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29 April 2023

From nimbyism to the trans right debate, today’s politics is all about taking back control

What does it mean for our society when some people believe their word on what happens in their back yard should be the final one?

By Marie Le Conte

I am, in some ways, deeply entitled. There is no point in me trying to deny that. I have, on countless occasions, turned down work by explaining that I simply refuse to wake up early in the morning. If I am invited for dinner at a friend’s house, I will make my picky eating their problem. If I am going out with a group of people, my first assumption is usually that my choice of bar or restaurant will be the best one.

It isn’t a unique trait. We’re all, in our own ways, at least a little bit spoiled and a little bit demanding. That’s the most human trait there is: this desire to mould the shape of our lives. It’s also something that politicians are well aware of. The left and the right may have different ways of going about it, but they both know that, at the end of the day, people want to have control over their own lives.

Just how much people’s desire for control should be indulged is the question politicians usually skirt around, even though it is a feature of many of today’s most pressing political issues. Planning reform is one of them: in today’s Britain, more or less everyone agrees that more houses should be built, yet no one wants those houses to be built next to them. Homeowners have a stake in what their neighbourhoods ought to look like, and politicians are listening to them.

Immigration is a similar issue. A number of studies have shown that Britain sorely needs more migrants to keep its economy afloat, but voters have decided that they want immigration to be drastically reduced. When interviewed, they will talk about their high street and their town centre and the fact that they have changed. It is where they live; they can and will have a say on what happens in their own areas.

Trans rights issues may not seem like an obvious bedfellow here, but the underlying dynamics are the same. If you listen to what gender critical activists are saying, they are arguing that they should not be made to use pronouns they do not want to use or share their spaces with people they do not like or trust. It’s all about control, and who expects to wield it.

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If there is one thing that nimbys, immigration sceptics and gender critical people have in common, it’s that they tend to be on the older end of things. It probably shouldn’t be a surprise that this is the demographic most focused on controlling their surroundings. If you are young in today’s Britain, you currently have little power over your own life, and that is bound to shape your expectations.

[See also: What does a good, 21st-century immigration policy look like?]

It is likely that you currently live, or lived for a long time, in a rental property, in which even putting a poster on the wall with blu-tac might result in you losing your deposit. You have probably bounced between various neighbourhoods, either because you got priced out of where you lived or because you had to find somewhere at short notice and took what you could find.

Unless you got lucky, you almost certainly went – or are still going – from workplace to workplace, hoping to get a decent salary, some job security, or maybe both. It is possible that you want to have children but are finding yourself waiting longer than is ideal because you can barely afford to look after yourself right now, let alone anyone else. Oh, and you have never known a single period of sustained economic growth, having lived through several financial crises (both global and domestic) over the space of about a decade.

If there is one thing younger generations know to be true, it is that “it” – in the broadest possible sense – is out of our hands. We barely get a say in the way our own lives are going, so how could we hope to try to influence our streets, neighbourhoods, cities and country? Electorally speaking, it seems fair to say that we haven’t had much luck. Most people whose first major election was 2010 have been on the losing side since then. It – all of it – is out of our hands.

It does seem worth wondering what this will mean in the future. We know that today’s politics is shaped nearly entirely by the people who believe that their voices matter, and that their word on what happens in their back yard should be the final one. Will we grow up to be like them? How will our instinctive need for control manifest itself?

I’ve never even been able to pick the colour of my wallpaper. The idea that I should get to decide who walks down my high street or what is built in my neighbourhood sounds absurd. You might as well ask me if I’d like to tweak the weather forecast for the next week.

Though much has been made of the various divides in contemporary British politics, this one has often gone unobserved, perhaps because it has been hiding in plain sight. Really, it’s all about control.

[See also: Why Rishi Sunak wants to delay Sue Gray’s job with Labour for as long as possible]

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