Sadiq Khan

Gavin Esler talks to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who believes cleansing our air and cleaning up our politics go hand-in-hand

We live in a suspicious century. Trust in British public life is frequently discussed but only because it is so often lacking. According to the Office for National Statistics in 2022, even at a time of war in Europe only a third of British people trusted our Westminster government. By the end of that year – the bizarre few months that will go down in history books as Britain’s Year of Three Prime Ministers – only one person in ten trusted Boris Johnson at all. And yet there is good news. Trust, like politics, turns out to be local. The vast majority of British people trust our fellow citizens. That same ONS report found that “75 per cent of the UK population are trusting of most other people, higher than the average among the OECD countries who participated in the survey (67 per cent).”

Despite our profound suspicion of Westminster and its carnival of deplorables, most of us also trust local government. The innovation of city mayors has helped. Most of us can name our mayor, if we have one, though we struggle to name local council leaders. Among the most nameable mayors in Britain is Sadiq Khan, chief executive of the most populous city in Europe, and often described as Europe’s most powerful Muslim political leader. He is now running for a third term as Mayor of London, with its nine million residents and millions more who commute to the capital or who come here as tourists. Khan is also a former MP, and therefore from his perch in City Hall he has a unique view of both the collapse of trust in Westminster and more widely in the services we depend on, a problem for which he has some responsibility. These include transport, the Metropolitan Police, and the wellbeing of Londoners.

As London mayor, Khan is particularly exercised with the last of these, and has made tackling air pollution his top priority for the years ahead, mostly by educating the public about the toxic particles we can’t even see. I caught up with him when he was publicising his new book on the subject, Breathe: Tackling the Climate Emergency. It’s a story in which the personal meets the political. In his 40s Khan developed late onset asthma, the result of breathing the often-polluted air of the city in which he was born, in which he lives, and for which as mayor he now accepts he is ultimately responsible. You can criticise Khan for many things (and of course Londoners sometimes do) but he is capable of critical self-reflection about the decline of trust in politics and politicians, something that presents a challenge for a mayor who wants to bring about change to the air we breathe.

I go into our meeting suspecting that, since Sadiq Khan is a lifelong member of the Labour Party, he will blame Britain’s trust problem on the past thirteen years of failed Conservative policies and the less-than-trustworthy activities of Boris Johnson. He does. But I’m only half right. He blames his own party too. “As a passionate Labour member, many of us were against the Iraq War. And yet our government was taking us to war – many of us thought – on a false pretext,” he tells me. That was his first big conflict between party loyalty and trust.

Then came the parliamentary expenses scandal that touched MPs across party lines, followed by the biggest trust-buster, Brexit. “We voted in members of parliament, lo and behold we discover they’ve got some – I’m careful with the language – questionable expenses claims. There’s a reason why people in the last twenty years have lost trust and confidence. And that’s been amplified on steroids by Brexit. We can’t not talk about Brexit. But [loss of trust] happened before Johnson. Just like in the police, where you can’t just blame a few rotten apples, there are structural and systemic issues when it comes to the lack of trust and confidence involved in relation to those in positions of power and influence.”

Without prompting, Khan makes the leap to the way those “structural and systemic issues” also undermine trust in democracy itself. In the Labour opposition after 2010, Khan – a human rights lawyer by training – became shadow Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary. More recently he was “astonished” as he puts it, how far “members of this current government, but also politicians generally, don’t understand things like separation of powers.”

The failure of British politicians to understand the very basic civics of our unwritten constitution meant that a few years ago Khan asked some of Britain’s top judges if they could do some “Teach Yourself Basic Constitutional Law” lessons for MPs. He wanted judges to explain to under-informed members in our legislature (parliament) and equally under-informed ministers in our executive (the government) why an independent judiciary might be irritating, yet: “It’s a good thing that citizens can take us to court.” That’s because, as Khan puts it, British democracy depends upon “the executive, the legislature, the press,” and each one of these key parts of British democracy has a trust problem. He laughs as he remembers asking the judges: “How do you feel about doing some lessons on what you learnt first year in law school? Basic lessons about the constitution, how the constitution works?”

I am about to interrupt and say that all too often nowadays the supposed British constitution is made up as we go along and therefore often does not work, but Khan is on a roll. He seizes on Brexit and its aftermath as a key example of a policy that has undermined trust in government more widely. It’s not just policy failure – it’s the way Brexit illuminates constitutional issues that most concerns Khan himself. “You literally had a leading proponent in the Brexit campaign saying, I quote, ‘People are fed up with experts,’ which starts raising question-marks about expert evidence. You’ve got a situation where lies were told to win the campaign. But also, those posters, ‘Breaking Point’.”

By “those posters” he means the utterly false suggestions magnified on social media that Turkey was about to join the EU. The posters showed an endless line of migrants with the implication they were about to come to the UK. “We had people of my colour skin,” Khan says, “Turkish … Syrian, the impression being given that very soon, if we stay in the EU, this is coming to here, right?”

Beyond the problem of deliberately misleading information that undermines trust in public life, Khan makes a wider constitutional point about the failed attempt of the Johnson government to prorogue (attempt to close down) parliament in 2019 over Brexit. That led to a wrangle in which leading British politicians either did not understand – or wilfully and deliberately misunderstood – the constitutional rules and precedents of the system of which they are supposed to be guarantors. “I’ve always been taught the strength of an unwritten constitution is that people understand the rules of the game. That’s why there’s no need for a written constitution. And ‘these Americans and the French, they’re not quite as good as we are because we know this stuff,’ right?”

Johnson’s attempt to bend the rules was declared unlawful after an appeal to the Supreme Court. But instead of quietly accepting the ruling of our independent judiciary, several trust-busting Conservative politicians complained about the courts as if they had in some way abused their powers. The suggestion was that the power of judges should be curtailed. Khan emphasises that sections of the press also helped to undermine confidence in the independent judiciary.

“The most widely read newspaper in the country is, in inverted commas, ‘naming and shaming the judges’? Enemies of the People, right?” he says. “Enemies of the People” was the notorious Daily Mail headline at the time, a headline deliberately repeating the Nazi canard used about “obstructive” German judges in the 1930s.

“I think without a doubt there is less trust and confidence in politicians – but for a good reason, is the point I’m making.”

What is interesting here is how Khan’s mind works. He takes the trust question as a quickfire journey from his personal disillusionment with the Iraq war, as a staunch Labour MP, through the expenses scandal to Brexit, while understanding the big picture rather than merely scoring party political points. Underlying his argument about our loss of trust is traditional British exceptionalism in celebrating our supposedly glorious constitution. The historian and Whig politician Lord Macaulay once described it as “pure gold”, unlike the “paper money” of the written and codified American, French or other European constitutions. But, as Khan implies, an unwritten constitution depends upon norms of good behaviour being observed by those in positions of authority. Trust collapses when that does not happen. And it has not been happening.

“It’s a profound question, existential to our democracy,” he says. “I think without a doubt there is less trust and confidence in politicians – but for a good reason, is the point I’m making.” So, I wonder, where does that leave Khan himself? The Conservative party is so beset by scandals and infighting it seems content to wage its own uncivil war at Westminster. The presumed frontrunner to be Tory mayoral candidate for Mayor of London, Daniel Korski, quit the race after allegations (which he denies) of groping a woman when he worked in Downing Street some years ago. Which leaves Khan to focus on his battle against air pollution. It’s a struggle he speaks of with missionary zeal, as the modern equivalent of the 1858 Victorian battle against “the Great Stink” of sewage in the Thames, or the 1950s struggle against “the Great Smog” of that era.

“If you and I were speaking in London in the middle of the nineteenth century, we’d both be complaining about the stink and the fact that there are thousands of people dying from cholera. This amazing engineer Joseph Bazalgette backed up the brave politicians and decided to build sewers. A huge inconvenience, really unpopular. And those sewers saved lives. That was the Great Stink… If we were in London in the 1950s, we would be talking about the Great Smog. We literally couldn’t walk more than ten metres without bumping into something. Thousands of deaths, of course. Politicians passed the Clean Air Act and removed power stations from the centre of our cities to outside. If we were speaking in the mid-2000s, the noughties, I’d be telling you, listen, do you know Roy Castle? This is the guy who didn’t smoke a cigarette in his life, but because he played the trumpet and worked in men’s clubs, he got second-hand lung cancer. And when I was a new MP, the Labour government was bringing in proposals to ban smoking in public places.”

Khan points out that back then a smoking ban in pubs and other confined spaces was so divisive that the Labour leadership, fearful of the political backlash, permitted a “free vote”. Despite their lack of courage, the Commons came down on the side of public health and against the tobacco lobby. Khan says he’s learned a number of lessons from all this: chiefly that some people will always oppose change, some will fear the consequences, but eventually we’ll look back on those supposedly unpopular changes and no longer be able to imagine why the opposition was so fierce. A political leader just has to try and do what he or she thinks is right and see off the naysayers.

And so Khan’s plan for the future of London means extending ULEZ (the Ultra Low Emission Zone) across the capital. Right now, if you have a polluting car you pay £12.50 a day to enter ULEZ. It’s a huge and densely populated area within the North and South Circular roads. Khan wants to widen the zone to outer areas. The result is that five Conservative-run councils in outer London are challenging the idea in the High Court. But instead of complaining about the court challenge, Khan tells me that being forced to defend his plans in court is precisely how democracy should work. “I welcome that challenge, actually. It’s good.”

Scrutiny from lawyers and judges, Khan says, not merely demonstrates the separation of powers and constitutional integrity required to build trust in British democracy but it also sharpens his own position. He has to be “meticulous on process because good process leads to better decisions,” and that in turn means (if he gets it right) that the courts will not overturn his proposals.

We shall see. But even if he loses, Khan will not issue derogatory statements about judges, unlike those Conservative MPs complaining over the courts and Brexit. And he is also making a wider point. From 2016 until now you could use many adjectives to describe the Brexit process but the word “meticulous” does not come to mind. The shambolic way Brexit was cobbled together did not lead to “better decisions”. Instead, it compounded our loss of trust in the institutions of governance, embittered the political debate and exposed the weakness of our unwritten British constitution.

Whatever the courts decide, Sadiq Khan is confident he is on the right side of history. “You wouldn’t dream now about having open sewers, bringing power stations back to the centre of our city or reintroducing smoking in public places. Here’s a choice: do I wait 20, 30, 40 years for the vested interest groups to be outnumbered, for public opinion to catch up? Or do I provide leadership? There’s that classic choice: leadership or followership. And I can’t argue with the evidence from Imperial College, Kings College, the World Health Organisation, Great Ormond Street [children’s hospital]. I know from the conversations I’ve had [and] the polling we’ve done, that the majority of Londoners who are silent about this are in favour. Do I allow a loud, well-funded group, funded by vested interests to cower me, so I don’t take action?”

“Do I allow a loud, well-funded group, funded by vested interests to cower me, so I don’t take action?”

His answer is obviously an emphatic “No”. But he concludes by widening the argument. “By the way, I’m critical of national governments who kick the can down the road in relation to climate change. ‘We’ll have a target by 2050, 2060’? Well, let me tell you a secret, they won’t be around in 2050 as prime minister.”

Since he has raised the question of prime ministerial leadership, I ask if he misses the House of Commons, the glorious setting of Westminster – and the idea of himself becoming prime minister. The answer from him (and other mayors who enjoy the power of leadership without the often bizarre conventions and tribal politics of Westminster), seems to be another big “No”. As Khan puts it: “Speak not just to me but to Andy Burnham (Greater Manchester), Andy Street (West Midlands), Tracy Brabin (West Yorkshire), Steve Rotherham (Liverpool). Many of us have been MPs before. The joy of being a mayor is you can be authentic. I loved being an MP for eleven years, representing my community. I loved being a shadow minister, being in the shadow cabinet and so forth. But it’s just a fact, when you’re a parliamentarian, for various reasons you’ve got to stay in your lane. If you’re the transport secretary, you can’t really talk about justice or health, for good reasons. And there’s a hierarchy. You have the argument or discussion inside the room. If you win the discussion, that’s great, everyone toes your line. If you lose the discussion, you’ve got to toe the party line. And that’s how collective responsibility works and it’s a good thing. The job of being mayor means you can be yourself. You can be authentic as to who you are. And particularly when you’re the mayor of your city that you were born and raised in.”

Britain still has a chronic trust problem in public life. Mayors (all the ones Khan mentions) will run into criticism when they try to make changes. They will also run into criticism when they do not make changes. In Breathe he notes that if you catch a London Underground train from Westminster, the further you travel east, away from the centre of political power, the health outcomes in the local neighbourhoods get poorer and poorer at every station. The book ends by saying: “We’re still only in the foothills of the mountain we need to climb.” Khan talks of better public transport, a tree-planting initiative, rewilding for a (literally) greener London, and a new road-user charging scheme which – it takes no genius to predict – will lead to another huge public row.

“At times I have felt tired,” he admits, “and at times I have thought about giving up.” Instead, he remembers Ella Roberta Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, a girl born, like Khan, in South London. And like him, Ella developed a problem with breathlessness. In her case she died at just nine years old as a result of, as the pathologist put it, “one of the worst cases of asthma ever recorded in the UK.” By December 2020 Coroner Philip Barlow reached a verdict that the nine-year-old girl who lived close to the busy South Circular Road had become the first person in British history to have “air pollution” listed as a cause of death. The courts, in this case a coroner’s court, once more played an important part in our public life.

For Sadiq Khan, the moral is obvious. “There is,” he concludes, “so much more we have to do.”

Gavin Esler’s new book “Britain Is Better Than This” is published by Head of Zeus in September. Sadiq Khan’s “Breathe: Tackling The Climate Emergency” is published by Cornerstone

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

July 2023, People

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.