A displaced Iraqi Yazidi family takes refuge under a bridge, 17 August. Photo: Getty
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Our part in the Iraq crisis, a forgotten Labour man and grouse-moor people power

Peter Wilby’s First Thoughts column. 

Faced with the atrocities committed by the Islamic State (formerly known as Isis), compassion demands once more that something be done. But no matter how compelling the humanitarian case for military intervention may be, we should pause. Over the past century, every western act in the Middle East – every national boundary drawn, every move to protect our “vital interests”, every subsidy to supposedly friendly regimes or rebel groups, every bomb dropped, every soldier’s boot on the ground, every rocket, tank or gun supplied – has made things worse, culminating in the horrors we now witness.

Minorities that lived peacefully in the region for centuries are being driven from their homes, starved to death and slaughtered, at least partly as a result of the 2003 Iraq invasion and its aftermath. Even the Blairite David Miliband acknowledges, in his strangulated way, that the invasion “is a significant factor in understanding the current situation”.

Middle Eastern violence has reached such ghastly extremes that, we now think, we can’t make things worse. But we can, always.

The other Snowden files

To Yorkshire, where my wife and I enjoy the hospitality of my old friend and former NS columnist Paul Routledge (now of the Daily Mirror) and his wife. We travel to Ickornshaw Moor, where the memorial cairn to Philip Snowden, Labour’s first (and second) chancellor, towers above the grazing sheep close to Cowling, the wool-weaving village where he was born in 1864. It states that Snowden “lived his whole life in the service of the common people”.

In this lonely and (I should think) rarely visited spot, where the wind chills even on a warm summer’s day, I find this memorial strangely moving. With Ramsay MacDonald, Snowden “betrayed” Labour in 1931 by forming an alliance with the Tories to impose benefit cuts. Though he later resigned from the national government over the introduction of import tariffs, he was widely reviled in Labour circles and is now almost forgotten. But not here in Yorkshire: new signs were recently placed on the road at the foot of Ickornshaw Moor directing visitors to his memorial. He may have made mistakes in the final years of his life but at least he didn’t profit significantly from office, leaving a mere £3,366 on his death in 1937. Now that Labour has suffered other and arguably greater betrayals, it may be time to rehabilitate Snowden.

An age-old grouse

Only in the NS do diarists visit moors to stare at cairns. In other magazines, they go north on or after the “Glorious Twelfth” to shoot birds. In that respect, Ickornshaw Moor is unusual because rights to shoot are held not by rich individuals but in common by local villagers. That is still, just about, the case. In 1892, the villagers managed to see off two landowners who claimed the rights by congregating on the moor en masse on 12 August, the first day of the grouse shooting season. Disputes over ownership and access rights reached the courts on several occasions, most recently in the 1980s.

This small example of “people power” is not well known and the rising that began in 1536 in St James’s Church, Louth, which we visit a few days later, is only slightly more familiar. Known as “the Lincolnshire Rising”, for which the vicar was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn, it was against Henry VIII and his chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Within a few days, 22,000 protesters had occupied Lincoln Cathedral. Though short-lived, the rising inspired the more famous Pilgrimage of Grace. England has many such examples of resistance to overmighty authority. When we seem powerless to resist the biggest attack in more than 80 years on ordinary people’s living standards, we should study and admire them.

Everyone’s a winner

At least we can applaud one brave contemporary struggle. Around 50 workers for Care UK in Doncaster, which runs recently privatised local services for disabled people, have been on strike for a total of over five weeks since February, protesting mainly against wage cuts. I met several of them at Doncaster Racecourse, where their union was sponsoring events such as the “Unison Defending Public Services Conditions Stakes”, which makes a welcome change from the “Queen Elizabeth II Stakes”, and so on.

As she usually does on our rare visits to the races, my wife picked several winners at longish odds just by assessing the horses as they paraded. (It’s all to do with bottoms, she says.) We were too mindful of our Nonconformist ancestors to wager more than small amounts but we made a tidy sum, which I slipped into the Care UK workers’ buckets. It will, I hope, provide modest support to their splendid campaign. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, A century of meddling in the Middle East

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.