20 January 2023

Tedious tokenism is the bane of British politics – the Sunak jet ‘story’ is just another example


The Prime Minister using a government aeroplane to get to engagements in different parts of the country is fine. It’s fine! He’s a busy man, and whilst this country may not be vast, it is nonetheless not exactly a small island. How have we spent more than two weeks, as a nation, whinging about this?

And yet here we are, with the press still spluttering about Rishi Sunak’s flying habits. This time the problem is apparently that he used an RAF jet for a flight that was just 41 minutes. Of course, the journey was only that short because he used an RAF jet. But ‘Prime Minister uses official plane to shave hours off travel time’ sounds like less of a scandal, so here we are.

When the first of these stories broke, I wrote about the myopic and mean-spirited attitude towards government spending that it reflected. In the wake of the expenses scandal and the crash, the public are hostile by default to anything which smacks of largesse for the political class. 

MPs’ salaries? Freeze them. Foreign Secretary going overseas? Economy ticket is £61 return. US trade envoy visiting? Pizza Express. An infinite wellspring of stories to stoke the ire of a person that seems to prefer revelling in how hard they had it when they were young than supporting actual pro-growth policies that might improve things.

But the financial angle isn’t the only side to the jet stories. There is also the environmental side. Short-hop flights, from a Prime Minister committed to Net Zero? Could this be a chance to level that most tedious of charges: hypocrisy? (This reflex is widespread and by no means confined to the left; ‘flying to Davos in private jets to lecture us about climate change’ is a staple complaint of a certain type of rightist bore.)

Yet although the environment and the money are different stories on the surface, they play out in fairly similar ways. In both cases they tend to ignore or distract from the importance of big, systemic issues in favour of lionising personal inconvenience and demanding that others be inconvenienced as well.

Indeed, at times this country’s green politics seem to resemble nothing so much as a novel hamartiology, which is to say, a theory of personal sin. Policies which target individual convenience – banning plastic straws is perhaps the most obvious example – are pushed ahead relentlessly, even if the actual impact on the planet is minimal.

Actually, even if the actual impact on the planet is potentially negative. I can’t personally say I’ve found the use to reusable shopping bags a hardship, and I’ve probably used each of mine the 45 times apparently needed to get their environmental impact below that of a single-use plastic bag. But in how many cases is that true? Does anyone in government have any interest in checking?

And don’t forget that the reason so much of our plastic waste ended up in the oceans is because we shipped it to China for ‘recycling’ rather than just burying it harmlessly in the ground until we developed a solution to it, because before David Attenborough video footage of landfill was what most offended our sensibilities, and thus featured in campaigning materials and drove policy.

Meanwhile structural solutions such as rail electrification or nuclear and renewable energy generation fall victim to this country’s stubborn refusal to build infrastructure, nascent next-generation manufacturers such as BritishVolt go to the wall, and the Green Party campaigns against new railways if it involves chopping trees down.

It would be nice to lambast our politicians for this, but like so many of Britain’s problems, bad government is downstream of the fact that much of this is popular. My personal theory is that the cotton tote bag and the carefully sorted rubbish bins are simply a modern equivalent of the famous Betty Crocker cake mix story: people want to feel involved, so those who need their money or votes find ways to let them, whether that’s cracking an egg into a mixture that doesn’t need it or the warm, righteous glow that kicks in as one’s paper straw disintegrates halfway through your drink.

The actual path towards a clean, green, and prosperous British future largely involves, in the short to medium term, lots of things the British people do not like – construction, disruption, change – and would involve relatively few opportunities to be performatively inconvenienced. Thus our politicians inch along it in haphazard faction, whilst striking bold poses over the corpses of consumer products whose overall environmental impact was trivial, even if their individual utility was not.

And you know what? Most people are probably fine with that. Like the eager recruits in Starship Troopers, they can take up their totes and say ‘I’m doing my part!’. The chance to accuse politicians of not doing theirs is just the icing on the cake – if I may be forgiven a dangerous, sugar-based metaphor.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.