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Robert Webb and David Mitchell contemplate dark days ahead.

Robert Webb and David Mitchell contemplate dark days ahead.

There’s a fantastic sketch in a recent episode of That Mitchell and Webb Look. It’s first-century Pompeii, and the city consul Robert Webb has called his most trusted soothsayer Quintillius, played by David Mitchell, to discuss the dark smokey clouds that are hovering over his city. Having established that the forecast is hardly rosy, the consul suggests making an offering to appease the angry gods.

“Exactly,” replies Quintillius, “I’ve been having a bit of a think about this, and I reckon I’ve got it. We sort out our rubbish into separate bins. Green glass, brown glass, mosaic, papyrus all in separate bins – a sort of devotional thing. Once a week before going to bed on a Monday night, I reckon.”

This “futile time-consuming ritual”, promises the soothsayer, will be all that is necessary to make the atmosphere return to normal. “You know gods,” he says, “They love all that shit.”

David Mitchell is fortunately more perceptive than his Quintillius alter-ego. In his Observer column yesterday, he pointed out the ridiculousness of Ed Miliband’s promise to “protect air travel for the masses” while also pledging to cut carbon emissions:

Otherwise, [Miliband] said, it would mean “you would go back to 1974 levels of flying”. Well, if he thinks that’s the worst the environmental future could hold, he hasn’t been doing his boxes. “I don’t want to have a situation where only rich people can afford to fly,” he continued. Who does? But then it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Whereas …

For us Brits,  it seems, no environmental catastrophe is “half as terrifying as losing our easyJet privileges.”

Apparently we feel there’s no point keeping the planet habitable unless we’ve still got quick access to Disney World and Ibiza. This is bizarre and depressing. It makes me need a holiday. Are our existences so miserable that we’re only living for two weeks of escape?

Mitchell is absolutely right. It is completely baffling why we sacrifice a habitable planet for disappointing hotels, crowded beaches, jet lag and inevitable family arguments. But we also need to ask which Britons are doing the escaping. Are they, as Miliband seems to think, “the masses”? Or are what Mitchell calls “easyJet privileges” exactly that: a perogrative of one particular elite?

Research by nef and the World Development Movement, published last autumn, revealed that the “democratisation” of foreign travel by cheap air fares is a myth. Only 8 per cent of cheap flights are taken by people on low incomes, and yet those people make up 32 per cent of the UK population. It’s actually the richest people who use cheap flights the most. 40 per cent of cheap air fares are bought by people in socio-economic categories A and B, who make up only 24 per cent of the population. Sorry Ed, but protecting air travel doesn’t make you a crusader for the poor. It makes you the defender of stockbroker mini-breaks.

At the end of the sketch, Webb’s consul complains that Quintillius’ rubbish-sorting scheme amounts to little more than, well, “pissing in the wind.” Politicians, it seems, have lost a certain perspicacity in the last 1,947 years.


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