Travel is often a form of privilege. It needs time and money, and sometimes a confidence that you are welcome somewhere else. During a pandemic and a climate crisis, with travel clearly playing a central role in both, to regularly move across large distances requires an ever stronger sense of entitlement.
Yet the great benefits of travel – social, cultural, economic, psychological – have not gone away. And nor has the power of the travel lobby. When flights to the US resumed for Britons this week, after a long Covid hiatus, much of the media coverage read like an airline press release. There were only occasional hints that today’s transatlantic jets do not fit well with the goals of Cop26.
Weighing up the costs and benefits of travel would be difficult for any British government. This is a sometimes claustrophobic country with a limited climate and a range of alluringly different places a short flight away. For half a century, foreign holidays have been a hugely valued mass pleasure: Britons fly more than people in many comparable European countries. And for centuries trade, immigration, emigration, colonisation and the afterlife of empire have made Britain a travel-driven society. Going constantly back and forth from these small islands is what many Britons have always done.
With his fondness for private jets and dislike of delivering bad news, Boris Johnson does not feel like a prime minister suited to bringing our travel habit under control. In fact he is still hoping it won’t need to be. In the foreword to his government’s latest plan for reducing carbon emissions, he wrote: “In 2050, we will still be driving cars, flying planes … but our cars will be electric [and] our planes will be zero emission, allowing us to fly guilt-free.”
From its enthusiasm for roadbuilding to its refusal to raise fuel duty, from its tax cut for domestic air passengers to its reluctance to close our borders during the pandemic, Johnson leads a government that seems to fetishise mobility. “Global Britain”, the “tilt to the Indo-Pacific” in defence policy and the Aukus alliance with the US and Australia all suggest a country frantically seeking more connections with distant places – while neglecting or actively undermining its connections with its European neighbours. Brexit is not a climate-friendly strategy.
For all their patriotic rhetoric, today’s Tories – such as Sir Geoffrey Cox, with his winter preference for the Caribbean over his Devon constituency – often act as if they can’t wait to get out of Britain. Such restlessness has always been a feature of Conservatism. Landowners moving between the country and the city; imperialists sailing away to seize and govern; business executives accumulating air miles; wealthy southerners with second homes abroad; working-class retirees to warmer countries. The party has energetically represented them all.
At the same time, the Conservatives have talked a lot about the importance of rootedness, of home-town loyalties, and of protecting Britain against foreign incomers and influences. The party has regularly attacked its opponents as rootless – “citizens of nowhere” – with the aid of newspapers owned by globetrotting press lords.
The hypocrisy of it all can be maddening, not least because the left has always contained many people strongly attached to their communities, through activism or socioeconomic circumstances. Many Labour supporters, concentrated in the same urban constituencies for decades, aren’t “citizens of nowhere”, but the exact opposite.
Yet it’s important to remember that Conservatism’s double standards can be what makes it appealing to people. As with other freedoms the Tories claim to champion, the party doesn’t really believe freedom of movement should be available to all, as the government’s approach to asylum seekers and migrants makes ever more obvious. Consciously or not, even some non-Tories agree with the government on this. If you believe that this country is too crowded, wanting to get away from it regularly while also wanting the state to stop outsiders getting in can seem a necessary contradiction.
Conservative voters appear particularly resistant to cutting back on travel. According to the pollsters Ipsos Mori, they are significantly less likely than Labour supporters to favour a tax on frequent flyers. But there is a chance that this could change. An estimated 15% of the population take 70% of the UK’s flights. Even if all these frequent flyers are Tories – which they are not – that is a much smaller proportion of the population than the party’s total vote.
So it follows that many Conservatives aren’t big travellers. Among less wealthy Tories and more environmentally conscious ones, there may be many people who feel – or who will come to feel, as the climate crisis worsens – that protecting the restless lifestyles of the richest Britons should be less of a government priority.
It remains hard, though, to envisage a party that so reveres consumer choice seriously restricting flying, let alone driving. Not having to think about the wider consequences of our consumer decisions is one of the seductive prospects that modern Conservatism has always offered.
It’s a bit easier to imagine a Labour government, led by Keir Starmer or some other stern figure, telling us that unlimited travel is no longer justifiable – at least until technology makes zero-emission journeys possible. But even with the Tories having a terrible autumn, such a government, like zero-emission jets, still seems a long way off. If we want to be less toxic travellers, for the foreseeable future it’s up to us.
Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist