Reports of the death of the 4WD exaggerated

News that 4×4 sales are down compared with last year might make you think the Alliance Against Urban 4×4s is about to pack up and go home, but believe me, we still have a long way to go.

For its current issue, trade magazine ‘The Manufacturer’ obtained sales figures for the first half of 2006 from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders and compared them with figures from 2005. They found something that, at first glance, seems extraordinary: after rising every year for the past decade, 4×4 sales were marginally down.

Cue the headlines. The Evening Standard got hold of the figures and seized upon them to announce that the era of the 4×4 was coming to an end. Using a picture of me putting a fake parking ticket on a Range Rover to illustrate the story, they announced ‘Chelsea tractors driven into decline by public backlash.’

(One of my Green Party colleagues later emailed to ask, “What did they do to that photo to make you look so small?” The answer is nothing. I’m five foot six, not exactly tiny. It’s just that the Range Rover really is very huge indeed.)

Both the Evening Standard and The Manufacturer credited campaigns like ours with the switch this year from massive growth to a small reduction in new 4×4 registrations. The magazine said, “The figures suggest that environmental campaigns to make driving SUVs socially unacceptable have been successful.” This is all very flattering, but the victory party at Alliance HQ is still on hold and here’s why.

Let’s look at those sales figures in more detail. In the first half of 2005, 93,988 new 4×4s were registered in the UK. Between January and June of 2006, this figure was 93,860 – a 0.14% fall. Superficially this compares well with a 13% rise between 2003 and 2004, and a 5% rise last year.

However, the market share commanded by 4×4s continues to go up. This year new car registrations across all sectors are down by more than 4% so you could argue (and the SMMT does) that 4×4 sales are, in fact, holding up well.

And this still means nearly 94,000 new 4×4s are now on the road that weren’t there in January, and that tens of thousands more will join them by the end of this year. Hardly a cast-iron reason to celebrate, although it is a sign that higher fuel prices and more environmental concerns may be starting to affect people’s choice of car.

There’s still an awful lot left for our campaign to achieve. Ideally we’d like to see no-one driving an off-roader around town who isn’t actually going to use it off the road, and we’re realistic about the challenges we face.

With new 4×4s appearing every month, and the re-launch of the Landrover Freelander about to saturate our TV screens and city centre billboards, campaigns like ours are dwarfed by the reach of the global advertising industry. No matter how many interviews, phone-ins and newspaper headlines we get, we’ll never make the difference we need to without legislation to control this propaganda and bring the pollution taxes paid by owners of gas-guzzlers up to effective levels.

But the public backlash is real enough. Even the cabby taking me to Television Centre to talk about the story on the news was exasperated at the huge size of the latest models and the poor driving he sees every day from 4×4 drivers. With public awareness growing of the pollution, carbon dioxide emissions and danger to pedestrians from big 4×4s, there can’t be a Landcruiser or Cayenne driver in the country who hasn’t had their ear bent by a public-spirited friend over dinner. These factors do seem to be making the 4×4 unfashionable at last.

With luck this fall in sales will also - at least privately - be seen as significant by manufacturers for whom sales growth surely makes the difference between a winning product line and an ailing white elephant. Perhaps they will now start to make and promote nice, small, clean cars rather than behemoths we don’t need?

Don’t hold your breath. On the other hand, if you’re stuck behind one on your bike, hold it - hold it for as long as you can.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left