It was interesting to see, in the recent by-elections prompted by resignations (including of our erstwhile Prime Minister), one interesting result. All were Tory seats and all appeared to be heading for a change of hands. Both Selby & Ainsty and Somerton & Frome toed the line, with Labour wins acting as a herald of what is likely to happen in the General Election. But Uxbridge & South Ruislip – Boris Johnson’s old seat – totally against the odds remained under Tory control.
You don’t have to look very far for the culprit either. Everyone, on all sides, recognises what dealt the killer blow for Labour. A mere four letters: ULEZ. Danny Beales, the Labour candidate, campaigned against the expansion, and senior shadow cabinet members all named Sadiq Khan’s policy as the reason for the loss. Keir Starmer even warned the Mayor of London in the aftermath of the by-election that he would need to have a rethink over ULEZ expansion.
The complicating factors are helpfully summed up in a comment piece by Robert Coleville:
Britain’s air is too dirty, especially in its cities. That’s true not just generally but legally: there is a large volume of British and European regulation setting limits and targets for pollutants, and the courts have made clear they are to be taken seriously.
In pursuit of that goal, ever tighter standards have been imposed on carmakers, among others, and as a consequence the stuff coming out of a modern exhaust is 50 times less polluting than in the 1970s.
But, even so, emissions in many urban areas are still too high — in particular if you’re standing beside a busy road and get a lungful of nitrogen dioxide. So local authorities have had to bring levels down. In London that process culminated in the ultra-low emission zone, set up by Boris Johnson in central London but extended by Khan first to the North and South Circular Roads and now — with a legal challenge from hostile councils seen off — to the whole of Greater London.
So why the backlash? The weird thing is that Ulez ought to be popular. The think tank I run, the Centre for Policy Studies, recently produced a report on the future of driving, including a detailed study of clean air zones. Polling for the project by BMG Research found that 79 per cent of voters were concerned about air quality, including 83 per cent of Tory voters. Some 52 per cent of the public had specific concerns about air quality in their local area, and 64 per cent said politicians had done too little about it. We also found good evidence that the original, smaller Ulez had done its job, with the number of non-compliant vehicles on the roads falling sharply.
He goes on to outline some of the practical reasons people have been particularly repelled by the ULEZ expansion, summing up the rolling out of the zone as ‘a case study of how not to do it, so much so that it risked discrediting the whole idea.’ He notes, ‘People support making the world a better place, and delivering cleaner air — right up to the point where the state reaches into their wallets.’ Insisting that, ‘People will accept swapping petrol cars for electric vehicles, or a gas boiler for a heat pump, when and only when it is cheaper or more convenient for them personally.’ All of which is to say, the lesson of Uxbridge & South Ruislip by-election – and of green policies more generally – is that everybody supports such things until it actually costs them personally. Support for these things is ultimately shallow. We support it in principle, but not given current realities of actually having to adopt them.
My purpose here isn’t to weigh in particularly on green policies and government net zero targets. Fall where you will on those questions. But I can see something in what Keir Starmer has evidently recognised, and Robert Coleville expressly points out, at work in the church. Like with the majority of people consider green policies, we very often have a similar principled agreement with something whilst, when the rubber hits the road, not wishing to wear the practical implications of it.
In an as-yet-to-be-published manuscript I wrote some while ago, I said:
Most of us are agreed that the poor and deprived need the gospel. No Christian who loves Christ and takes the Bible seriously would ever suggest that we don’t need churches in these places. If we could wish them into existence and support them without any cost to ourselves, we would have a church in every deprived community in the country. But… the fact that must be grasped is that just wishing will not make it happen… there will inevitably be a cost.
This is usually the point at which, much like people’s approach to ULEZ, we bow out. Of course we all want churches in deprived places. Of course we want churches on every street corner, in every community. We just also don’t want it to cost us anything. We aren’t to sure about funding it, we don’t particularly want to lose people from our own churches for it and – perhaps most horrifying to countenance of all – we absolutely do not want to have to go ourselves. Ask us if we want a church on the local council estate or in a local deprived town and you’ll be hard pressed to find a Christian anywhere that doesn’t. Ask almost any Christian if they want to be the ones to go and you find a whole lot of foot-shuffling and watch the tumbleweed roll by.
But we’re not only like it when it comes to planting and supporting churches in hard places. We do it with evangelism. Again, ask any bible-believing, gospel-hearted Christian if we should be reaching out to our community, sharing the gospel with people, engage meaningfully in evangelism, almost no evangelical will so ‘no’. Of course we should. It’s in the Bible, they insist, and we definitely believe the Bible! Only, ask them who they have been reaching, and the foot-shuffling and tumbleweed happens again. Suggest that perhaps they might want to do some particular form of evangelism that is open to them, all the excuses under the sun as to why they couldn’t possibly start to rear their head. They know they should, they know evangelism is important, but their support for it is as shallow as public support for ULEZ and net zero. Great in principle, but not if it will cost me anything.
What about discipleship? Surely, if we have an easy win, it is sitting down with other believers and reading the Bible that we both believe and agree with and claim to want to know better. Who doesn’t want to do discipleship? And what’s not to like about sitting down for dinner, or having a coffee, with your mate and chewing over some Christian book you’ve read or reading the Bible together or doing some study or other and applying it to one another? We all think this is brilliant, excellent and we all ought to be doing it. And then, of course, we don’t. After all, I’m busy. My job is very demanding. I need to find time to see the family. I just had a lot on. I have to focus on my “self-care”. Of course discipleship should happen. Of course we want everyone in the church built up to maturity. But it seems to often be shallow support; a desire that we’re happy in principle as long as it demands nothing of me. Someone should do it, so we as a church are doing it, but not me. It is the equivalent of talking a good game about saving the planet and then contenting ourselves that, if you buy an electric car and install a heat pump, all will be well without me having to change anything I am doing.
Now, let me say again, I am not advocating for or against green politics here. It is just an interesting comparator. Everyone appears to support green policies and are adamant they’re right until their wallets and lifestyles take a hit. It seems Christians often take a similar approach when it comes to cross-carrying. So long as we can do it in a way that doesn’t impact me that much, then we’re all for it. So long as the commands of Christ can just fit in to whatever I happen to be doing, then of course I’m in favour and think everyone should do them. Just as we might question the genuineness of the green credentials of those who favour these things so long as it affects not them, what are we to say of the genuineness of the Christian conviction of those who take a similar approach to the commands of Christ?