‘This project is not only wrong, it’s doomed. It’s wrong because of the million people that will directly suffer… I believe that this will be a millstone around this government’s neck for many years to come… It will be a constant source of anger and betrayal among those people who will be directly affected… There are so many questions one could ask in a statement of this sort, I wouldn’t even know where to begin, and so I will simply use this statement to put my absolute opposition on the record.’
With that piece of rhetorical flourish, Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park, gave his last speech as a Tory MP in Parliament. He has resigned as a point of principle because a new runway in Heathrow would be ‘catastrophic’, a devastating government initiative which will damage the lives of millions. It cannot and should not be tolerated.
This story is the culmination of a process which had begun well before the last election. As a young resident of Richmond Park, I was left bemused by the way that both the Liberal Democrat and Conservative campaigning for the election managed to turn a national election into a debate about Heathrow. We are talking about a vote which decides national and international policy: an election which decided how the government allocated money to education, the NHS, international development. Yet, it was Heathrow which was both Zac and Robin Meltzer’s primary concern.
Of course, there is some merit in what Zac has been saying. Is a new runway in Heathrow going to be good for the quality of life of Londoners? The answer is probably no. Has it been pushed through primarily by businesses at the expense of local residents? Potentially, yes.
Yet this doesn’t make it ‘catastrophic’, nor does it make it something worth resigning over. This is only a catastrophe if your fundamental political mantra is ‘Not in my Back Yard’. I would like to be charitable and say that it was the residents of Richmond’s environmental conscience which pushed this to the top of the agenda. But, let’s be blunt: if air pollution in Manchester was at stake, would we have had this deep concern? Would it have hit the front pages? I doubt it.
Granted, Richmond residents are not the only people guilty of this. Across the country, local issues often trump the national interest in elections. The difference is that the ‘million people that will directly suffer’ in this instance are a million in South-West London – one of the most privileged bubbles in the country. It is no coincidence that this story has dominated the headlines. Richmond Park has proportionately one of the highest Oxbridge attendance rates in the country: members of media, government and business live under the Heathrow flight path. That’s why it can be at the top of the press agenda. And that is why it is a particular travesty that South-West London appears to only care about itself.
As I write this, I read about children being raped in Yazidi Iraq. I read about the Sudanese government, guilty of chemical weapons attacks, being given money by our government in order to house the refugees we’re too selfish to take in. I read about Rohingya Muslims in Burma being treated like Jews in the Holocaust – stateless and victimized. As I write this, I can read about the Chinese government forcibly extracting organs from prisoners of conscience. I see images of Aleppo lying burnt in a pile of rubble. And I am told about the fact that it costs £5 to buy someone a malaria net, and yet so often we would prefer our money was spent on maintaining our comfort at all costs.
These are catastrophes. We have to wake up and do something. As a resident of Richmond, a South-West Londoner myself – this is a plea to my area. Please recognise your privilege and use it in the national and the international interest. In a world where humanitarian tragedies occur daily, how did our political conscience get so warped that we could imagine that Heathrow is the first priority? Sure, campaign on it. But resign over it? Run an election campaign based upon your stance on it? We need a sense of perspective, we need to get our priorities straight. While there is agony in Aleppo, let’s not get het up by Heathrow. South-West London – it’s time to broaden your perspective and make a positive difference.