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February 21, 2007

Road Pricing and Government Debate

Along with one and a half million other people, I received a very polite e-mail from Tony Blair today explaining why my views on road pricing are wrong. Ignoring my actual views on road pricing (broadly against with a sympathy for limited toll introduction e.g. on motorways unless the public transport system is massively overhauled), I find the tone of the response quite annoying. The approach is common across government and also evident in the ID cards issue, which Mr. Blair commented on last week.

Typically, having reassured us that the government is open-minded and welcoming to broad debate, they re-iterate their arguments as simply and clearly as they can. Rather like stereotypical English tourists they speak LOUDLY and SLOWLY because we clearly haven’t understood what they have been – perfectly reasonably – trying to tell us. Having restated for us their rational, the argument ends and we are expected to be won over. I don’t think I am alone in having read government publications, Ministerial interviews and newspaper comments in order to understand the issue before signing the petition. (Incidentally, he may be regretting it now but I love Mr. Blair’s online petitions – it allows one to research a subject before signing rather than being approached on the street in ignorance). I really would rather that the government engaged directly with criticisms and counter arguments and responded to them – had a real debate – rather than assuming that we had an imperfect understanding of their case (not that I have a perfect understanding but… y’know). I can understand why they can’t do this with the public at large but even Parliament fails in this regard; it is so focussed on political point scoring that I can barely detect debate there either (“Would the Minster..?” “Since 1997 we have…” “Yes, but could you answer?” “Given the last Tory administration…” etc ad infinitum).

Mr Blair’s e-mail is actually rather more conciliatory than I’ve allowed for but does come in the face of several weeks of staunch defence from Transport Ministers who have outright rejected the petition (an anonymous Minister called the author a ‘prat’) and said that it will not affect the proposals. They obviously hadn’t received the memo at that point as the message has softened considerably since the PM became personally involved – he doesn’t enjoy aggravating the electorate. Mr. Blair calls this a ‘difficult choice’ (even to a degree writing off the impact of his transport policy) but doesn’t engage with issues such as the inequality of the tax, the expense of some public transport and its variability across regions (Chiltern or Virgin, anyone?), the poor rural services, and the movement of essential shops and services out of communities due to supermarkets/post office closures. He fails to acknowledge that successive governments have not only encouraged but forced extended mobility and failed to provide a public transport system to keep up.

The problem is that “difficult choice” is a New Labour euphemism for “unpopular action”. Some of these are perfectly reasonable and driven by political/social dogma – I may disagree with a government’s opinion but if they have always been clear about their stance on it and their intention to legislate then they have the democratic right to do so (e.g. fox hunting). Often, however, a “difficult decision” is merely one that the government is taking against broad public opinion (Iraq comes to mind). Where the public understand the rational they are usually forgiving but where the decision seems to be punitive, reactionary or designed to paper over failures elsewhere in the system (such as the diabolical public transport system outside of London), as this one seems, then resentment builds. Margaret Thatcher found this with the Poll Tax and I’m sure that the Labour administration will too. Unfortunately, I doubt that issue will be road pricing but the fact that c.1.8m (almost 3% of the population! Yes, I’m sure some of them were called Mickey Mouse too…) felt sufficiently strong to find the website, register and confirm their signature gives the impression that the time isn’t too far off.

Rant over.

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