggestion that a Blairite party (also internationalist at heart) could have done much better.

Unless the Conservative Party implodes or the fundamental values of the British public radically change (neither of which is impossible) the only hope for more progressive government in the UK lies in a change in the voting system. A coalition of two or three parties, different from the ones we have today, could appeal to a progressive majority under a more proportional system. Clearly Conservative governments will never make such a change. Could other parties cooperate to bring it about? The key to all this lies in the ‘period of reflection’ promised by the Labour Party. Will that reflection recognise the realities of modern Britain or will it be an exercise in re-branding and wishful thinking?

Where Next for Extinction Rebellion?

The ‘Autumn Uprising which is drawing to a close in London has been a more mixed experience than last time. There will now be a period of reflection.  This is a contribution to that reflection.

The success of April’s ‘Spring Uprising surprised most people, including many of us who were involved.  Several things have changed since April. The police were better prepared, and under greater pressure to break any disruptive actions.  And for the mainstream media XR blocking roads or buildings was no longer a new story.

The strategy for the Autumn Uprising anticipated some of those changes and seemed to make a lot of sense.  Following some local actions over the summer and a divisive internal debate over plans to fly drones at Heathrow, a groundswell amongst our membership concluded that we needed to change tack.  We needed to be more careful to minimise disruption to the general public; our principal target is the government, followed by polluting companies and elites who support and profit from those activities.  Credit should go to Rupert Read for making a cogent argument for that change at national level.

The internal communications about the Autumn Uprising made clear that we would be doing those three things, starting with the offices of government departments and moving on to City Airport and fossil fuel interests in the City of London.  So far so good.  

The ultimate aim of our tactics is to compel the government to negotiate on our three main demands.  As it turned out, the October dates (agreed internationally) did not really lend themselves to that endgame.  Britain has a distracted moribund government shortly to face an election. Raising the profile of the climate and ecological crisis and recruiting more rebels was probably the most we could achieve on this occasion.  The harder stuff will have to wait until we get a new government, which will not be long.

The most effective actions were the ones like the occupation of City Airport or this one aimed at BlackRock investments organised by my friend Jo Flanagan.  They had carefully thought through their target, their aims, and the best way of achieving them.  For example, they dressed in business clothes, to avoid early detection but also because they did not want to look like ‘the other’.  The whole thing was carefully choreographed, with a strategy to distribute the video afterwards.

Then we heard that some groups were planning to disrupt the underground during the morning rush hour.  It seems that a large majority of XR members recognised a disaster in the making and many of us contacted the national action team to say so.  That message was communicated to the affinity groups involved and some decided to pull out. Unfortunately a few people ignored those appeals. How much damage their actions, and these images have done to the movement remains to be seen.  This weakness in the self-organising structure of XR has been recognised at national level.  In future we should trust the good sense of the majority of our members with a mechanism to decide what will or will not be endorsed as an XR action.

While we learn from our mistakes the window of opportunity to avert a climate catastrophe continues to shrink.  As soon as a new government takes office we will need to rachet up the pressure on them. Let’s be honest, none of our actions have caused any serious inconvenience to the government, yet.  Unless the new government starts acting to rapidly reduce emissions, that is what we must do next. A loose collection of autonomous small-scale actions has not achieved that aim so far, and is unlikely to do so.  Next time we will need will need to focus our efforts and resources on a few vulnerable points. That will require more central planning and coordination.  

Personally, I don’t see the point of any more road blocking (except as an accidental by-product of a more focused action) and we should have a national understand that we will never target public transport.  Airports may be a legitimate target where the action is clearly aimed at stopping a climate-busting expansion plan. Government departments and activities should be our main targets.

In all future actions, national or local, we should ask ourselves: why are we doing this? What do we believe that it will achieve? Is this the most effective way? If not, then we need to rethink.