If you’re a fan of the historical notion that progress doesn’t move as a straight, upward line but tends to be a bit more wiggly, then there was an article about cycling in this week’s Mail on Sunday that very much proved the point.
Anti-cyclist pieces in the Mail are not exactly uncommon, but this one was notable because its key argument was that cyclists should “pay road tax”.
If this blogpost were a film, this would be the moment to insert a sudden, soundtrack-halting needle scratch, with a narrator filling the sudden silence to say: “Yes, road tax.”
You know the one. Abolished in 1937. Replaced by vehicle excise duty (VED), which is, as has been explained countless times, very much not a tax to pay for roads – the money goes into the central pot, as do almost all tax revenues.
VED is also based on exhaust emissions, meaning that even if cyclists were liable for it, bikes would be, as with dozens of electric and hybrid cars, charged precisely £0 a year.
The idea that cyclists are freeloaders because they don’t pay “road tax” has been so thoroughly debunked over so many years that, these days, it is mainly the preserve of anonymous Twitter accounts.
And yet it has returned. Even more notable was the author of this Mail on Sunday opinion piece – Nigel Farage. And to find Farage weighing in on the subject of cycling interests me.
In political terms, we are currently amid what could be called version 3.0 Farage. Brexit is all but over, and his plan B of being a Donald Trump camp follower/media pundit took a significant dent at the weekend.
But Farage is nothing if not adaptable, and is currently reinventing himself as something of an all-purpose, hard-right, populist culture warrior, whether warning about an “invasion” of asylum seekers in the Channel or battling lockdown.
His article on cycling is both at times openly ludicrous – he opines that the “vast majority” of road cyclists frequenting the Kent lanes where he lives are also most likely remainers – but also illustrative of the language adopted by rightwing populists, featuring dehumanising terms such as likening cyclists to “a strange swarm of insects”.
Farage has, presumably, held these golf club bore opinions about cyclists for many years. So why air them now? The clue comes later in the article, when he condemns government spending on ways to boost walking and cycling amid lockdown, such as temporary bike lanes and so-called low traffic neighbourhoods (LTNs).
This is the key. Cycling is in the news, and it means that once again we must face a rash of unsavoury anti-cyclist opinion pieces, among which Farage’s is just the latest.
A fortnight ago, a columnist in the Times used proposed changes to the Highway Code to better protect vulnerable road users to complain about cyclists “stamping their feet”, saying “the fact they’re pedalling the eco-friendly option has already gone to their heads”. This is another