The Left Was Right!

Self justification, we are told, is an unhealthy preoccupation. But just for a change – and considering the enormity of the issues that are and have been at stake, I got thinking the other day about just some of them. I also got thinking about how those of us who have argued passionately for them or against them were frequently castigated, ignored and insulted. I also got to think about so many in the Labour Party who were disparaged, blocked and barred from office – in order that those who let ambition guide them, were rewarded for their sycophancy.

Here are just a few. Readers will no doubt think of more.

*The systemic flaws in the Anglo American free market system; many of us argued that worshipping at the altar of the market place, allowing state assets to be flogged off and the banks, insurance and credit companies complete carte blanche would not only result in a  more unequal society, the whole system risked imploding. Back when we were doing so, the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown MP, had gone to worship at the altar of the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan. He came back to Britain to tell us that he would end “boom and bust”. He competed with the Conservative Opposition to relax regulation of the financial services – and came to believe that a combination of the ‘dot com’ revolution and ever rising property prices would lead to permanent prosperity.

Then came that “bust” we all knew would happen. Fortunately Gordon Brown, by then Prime Minister and his Chancellor, Alistair Darling were clever men. They had studied Keynes, and they knew what they had to do. As did the incoming Obama administration. They plugged the gap and prevented a banking crisis through a massive bale out. This of course was our money! The bankers didn’t contribute a dime. None of them have been prosecuted for their grand larceny, and now they are back paying themselves huge bonuses again as the rest of us are told to tighten our belts. We know who is laughing all of the way to the bank!

Gordon Brown has now written a book and Alistair Darling has written a perspicacious article for the New York Times. They are both now singing from our song sheet. We were right when it counted, and they were wrong.

*European Monetary Union; Many of us who were not anti European, but worried at the centralising aspects and the democratic deficit associated with the European Project, had huge doubts about the long term prospects for the European economy. We thought that this was as much a political project as an economic one, and one that brought together economies that didn’t perform at the same rate, but that would enjoy the same interest rates.  The then Prime Minister Tony Blair told friends that he wanted to be “remembered in history” for taking Britain in. Those of us who disagreed were labelled ‘little Englanders’ and told to “get with the project.”

Had Britain joined the Single Currency, given our over exposure to credit driven debt, our recession would have turned into a depression. Perhaps the British economy – and the British banks – would simply have been too big to bail out by the European Central Bank. Britain would have been another Ireland or Greece. So who supports Britain joining the Single Currency now?

*Manufacturing and the Financial Sector; For thirty years, since Margaret Thatcher was elected to power and used unemployment as a tool to control inflation and was allowed that to take key sectors of Britain’s heavy and manufacturing industry with it, we said that it was a terrible mistake to allow the country’s manufacturing base to shrink. We said that cyclical unemployment wasn’t worth the social and economic cost, but were labelled ‘dinosaurs’. We said an over dependence on the financial sector was the equivalent of putting all our eggs in one basket.

Now everyone seems to agree. Britain has to export itself out of recession by selling goods to the World, instead of exporting our best brains and most able bodied to the Middle East and South Asia. But what exactly does Britain have to export?

*Closing the Wealth gap; the gap between rich and poor in Britain and in America is the widest it has been since Victorian times, and just keeps getting wider. Once Britain had North Sea Oil to act as a cushion, but now that has gone. We said that Labour owed its very existence to tackling the most fundamental inequalities of all, and they just kept getting bigger. We were attacked for wanting to ‘level down’, for failing to understand aspiration. Instead the Meritocratic Society was offered up as sticking plaster by mediocrities, and we were allowed to imagine wealth ‘trickling down from above’.

Now we know that the wealth kept on trickling up. Now we know that the “squeezed middle”, the so called little people who pay their taxes are paying so that the super rich can get, er, richer!

*The Special Relationship; the British establishment has for years fostered the idea that there is a ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States. We said that could be loosely translated as the US telling Britain to “jump”, and the British saying “How high?” We know from the Wikileaks, just how many British politicians worried, wheedled and promised in order to maintain the fiction.

Now even Jack Straw, who arguably jumped pretty high when he was asked to do so, agrees with us.

*Afghanistan; in the wake of the horrendous terrorist attacks on the United States, which saw thousands of all religions and nationalities lose their lives in the Twin Tower outrage, some, including the American and British Governments thought that it would be a good idea to send armies to Afghanistan. We said that the terrorists weren’t from Afghanistan, but that militant extremism that led to terrorism had to be dealt with in much more imaginative ways. We reminded the politicians that Afghanistan had not only seen off Hannibal, but the British and the Soviets. Britain’s Defence Secretary said that “not a shot would be fired”, and those British troops would be back by Christmas.

Now we know that the Afghan war is the longest in living memory. It is largely futile and has been years. Now we know that the politicians are desperate to bring back the troops, knowing, as we always did, that foreign armies always come to grief north of the Khyber Pass.

*Iraq; we said that we doubted that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, we said that war could only be declared with the agreement of the United Nations, and that a war conducted without it could conceivably be against international law. We said that the construct that is Iraq could fall apart and descend into civil war and that the whole balance of power in the region could fall apart and that Iran could only stand to benefit.

Hundreds of thousands of lives later, with tens of thousands of hideously wounded and disabled in its wake, we know that there were no weapons of mass destruction and that Government on both sides of the Atlantic with the collusion of many journalists told lies. Only George Bush (Retd) and Tony Blair (Retd), plus a bunch of loony neo cons now think that the Iraq War was right.

Of one thing we can be sure; to be proved right on so many of the great issues will not invite gratitude. Still less, by reminding those who were wrong. In fact quite the reverse.

So just for good measure, here is another warning for those who ignore history at their peril. The Anglo American model has de stabilised the World economy to such a scale, economic power may now be irrevocably shifting from West to East, and with it the life chances of millions. Instead, in Britain at least, the new political establishment is beginning to mirror a very old one indeed. This political elite, millionaires all, is intent on rowing back the State to such an extent that it will exist primarily to protect the interests of the super rich. The bottom have been squeezed into apathy and defeat. But by squeezing the middle, this new elite does not know what it risks unleashing.

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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