Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Airport expansion: is the green movement winning the battle but losing the war?

One of the downsides of having a radio alarm and of being tragically middle class enough to set it to Radio 4 is that you sometimes wake up to the burbling of Cabinet Ministers. Yesterday, it was Justine Greening, being pressed by John Humphrys to say whether she would resign if her government approved a third runway at Heathrow. She eventually caved and admitted it would be "difficult" for her to stay on, which duly became the headline in later editions of that day's papers.

And the story's rumbled on today, with a report being published by the Parliamentary Aviation Group arguing that the UK needs new airport capacity either at Heathrow or at a new hub airport. Incidentally, this group is serviced by a consultancy called MHP Communications, which does public affairs work for the transport sector but doesn't publish a full list of its clients - so there's really no way of knowing whether it's a front for industry.

Either way, it's been obvious for a while that the aviation industry is mounting a seriously concerted campaign for expansion. I have to go through Westminster tube quite regularly for work, and for several weeks I couldn't avoid seeing these purple monstrosities plastered over literally every surface, from ticket barriers to escalators:

They had numerous other oh-so-witty slogans as well: "Nothing grows without routes", "UK economic growth, this is your final call", and so on and so on. My first thought (after controlling the impulse to vomit) was "why hasn't this been subvertised?" Turns out it was, but I guess that must have been speedily dealt with by station staff, to ensure that MPs arriving at the House of Commons could enjoy BAA's propaganda undisturbed.

This, and seemingly endless headlines in the Evening Standard about how badly London needs new airport capacity, are clearly the tip of the lobbying iceberg. If these posters (which must have cost a fortune) are the bit we get to see, how many breakfasts, lunches, dinners, receptions, private meetings and briefings must have been going on behind the scenes?

Meanwhile, the environmental movement seems to be missing in action. I did look for signs of life before writing this blog, in case I've just not been paying attention, but all I could find was a little-read blog from WWF and Greenpeace's press comment on yesterday's news. I assume they have also been doing their bit behind the scenes - at least, I bloody hope so - but when a powerful industry is throwing so much cash and influence at an issue, surely a groundswell of public pressure is the only thing that could genuinely redress the balance?

All I can think is that environmental NGOs are keeping a watching brief but not mobilising their supporters because they think the risk of a third runway being approved is low. If today's news is anything to go by, this confidence could be misplaced. But even if they're right, my worry is that they'll win the battle but lose the war: that while everyone fixates on the third runway, the wider argument about airport expansion is being quietly lost to the lobbyists.

The No Third Runway campaign has always been a strange alliance of greens and locals, and Justine Greening (whose constituency is under Heathrow's flightpath) clearly falls into the latter camp. And she's not the only one: there is clearly a huge nexus of powerful people, from Boris Johnson to David Cameron, who oppose the third runway but are openly in favour of airport expansion and decidedly indifferent to developing policies to reduce aviation emissions. Basically, even if the third runway isn't built, some form of expansion of the UK's airport capacity looks increasingly likely. We shouldn't kid ourselves that the environmental argument has been won.

There's a general feeling of tiredness and demoralisation in the green movement at the moment, but if there's one thing we all love, it's having a good enemy - and BAA, whose website proudly proclaims it to be "at the forefront of the sustainable aviation debate", is a pretty good enemy. Surely it's time for civil society to wade into this battle?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

One year on from the riots - why we could all use a bit more humility

[Disclaimer: I realise this post is slightly behind the times - I started writing it a couple of weeks ago, got poorly and have only just got round to finishing it. It's quite long, but it's the product of a lot of thinking, so bear with it - I'd like to know what you think.]

On the anniversary of last summer's riots, a lot of ink was spilled about why they happened and how we can stop them happening again. Much of it raises points that I think are both true and important. But I've been puzzled by the total failure of almost all of it to engage with social psychology - with what we know about how people behave in crowds. 

The Riots, Communities and Victims Panel's website says that they spoke to key stakeholders including affected communities, third sector organisations and employers. Social psychologists don't feature anywhere on that list, and evidence from social psychology doesn't appear anywhere in the Panel's final report. In a way, that's not surprising - a large part of the Panel's purpose seems to have been to make people feel listened to, and few politicians care whether social psychologists feel listened to.

Perhaps another part of its purpose was to fulfil our need to feel that we understand, to impose a tidy narrative on something shocking and unsettling. And again, social psychology's not particularly helpful here: if there's one thing it suggests, it's that crowd situations are by their nature chaotic and unpredictable, so we should probably be at least a bit circumspect about any conclusions we draw from the events of last summer. 

Yet from the minute the riots started happening, right up until the anniversary a few weeks ago, people from all sides of the political spectrum seem to have been astonishingly ready to start sentences with things like "the riots happened because..." (or even, in the case of Laurie Penny - never one to knowingly undersell her opinions - "people riot because"). Unsurprisingly, those sentences usually ended in a way that reflected the political prejudices of the people writing them - it was poor parenting, it was black culture, it was the cuts. I've thought about this quite a bit, and I've come to the conclusion that pretty much all those prejudices entail assumptions about the rioters' political or moral agency which are at odds with what we know about crowd behaviour. And maybe that's why nobody's been particularly keen to look at the psychological evidence.

Let's start with the left. Last summer, I actually found it quite distasteful how quickly both personal friends and political commentators jumped to appropriate the riots as an expression of anger against the cuts. To be fair, a lot admitted they'd been overly hasty once it became apparent that most of the rioters were not very interested in battling the police and really quite interested in going on the rob. I hate to pick on people, but Laurie Penny has recently re-posted the article quoted above, so I'm assuming she does not fall into this camp and that the views she expresses in it are fair game.

In it, she describes the riots as a sort of "political statement", the nature of which "may be obscured" even to those who took part. To be honest, this strikes me as quite patronising. I do not think it is possible to make a political statement without knowing you are making it. That is sort of in the nature of the word 'statement'. Of course, that doesn't mean that what you're doing doesn't have political implications - but for me, this is the first type of attempt to foist agency on the rioters, a claim that the left commentariat somehow have a privileged insight that enables them to explain to us all what the rioters were really trying to say.

Just to be clear, I'm absolutely not trying to depoliticise the riots here. I strongly believe that, insofar as we can point fingers of blame, our hugely unequal society should be first in line. And I agree with Laurie Penny that all the evidence suggests the riots were sparked off by an excluded underclass with no stake in society and nothing to lose. But I don't find it plausible that the prime motivation of the rioters was anger against the police or the cuts. Even if  that was true at the beginning, it certainly doesn't explain the way the riots spread. My point is that there's a big difference between recognising the politics in a situation and making claims about the political motivations of those involved. 

So what about the right? Their reaction was even more distasteful, with politicians, commentators and the establishment in general falling over themselves to morally condemn the rioters. David Cameron - cheered on by the Tory right - blamed the riots on "moral collapse", on irresponsibility and selfishness, on "children without fathers; schools without discipline; reward without effort; crime without punishment; rights without responsibilities; communities without control". Another tidy narrative, another terribly convenient and predictable list of culprits, and another attempt to foist agency on people, only this time it's moral agency rather than political agency. And this was more iniquitous - for innumerable reasons, but mainly because it had real-world consequences. 

The language of morality used about rioters flies in the face of everything we know about crowd psychology - about contagion, peer pressure, group dynamics and so on. As I've argued before, if studies like those of Milgram and Zimbardo show us one thing, it's that none of us know how we'll behave in situations like that, and that the forces of conformity and social norms are more powerful than we could have imagined. (This is true even in everyday, familiar situations, let alone the madness of a riot.)

So we should surely be a bit more humble in making moral judgements about people who were swept up in the mob. Yet if anything we saw the reverse, with courts put under huge pressure to hand out punitive sentences to 'send a message' - and, for the most part, happily obliging. If the government had been willing to put the psychological evidence ahead of knee-jerk political reactions, maybe we wouldn't have had the ludicrous spectacle of a man being sentenced to six months in jail for stealing a bottle of water. And maybe if we all paid a bit more attention to the psychology, we'd think twice before treating the riots as a handy peg on which to hang our own agendas and assumptions.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

George Galloway: you've got to admire his indefatigability. Oh no wait, you haven't.

Ah, George Galloway. As my husband remarked over dinner today, "it's not so much that this is par for the course with him, it's more that I expect him to be continually hitting new lows". It seems kind of unnecessary to post about why he's been a twat on this particular occasion, because a) it's pretty bloody obvious, and b) the internets are pretty much already on it. However, blogging about things that make me cross has got me this far, and George Galloway makes me pretty damn cross. Also, there's a video with more amusement value than his turgid excuse for a podcast as a reward if you make it to the end of the post.

I won't insult your intelligence by rehearsing all the reasons why Galloway's opinions about rape are stupid and wrong - rape charity Crisis's press comments say everything I would have said, except more eloquently, and this tweet says basically everything I would have said, except more wittily.

But one of the things that's really pissed me off about this is Galloway's attempt to excuse his comments by posing as a defender of the integrity of the term 'rape'. In the bit of his podcast that's been widely quoted, he says Assange's actions can't be called rape, "or you bankrupt the word rape of all meaning". Just in case we haven't got it, he reiterates this point again, in a passage that's been less widely quoted (probably for the understandable reason that you have to sit through five additional minutes of chuntering to get to it):

“I will not be intellectually terrorised into bankrupting the word rape of its actual, horrific meaning. Rape is a horrific thing, the currency should not be debased by describing other things, however base, as being rape.”

The problem is that you can't position yourself as being on the side of 'real' rape victims whilst simultaneously pronouncing on who is and isn't a 'real' rape victim. There's something about this tactic that reminded me of the police's efforts to co-opt the definition of 'protest' to justify their persecution of protesters they don't like. If that's offensive (and it is), how much more offensive it is for Galloway to co-opt the definition of rape to justify his persecution of (alleged) rape victims he doesn't like. And more to the point, just as it's not for the state to pronounce on what constitutes a protest, it's not for a self-important misogynistic windbag to pronounce on what constitutes rape.

Right, now I've got that out of my system - here, as promised, is my favourite ever George Galloway moment. On election night in 2005, Jeremy Paxman interviewed George after it became apparent he'd ousted Oona King as MP for Bethnal Green & Bow. The result is stunning - the unstoppable force meets the immovable object. Watch it.