Timidity is the enemy of good governance. If anything characterises New Labour’s failings, it is the government’s failure to show courage in the face of potential opposition. Almost daily there are examples of this pusillanimity which creates the sense of an administration in drift.
Take the imposition of a tax on plastic bags, a ‘no-brainer’ to quote Dick Cheney, that instead will be the subject of a voluntary code, all out of fear that the powerful supermarkets may not like it. Yet, over the water in Ireland, the measure has been amazingly successful in reducing waste. Then there is the dithering by the Education Secretary Alan Johnson over the 25 per cent quota of non-believers in new ‘faith’ schools. Another cave-in to vested interests.
In the transport field, there is too an abundance of similar examples of this timidity. Motoring taxes have not risen in line with inflation for several years; the fuel tax escalator was abandoned, even before the mysterious fuel protests that paralysed the country six years ago; and the right to impose road pricing has been devolved to councils so that the local politicians have to take the can.
Until very recently, the fear of angering the bus companies has prevented any moves towards bus reregulation despite the clear evidence that the existing structure does not work. Similarly on the railways, the dysfunctional structure created by the Tories has been allowed to run its course despite the fact that the taxpayers bill has soared to £5bn annually because of fragmentation and privatisation.
In the past couple of weeks there have been two similar examples. Every year, there are calls for the clocks to be shifted so that we no longer travel so much in the dark in the evening rush hour, as that is when most people get killed. There are various estimates but shifting to the same time zone as Europe would probably save upwards of 100 lives per year, quite apart from the convenience it would provide for travellers to the Continent. But no, the government is too terrified of Scottish dairy farmers who would be adversely affected for a reason I have never quite fathomed (dear reader please explain as it is always dark up there in the winter anyway).
Then we had the recent suggestion that lives would be saved if we made drivers responsible for their passengers to belt up in the back with the risk of penalty points on their licence. This, again, might save a hundred lives. But again, no, we are told that penalty points should be reserved for serious offences (euh, like the ticket I just got for going through the three lane road outside Holloway nick at 38 mph).
The truth is that governments are always subject to pressure from a myriad groups and most of the time these lobbyists are simple promoting narrow self interest. Remember Bernie Ecclestone’s threat to take Formula 1 to the Far East if cigarette advertising were banned (which provoked probably the worst but least investigated scandal of the Blair era). Or the huge fuss over scrapping of duty free sales at airports which was delayed for three years by British prevarication and has not resulted in the end of the world as we know it, as suggested by the airport owners.
Now we have the big one coming up where courage is really needed. All the above could be forgiven if David Miliband and Douglas Alexander show resolution over climate change and implement measures that may well anger a few people in industry but which will help to save the world.