Transport policy is one of those boringly interesting things- things, like taxes and the census and geography, that as children we understand to be classically, almost canonically boring, but that are in fact fascinating, sat right at the heart of how our lives work. For anyone searching for an in-depth look at the last 30 years of UK transport policy, this most boringly interesting thing, Steve Melia’s new book Roads, Runways and Resistance: From the Newbury Bypass to Extinction Rebellion is a fine guide. Melia charts how 1990s protests against Thatcher’s “largest road building programme since the Romans” bled into the 21st century, how “Swampy” became a household name and a third runway at Heathrow became a resigning issue for Tory cabinet ministers, and takes the reader right up to contemporary battles over HS2 and the actions of Extinction Rebellion.
The author is a lecturer in transport policy, and his expertise in the topic shines throughout, as does the research that has gone into the book, which is based in part on extensive interviews with a variety of people who found themselves involved. However, it pains me to say that these interviews offer rare patches of insight in a book that is heavy on exposition but generally far more concerned with the how than the why.
Transport policy and the other subjects addressed in this book are fascinating because they are adjacent to so many other things- to protest and technology and paganism, to ideas of landscape as it relates to identity, to rave culture and spy cops and new age travellers and climate change and living off grid and regional inequality and affordable housing and why it is that some things merit political oxygen while others do not. This book doesn’t ignore those things- it is just not about them. Famed anti-road activist and “human mole” Swampy was interviewed for this book; here we have a man who lived for weeks underground, who was at the heart of events that embedded themselves in our culture- he believes things, and he has done extraordinary things with and for those beliefs. Melia’s book does not deny this, but it is on balance probably more interested in what Theresa Villiers has to say about the Conservatives’ shifting approach to environmental policy in opposition. The direct action gets about as much airtime as the tense interpersonal dynamics between John Prescott (then Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions) and his deputy Gavin Strang. If you were looking for a book about people called Swampy, this is a book about Gavins.
This focus puzzled me for some time, until on page 56 the author informed me that he had been, in 1997, the Liberal Democrat candidate in Plymouth Sutton (a seat now held by Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard). There are some things, like finishing a marathon or buying property to let, that once you do, you kind of are. Down in the groundwater of your self, you will always have done them. I think being a Lib Dem PPC is probably one of those things: this is a book by a Lib Dem PPC, and it shows. Reading it is a little like being a child in the back seat of a car, driving past (bypassing, if you will) all these unspeakably interesting things (the brief, self proclaimed “Republic of Wanstonia”, where anti-road protestors named a 9 year old Minister for Education; the actions of hapless spy Ken Tobias, real name Toby Kendal) but being told by your mum you can’t stop, because you have to go and see a relative for a long talk about Philip Hammond’s diffident approach to the transport brief. Your mum, in this scenario, is former Lib Dem PPC Steve Melia. We have quangos at home, he tells you.
It’s only in the last section of the book, which discusses Extinction Rebellion, that some tension emerges between the wonkish approach and the undeniable feeling that animates the events and campaigns described. Melia was arrested as part of an XR action in 2019. Before his court date the author worried that, while he remained able to lecture on the subject “dispassionately”, “explaining what drove me, and so many others to break the law over climate change unleashes emotions I find difficult to control”.
The section on XR is the book’s most interesting, both for the sense of emotional motivation which it brings to the topic and for the author’s position, able to report from the inside of a movement he understands. These are networks the author moves through and cares about, debates he is taking part in, and this shows. Perhaps the most arresting moment in the book comes in the form of an interview with Mark Ovland, one of the activists who stopped trains at Canning Town station at rush hour in 2019. Many within XR had called for the action not to go ahead; Ovland recalls how he and the other participants said “let’s sit with this for a few hours, separately” and that that was “one of the hardest, loneliest experiences”, before they ultimately decided “this is the right thing to do”. Despite all this contemplation, they had done very little research. Ovland makes the staggering admission that they “had no idea it was a working class area. We thought it was a financial district”. The action went disastrously, and for many sealed the idea of XR as a movement of the middle classes, well meaning but fundamentally ignorant of- or uninterested in- the material concerns of normal working people.
Through January HS2 protestors were being pulled, like educated pink clams off a rock, out from underneath Euston Station. To lay my cards on the table: I read this book because I wanted to know why some people seem to think “Snowpiercer” is an accurate representation of what the world will be like if HS2 is completed. I wanted insight into what it is about transport infrastructure protest that makes people, often seemingly unmoved by other issues, give so much and go so far. I don’t think I am alone in wanting to understand this. Melia’s book comes at a time when many people are interested in the shifting sands of class and culture and sustainability on which transport infrastructure is built and protested against. I read Roads, Runways and Resistance thinking it would tell me about these things, address what makes transit policy the shared obsession of home counties residents associations and anarchist commune dwellers alike, that it might trace the routes these movements have taken through our shifting national conversations. Instead I got a lot of long anonymous quotes from civil servants about wavering government commitment to white papers and a nigh-on unparalleled interest in the Early Day Motions and Private Members Bills of the mid-late nineties. For those with a close interest in the topic, this book remains an important text. However, for all that Roads, Runways and Resistance has to recommend it, I couldn’t help but feel I was reading a vital sourcebook that will inform future writing on this subject, and not the definitive work itself.