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Why does London have more airports than any other city, anyway?

London has more airports than any other major city - which is a bit odd, really. This video helpfully explains why.

When you think about it, London does seem to have a lot more airports than it should. In descending order in terms of number of passengers per year, there's Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, City and Southend, which is ridiculous, as YouTube vlogger and musician Jay Foreman explains in episode three of his Unfinished London series.

Believe me when I say it's a bit exciting (if you're a sad infrastructure geek like me) that Foreman's actually got around to making a third episode - it's been three years since episode two, and the first one came out in 2009. They're witty walkthroughs of the ways London's stop-start, never-finishes-what-it-starts approach to urban planning has made the city what it is today. Episode one deals with the Northern Heights plan, which would have connected the stub of the Northern line with Mill Hill East on it with Edgware, and likely have brought with it thousands of new homes in what is now, still, a semi-rural area; episode two is about the Ringways, which would have seen London surrounded by four ring roads, of which the M25 is the main survivor (and which was abandoned halfway through, thus why the "south circular" isn't).

Episode three, though, is about the capital's airports, which are mostly built on what were aerodromes built in the inter-war period by wealthy plane nuts indulging their hobby, who in turn saw a money-making opportunity in accepting passengers. Yet the first airport in the city, Croydon Airport, couldn't survive after the Second World War as its runways weren't long enough for new, larger planes, and neither could most of the other aerodromes or airports, which found themselves surrounded by urban sprawl. We have Heathrow where it is because it was near the edge of the city, with enough room to be the city's main airport - and Gatwick is even further out because it was the best candidate of the nearby RAF airfields to be London's backup. And, as they in turn became constrained by planning issues, Stansted (an RAF airfield) and Luton (a small regional airport meant to serve the Home Counties) were commandeered to serve ever-growing London. City was part of Canary Wharf's regeneration, and Southend is the most-recent, becoming London Southend as part of a rebranding exercise. That brings us to six.

This is only civilian airports doing international flights, though, because "airport" is a fuzzy definition. There are nearly 20 further airfields and aerodromes within Greater London and just outside it, as well as RAF Northolt - and then there's the fact that some airports that aren't meant to serve London are, nevertheless, as close as some of those that are (like Lydd Airport in Kent), while some that say they're meant to serve London (looking at you, "London" Oxford Airport) probably don't in practice. If you include all these extra types of airport then, well, it's probably impossible to judge who has the most - a city like Los Angeles, or Moscow, will easily match London on it.

Worth noting, too, that Foreman points out that a Thames Estuary airport was first proposed back in the 1970s, before London did what it's always done - take an existing airfield instead, and expand it. History has a funny way of repeating itself.

Here's hoping episode three, part two doesn't take another three years to arrive.

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser