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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.

August 23, 2006

Does the UK need a written constitution? (Or a Minister for Fitness!?!)

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The news today that the government has appointed a Minister for Fitness (why not John Prescott, I hear you scream) has got me thinking about the never ending knee–jerk, headline grabbing policies proposed by the current government that, for at least the last four years, have appeared with no apparent integration nor strategy. Not that I'm saying that the opposition are any better, but then, it's always been something of a fallacy that oppositions should have policies; the clue is in the title, they're their to oppose. You could say that the current administration have simply run out of ideas, are losing momentum or have lost all of their competent spin doctors. I think all three are probably true but what interested me was that these policies seem to be designed to draw attention from the most political crisis of the current era. One that none of the parties appear to be engaging at all with what I think has been exacerbated by successive regimes; the collapse of faith in politicians and the apparent breakdown of the traditional constitutional operation of government.

I think the breakdown of trust and the perversion of the political system are intertwined problems. Politicians are so intent on being elected that they must occupy the middle ground therefore ideology goes out of the window. Saying what you know you must say and not what you believe is lying, which with the addition of spin, press intrusion into private lives and the village mentality of Westminster leads to endemic lying. I agree that this is a simplification but this is a blog not an essay. My point is that in trying to control the message the parties have had to centralise as much power into the hands of the executive as possible. Initially, this simply meant a more robust whip system and the appointment of central candidates with little real world experience but lots of party kudos. Once this had been accomplished (New Labour being the flag carrier) this centralisation of power has spread into every other area of politic; reform of the House of Lords and appointments, party discipline (love him or hate him, Ken Livingstone was treated abominably), civil liberties (ID cards, stop and search etc.), the war on terror and all the abuses implicit in that (dodgy dossiers, camp x–ray, extraordinary rendition)... Almost all of these things have been condemned by the public but there appears to be no accountability other than at the general election and the executive appear free to act as they please without constraint or real, robust interrogation from the Commons, no limitations from a real second chamber and, crucially, no central moral core. Charles Clarke (a good Minister) was thrown to the dogs for something that was not his fault and relatively minor compared to the things that Tony's wormed his way out of and every other Ministerial resignation has been due to a largely non political press witch hunt. The one shining light of decency is Robin Cook.

The United Kingdom has, we are told, historically operated on the basis of an 'unwritten constitution' based on tradition, institutions and the common weal. It's fairly clear that this had a lot to do in the past with class relationships and everyone knowing their place. Without getting into partisan politics, it's pretty clear that since WWII (and possibly the original Parliament Act before WWI) that balanced system has come unstuck. Some of this is good, some bad (and as a caveat, I think much of what has appeared bad in the last decade has merely been made transparent by a far more aggressive press rather than being new phenomena). Nevertheless, I think I would vote for a party who promised to seriously engage with these issues and produce some kind of written constitution that we, the people, could hold the government to task on and that would allow politicians to stand by their convictions and not just try to appeal to the middle ground. The US obviously has huge failings, but at least the Bush administration has been constrained at times (as now with the phone tapping issue) by the US Constitution and I can see air between the stances of the Republicans and Democrats; Tony and David could be interchangeable as party leaders.

If the UK had a constitution, what should it look like? Should it be a straightforward Bill of Rights (like the US one – short and easy to understand, studied in school) that sets out the very clear rights and responsibilities of every member of our society or should it be a rule book on the operation of the state i.e. defining the powers of the PM and the relationship with Parliament (I think the French have something like this – could someone who knows more clarify?).

Does anyone else have views on this?

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