In Ben Elton’s 1989 novel Stark,  a consortium of the super-rich are planning to escape to another planet from the devastation they have caused on this one. The plan, naturally, has to be kept secret, or they and their bespoke spaceship will be torn apart by the enraged populace whom they have robbed of a habitable home.

This story resurfaces in my mind whenever there is news of a privately-funded initiative to explore space. It resurfaces when there is particularly dire news about the environment.

It resurfaced last week when the Government lost its attempt in the high court to keep its plans to tackle air pollution under wraps until June. The Government was ordered in November to provide these plans by April 24. It appealed against the order with only hours remaining before the deadline. Its grounds were that the policy would be controversial and should be withheld   until after the general election in case its publication breached “purdah,” the pre-election period in which politically contentious announcements should not be made by local or central government.

Mr Justice Garnham said that purdah was not a principle in law, the Government should not try to hide behind it, that its failure to comply with directives and regulations constituted a significant threat to public health and it must publish its draft plan on 9 May. Then it must comply with his original order of November and release its final policy by July 31.

Three cheers for the judge, I thought. But who is winning? The Government has been refusing to publish its plans for tackling air pollution for seven years.

Air pollution is believed to be responsible, according to Defra’s own figures, for 40,000 premature deaths per year, of which nitrogen dioxide from diesel traffic causes 23,500. According to a Labour party analysis, 59% of the population lives in towns and cities where nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution is above legal limits. Asthma and cardiovascular disease are among the effects. Children are particularly vulnerable. The cost to the NHS is in the region of £6.6 billion per year.

All the time it is prevaricating, inventing excuses and consulting lawyers, the death toll continues. NO2 pollution costs 64 deaths per day (Government figures). How many lives might have been saved if Andrea Leadsom had decided to do her job and publish that draft plan in, say, December?

I suspect there was no draft plan until the judge’s ruling.  They will be doing it now quickly on the back of an election leaflet. However, I don’t think that is the real reason for its non-appearance. I think for the past six months Andrea Leadsom, instead of talking to health professionals, has been talking to motor manufacturers.

To allege that public servants are in fact working against the public should be a very serious matter. I should be afraid of a writ, or something of the sort.  I am not, because everyone knows that it happens. If the Government has failed for seven years to make plans for cleaning up the air we breathe, it can only be that it doesn’t want to make such plans. And that can only be because it cannot resist the pressure put on it by groups in whose interests such plans are not. It is a familiar story.

But this is the air we breathe!

Hence, presumably, the acerbity of Mr Justice Garnham’s ruling. The Government will now, belatedly, comply. But if it has taken seven years to get the British Government to attend to our air, what can we expect in future? And to whom can we look? The courts, it’s to be hoped, will continue to defend our rights. But on the basis of what law?

The regulation which the Government is required to implement is an EU regulation. It is part of EU Directive 2008/50/EC that sets air quality limits for all member countries. The level for NO2 was set in 2010 and the UK has been in breach of it ever since.

The EU has regulations and directives on dozens of issues from anti-competitive behaviour to workers’ rights, from clean air and consumer protection to the safety of shipping and the protection of birds. It concerns itself with waste disposal, chemical pollution, the control of scientific experiments on animals and standards for windscreens. Over the years these regulations have saved and improved many lives, and made many enemies.

There are people in Britain who are intent on destroying these regulations. This requires that the country leave the European Union.

It took me a while to accept that this was what lay behind the drive for hard Brexit. When I first came across the idea I was shocked: I felt that it ascribed to certain unnamed individuals a depth of cynicism that was barely credible. Yet it made sense when nothing else did. What, I had often wondered, was in it  for the rabid Brexiteers, if they were not so stupid as to believe their own propaganda?

Well, they are now telling us openly what’s in it: a low-tax, low-regulation economy. They think they are speaking to initiates and will not be understood by people who voted Leave believing they were voting against Spanish trawlers. Fortunately we have among us people who will decode the signal. Here is A.C. Grayling:

“They want to make it [an]… economy where they and they alone can flourish. Such an economy will not have the resources for the NHS, a good state education system, a welfare net or environmental protection. It will strip away consumer and employee rights… Brexiters have stated in public their intention to make a “bonfire of regulations” to make money-making easier. And that is the key. It will make things easy only for money – money and nothing else.

“The only people who do not need an NHS because they have private medical insurance, the only people who do not need a state education system because their children go to private schools, the only people who will never need a welfare net because they are too rich to care, the only people who do not need clean city air and clean beaches in the UK because they have country houses and take their holidays abroad, are the rich.” (The New European, April 28-May 4, p. 15).

It explains everything, doesn’t it? The rejection of all forms of soft Brexit, the refusal to offer assurance to EU nationals living in Britain, the wilful provocation of European institutions. Theresa May’s crass insistence at a Downing Street dinner on concessions she had been repeatedly told she could not have; since then, open belligerence towards the EU. Taken together, all these must result in an impasse in the negotiations, leading to Britain’s unceremonious exit from the EU. At the mercy of the bandits who have brought this about.

What, I wonder, will the bandits do when they get their wish and then the bottom falls out of that plan as well? Greed, by definition, has no limits. But a swindle cannot go on for ever, and a looter will in time run out of loot. They could move on to the rest of the planet, of course, where their counterparts will be doing the same thing. But even the planet…


The thing is, Mars and all those places aren’t ready. They should have started planning earlier.  And they aren’t very hardy, those people, in all probability. They are used to air-conditioning and having their martinis mixed. They aren’t going to do well in a place that has no atmosphere and where the lighting is all artificial and everything tastes funny and they can’t go outside.

But there is hope for them. It’s to be found on another page of The New European  (“Going Underground”, by Frank Heinz Diebel). The fashion for converting underground Cold War-era bunkers into survivalist refuges has spread to Europe from the USA, catering to a moneyed clientele worried about social unrest as well as dioxin, climate change and polluted rivers. A 2,500 sq ft apartment at Europa One in Germany comes with access to a wine cellar, restaurants, bakery, a hospital and a zoo. (I have no information on the zoo.) Applicants will be invited – or not – following an interview. The Oppidum in the Czech Republic offers a swimming pool and underground garden.

There appears to be something along these lines at Chislehurst, but it sounds a bit of a muddle. Herr Diebel says it’s not a bunker any more. Does this mean it isn’t underground? If not, there doesn’t seem to be much point. Fleeing Brexiters would have to get themselves into one of the European ones, which might be awkward.


2 thoughts on “Put it on the bonfire

  1. It’s astonishing, isn’t it, to realise that the people running the country really don’t care about the rest of us at all. I grew up in a time of free university education, free healthcare and other government provisions, and I always presumed that the government, although it frequently made mistakes, was at least trying to do what was in the interests of the people. The political parties differed over the best way of achieving that, but the basic idea of government in the interests of the people didn’t seem to be under threat. Now, it seems to have gone. I realise that the time I grew up in was a brief interlude, perhaps brought on by the perceived threat of the USSR and the desire to appease Western populations with concessions to stop them from “going communist.” With that threat now gone, the pretence has gone with it, and we’ll probably soon be buying bottled air at the supermarket.

    1. We were lucky, Andrew. I’m sure you’re right that it was connected with the perceived threat from the USSR. However, I think there’s more to it than that. If you think about British politics in the 19th century (on which I’m not an expert), there were probably as many humanitarians and philanthropists (e.g. Samuel Plimsoll on shipping) as politicians who approved of the Peterloo massacre. It’s always been a tussle, and the lines have always been recognisable. This feels different to me. It feels nihilistic. It attacks the very ideas on which the principles of humanitarianism and decency are founded. That’s frightening.

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