Before the summer break, Westminster’s grand finale of three by-elections fed my obsession with the peculiar politics of outer west London. I wasn’t surprised to see Uxbridge and South Ruislip, formerly Boris Johnson’s constituency, defy polls and stay Tory. A gateway to Metroland, this is the capital on the cusp of the Home Counties: a puzzle of red-brick terraces, identikit shopping centres, studentville and wafts of manure from farmland to its north.
Restricting the use of one in ten cars here, as the Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez) will when expanded to Greater London in August, seemed to me likely to offend stubborn Middlesex mores. I grew up in the neighbouring borough and know its suburban flavour of pebbledash garages, car dealerships and retail parks. A land of little driveways and the Big Shop. I spent much of my childhood gazing out of the window of my parents’ Volkswagen Passat as we took trips out of town, including to the magical Ruislip Lido on sticky days, with Hula Hoops and satsumas and foil-wrapped sandwiches on the drive home.
Labour says Ulez lost it the by-election. The British left is failing to engage the modern petty bourgeoisie, argues the Welsh sociologist Dan Evans (himself a child of upwardly mobile Porthcawl) in his new book, A Nation of Shopkeepers. He cringed when Corbynite activists poured in from Cardiff to canvass around his hometown. “It’s a fundamental tension,” he told me. “If you’re trying to win people over who you’re a bit scared of and suspect of, they can tell.”
Younger and more diverse newcomers from the inner city are dragging outer London leftward. Ealing Central and Acton, where I used to vote, was a bellwether; now, it’s comfortably Labour. But change in Johnson’s old seat is slow. It didn’t fall to Labour in the 1997 landslide. Hillingdon, its borough, was one of just five in the capital that backed Brexit. Uxbridge is quietly non-conformist: it has a peace monument instead of a war memorial, and a heritage of harbouring Protestant dissenters. As John Randall, a Conservative peer and well-known local who held the seat before Johnson, told me: “It’s got a strange feel about it, neither fish nor fowl.”
I found a less subtle political lesson on the other side of London. At the newly refurbished Ragged School Museum, an East End canal-side warehouse, visitors sighed darkly at the opening exhibition sign: “A financial calamity, a public health disaster and a dip in agricultural production combined to make 1866 a perfect storm of catastrophe.” As cholera struck, “the finger of suspicion pointed to the East London Water Company”, which was polluting the water. Add to that the slum landlords who “subdivided houses into as many separate rooms as possible”, and it felt all too familiar.
[See also: Labour is an ultra-low ambition zone]
The warehouse was the site of Victorian London’s biggest ragged school, opened by the philanthropist Thomas Barnardo in 1877, and its green window frames gleam against bricks the colour of builder’s tea. Lottery funding rescued it from any developers eager to flog “luxury loft living”, and after three years it’s finally reopened.
Not all buildings nearby have been spared. I’ve been living on a construction site since 2021, as “airspace” developers layer two extra levels of flats on top of mine. Our housing association literally sold the sky above our heads. Rishi Sunak encouraged this in his last policy announcement before the parliamentary recess: a plan to “expand homes upwards and outwards” in cities (ie, nowhere near a safe Tory seat).
I live in a low-rise block of maisonettes built in the Sixties, when council homes were “deliberately aspirational”, as Vicky Spratt writes in her book, Tenants. I wonder how the social balance of our estate – old East Enders, Bengali families, students and millennial leaseholders like me – will change. Described as “penthouses”, the new flats will have a separate entrance. I hear rumours of a “poor door” policy.
Unlike neighbours on night shifts, I can escape the roar of machinery at the New Statesman offices. Or so I thought. Our HQ is undergoing building work, too. Bursts of drilling rattle the windows and punctuate podcast recordings. A hardened veteran, I barely notice as my colleagues groan.
It helps to flee the giant Meccano set sometimes. One recent weekend, we took the train to Dungeness on the Kent coast, an exposed headland of shingle pocked with sea kale and teasel – the closest England comes to desert. No fences or hedges divide its smattering of wind-whipped black cottages.
On calm days, people migrating across the Channel wash up here. Opinion is mixed, but even in this borderless expanse the exasperation shows: the word “taxi” has been scrawled on to a lifeboat sign (Nigel Farage called the RNLI a “taxi service for migrants”). Some making this journey will end up in another boat: in July the Bibby Stockholm “barge” docked at Portland, Dorset, ready to house 500 male migrants. My dad escaped Lebanon’s civil war in the Seventies on a boat carrying watermelons. After, he was always uneasy at sea, and even on boating lakes. Will the passengers on the ark of asylum feel the same?
The nature of news in Britain’s summer months has changed. “Silly season” is a retro cliché. The weather dominates, but no longer in the tabloid register of cor-blimey summer scorchers. More migrants brave the crossing when the Channel is milder, while European wildfires and heatwaves show there is no forgetting the climate crisis. The summer news cycle now exposes the truths driving our politics and preoccupations the rest of the year: a world on the move, and on the brink. Ulez it is, then.
This article appears in the 26 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special