Thursday, November 07, 2013

Thatcherism and "getting on your bike"

Another day, another columnist taking a pop at cyclists. This time it’s Rod Liddle in the Spectator; in the recent past it’s been Matthew Parris in the Times, Melanie Phillips and James Martin in the Mail and Harry Wallop in the Telegraph. There are more of course – regional papers have noticed the cycling lobby’s speed and agility when it comes to jumping on any bandwagon of outrage and they’ve begun producing inflammatory columns of their own, rarely well-written or passably sincere, but profitable linkbait nonetheless. Clicks, comments and shares are the currency of the modern media, and a column condemning cyclists a kind of quantitative easing. Need a quick fix for flagging page impressions? Knock out an anti-cycling rant.

One noticeable trend in all this is that the criticism comes universally from the right – it’s rare to see cyclists criticised in this way in the Guardian, the New Statesman or the Independent.

So how did cycling become a political issue, and particularly one of right against left?

I ask this because, as a child of the eighties, I see a direct correlation between cycling and Thatcherism. For example, Thatcher was quoted as saying:

“A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.”

I couldn’t agree more – bus travel is horrible. As an able bodied young man I’d far prefer to be on my bike, in charge of my own destiny, not reliant on handouts from the state (because although I’ll use roads, paid for out of taxation, on a bike I can travel over virtually any surface. If Upper Street in Islington suddenly returned to dense forest, I’d enjoy the singletrack – I can’t see taxi drivers being so happy) and progressing towards my destination unhindered by bureaucracy, like traffic jams caused by poorly timed traffic lights. Because let’s face it, traffic lights are a purely bureaucratic invention to stop car drivers killing each other and other road users.

The argument made by the right is that cyclists are stuck up hypocrites, too poor to drive, too lazy to walk and too stupid to realise that they’re not actually saving the world.

“They think that they are different. No — you’re not. You just can’t afford a car or are deluded about the impact cycling a few miles makes to the environment. And you can’t be bothered to walk.”
Rod Liddle, the Spectator

Can’t afford a car? False – I even pay road tax and insurance, I just can’t afford to park the bloody thing. Or find the time it takes to get anywhere through London’s revolting traffic. Deluded about the environment? Far from it! I own enough bikes made overseas to recognise that any saving in CO2 emissions made by my cycling over driving, has probably been negated by the shipping and manufacturing process of all those bikes and components. Can’t be bothered to walk? Well, you’ve got me there. Time is money, Rod – we can’t all get by on the income accrued from a 500 word weekly column.

To be a cyclist is to associate yourself with a libertarian ideal, one of individual freedom, and personal responsibility (contrary to the columnist’s schtick, most cyclists don’t take crazy risks on their bikes because crashing hurts and tends to be deadly), an ideal ensconced within Thatcherism. I’ve never voted conservative, but I did grow up in the eighties, and like many people who grew up under Thatcher I see no shame or contradiction in riding a bicycle in my thirties and I can’t see why that will change as I get older.

Is cycling a political issue? If it is, it’s as right wing as it it left, and draws in right thinking people from both sides of the political divide. And Boris Johnson. Maybe its time the columnists got on their bikes for once?


Jon Sparks said...

Well said, Andy.
Just one small niggle. You use the term "road tax". I'm sure you know that in reality this does not exist.
This is only worth mentioning because of the widespread delusion that "road tax" pays for roads – often cited by the haters as a reason why they should have priority over cyclists. In fact roads are funded from general taxation, so many non-drivers also pay for them.

Andy Waterman said...

I'm being facetious Jon

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