Friday, 30 September 2011

We should put our foot down

You can always spot a Tory, can’t you? Transport Secretary Philip Hammond wants to increase the speed limit on Britain’s motorways to 80 mph because it will be good for business, even though it’s acknowledged by experts that the change of policy will lead to a greater number of accidents and pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. To a Conservative ideologue, the economic advantage always outweighs any potential social or environmental cost. In this respect, Hammond follows directly in the footsteps of one of his barmy predecessors – the chain-smoking old Etonian, Nicholas Ridley. As Secretary of State for Transport between 1983 and 1986 in the Thatcher government, Ridley – whose head was packed full of Hayek and Friedman – was known for his eccentric obsessions. If I remember correctly, Ken Livingstone, who led the socialist Greater London Council at the time, discovered that Maggie’s ministerial pal favoured getting rid of traffic lights because they disrupted the flow of vehicles.

That’s the logical next step, isn’t it? In fact, it’s a wonder Philip Hammond isn’t saying exactly the same thing. Because if we believe in freedom to pursue enterprise, regardless of environmental impact or injuries to members of the public, then where do we draw the line? Why 80 mph? If that extra 10 mph rescues us from the recession being nurtured by Hammond’s own government, why not make it 90 mph or 100 mph? In fact, why bother with a speed limit at all? The success story of the German economy has surely been built on the reckless and unrestricted driving pursued on the Autobahns over the years.

Is there any serious economist who has plotted speed limits against GDP? The United States would be an interesting country to study, wouldn’t it? The highway patrol would pull you over for doing sixty. It’s a wonder there haven’t been riots over there. Forget Barack Obama’s healthcare policies. The real socialism is happening right there on the roads, where armed government officials are stopping enterprising citizens from pursuing their God-given right to pursue the American Dream.

We don’t need a PhD in transportation studies to work out that the ‘economic boost’ from increasing speed limits is a disingenuous smokescreen. Hammond’s announcement is purely political and aimed at demonstrating that the government is on the side of the motorist, who – according to tabloid folklore – has been under bombardment over a number of years from do-gooders, eco-freaks and health and safety killjoys. No minister wants to be seen as anti-car. But no government with any integrity can afford to be pro-car in a world where temperatures are inexorably rising due to manmade pollution.

Where are the Liberal Democrats in all this? Claiming perhaps that they have a pathetic concession of more 20 mph zones in urban areas, although this is far from certain. If they go along with this anti-environmental measure, we can only hope that it will shake a few more of their complacent and naïve followers into realising the obvious: that Clegg and his friends have abandoned all principle for the sake of two or three years of power.