Earlier this year, Conservative politicians were displeased by Sadiq Khan telling an audience in Ealing that people outside protesting against his plan to expand the Ultra-Low Emission Zone to the whole of Greater London included individuals who were “part of the far Right”. He also said some were “Covid-deniers” opposed to the use of vaccines. “And some are Tories,” added the Mayor.
A misrepresentation of Khan’s remarks was as swiftly-fashioned as it was predictable. At the same People’s Question Time event, a Conservative member of the London Assembly indignantly proclaimed, “If you disagree with the Mayor, he’s going to paint you as far Right”.
Of course, the Mayor had not done that. Rather, he had, albeit pointedly, observed that opposition to the further expansion of the ULEZ was something London Tories, far Right extremists and Covid conspiracists had in common.
It does not follow from his remark that Khan believes every Londoner with concerns about the next stage of his ULEZ policy has far Right opinions. Neither would it be accurate or fair for anyone to say that all Conservatives objecting to the ULEZ expansion hold such views, or that they are all oddball anti-vaxxers.
Yet Covid denial and far Right ideologies have areas of overlap. These cross over with less crude but more visible manifestations of what we might call the nationalist hard Right, such as the Reform UK Party and and television channels GB News and Talk TV, with their routine apologism for Brexit and Donald Trump. And some recent Tory responses to the ULEZ expansion have shown a degree of alignment with the above-ground Right fringe of the political spectrum, one that goes beyond a shared dislike of a particular approach to improving air quality.
Let’s go back to Khan’s Ealing comment. It was correct. There is no question that groups and individuals who fit any definition of “far Right” have advertised their opposition to the ULEZ (and other policies for further regulating private car use). That menacing mindset was also very evident from the abuse aimed at Khan when he launched his book, Breathe, at the Royal Festival Hall in May, an event I attended.
Nor is there any doubt that conspiracy theorists who claim the dangers posed by Covid were made-up or deliberately exaggerated with vaccines all part of the same plot to impose totalitarianism, or who insist that the mild-mannered idea of the 15-minute city is a “communist” stepping stone to wall-to-wall state control, have been part of the anti-ULEZ fray.
These latter causes have had very public Conservative adherents too, ranging from MPs to councillors, along with numerous like-minded media commentators who are very far from “silenced” as they loudly and frequently allege. The ULEZ expansion has been recruited as a new vehicle – allusion intended – for expressing nationalist hard Right sentiment, including in some of its more nefarious and sinister forms.
On the day the expansion came into effect, the Daily Mail reported former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith, MP for the marginal outer London seat of Chingford & Woodford Green, saying he was “happy” for his constituents to put bags over ULEZ enforcement cameras or block them with cement – a view that prompted former Tory London MP Gavin Barwell to recall when his party styled itself the upholder of law and order.
Duncan Smith has now told the Evening Standard, “I don’t condone law breaking of any kind” but he does “understand the frustrations” of people in his constituency who will be liable for the daily charge. Not exactly a condemnation.
The Mail, which in 2016 described judges who ruled that Brexit could not be triggered without a Commons vote as “enemies of the people”, has been excitedly documenting examples of the vandalism. A new YouGov poll, which found that more Londoners support the ULEZ expansion than oppose it, also found that more than half of those opposed support Transport for London’s enforcement cameras being vandalised.
The Standard reported last week that some London Tories, including Steve Tucknell, the new MP for Uxbridge & South Ruislip, have helped run social media groups whose members include people who have celebrated damaging TfL cameras and shared advice about how to do it.
Where does Tory mayoral candidate Susan Hall, plainly on the nationalist hard Right of her party, stand amid all this? Yesterday on X, formerly Twitter, she thanked the author of an article in the Spectator in which she was praised as “an authentic Conservative” with a “lock’ em up” attitude to crime. In her grateful response, Hall called for the backing of those who want “a return to robust law and order”. She has, however, yet to express any robust disapproval of those trashing TfL property.
In recent years Conservatives have become habituated to law-breaking in their own ranks and to excusing it, notably during the ascendancy of Boris Johnson. Many members and supporters have persuaded themselves that ignoring rules everyone else has to abide by is OK if it means what they decree “the will of the people” is implemented. When the law or the criminal justice system gets in the way, it is accused of being part of some shadowy liberal “establishment” bent on thwarting the wishes of the masses.
This is territory a desperate Conservative Party – and its many, increasingly zealous media allies – now seems content to share with fantasists and fanatics if it thinks it can get a populist ball rolling in the name of “freedom”. In the case of the ULEZ, the road rage is all the uglier for being fuelled by people who detest Khan simply for being an Asian Londoner and a Muslim.
Opposition to the ULEZ can be and often is perfectly reasonable. But ULEZ-hate of the type we now see being stoked is about much more than disliking a measure chosen by the Mayor for cleaning up tailpipe dirt and fumes. It is a way of expressing a whole range of noxious, misled and polluting sentiments. For the good of London and the whole country they must not prevail.
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