''The crucial question for the Chancellor in this critical period will be how far he can retain his nerve and his logic at a time when the nation has been blowing a gasket." So wrote the New Statesman in a cover story in 2000 when fuel protesters were holding the country to ransom. Five years on, nothing has changed except that the motley bunch of hauliers, farmers and their friends have, at the time of writing, come out in far less threatening numbers.
Their case is, if anything, more flimsy than it was before. Indeed, rather than being too expensive, running a car is now cheaper than it has been for a generation; and, for the sake of future generations, the costs must rise. Some facts: since 1999 when Gordon Brown unwisely removed the "fuel escalator" (which increased tax on petrol by 6 per cent over inflation), the rate of duty levied on petrol has fallen to its lowest point in seven years. Overall, the cost of buying a car and maintaining and insuring it has fallen by 11 per cent since 1975. Since this Labour government came to power in 1997, the cost has fallen by 6 per cent, while tickets for the bus, train and Underground have soared in price. Public transport costs more in Britain than any other European Union country except Sweden and Denmark. It is no surprise, therefore, that car journeys have increased. Most of these cover very short distances, usually two miles or less.
In rural areas, the problem is most acute. Nearly three-quarters of all trips are made by car. This is hardly surprising since, according to the Countryside Agency, 50 per cent of rural households live more than 13 minutes' walk from their nearest bus stop, while 29 per cent have no bus service at all - hardly an inducement to leave the car at home.
Even if this latest scare passes, the long-term challenges do not diminish. It seems energy fears - this time the merest hint of a blockade - bring out our primeval instincts to panic and to hoard. But our habits do not change. We retreat behind the specious notion of choice to assert our "right" to increase pollution. Even motoring organisations are becoming worried. The RAC, better known for its "defence of motorists", has been advising people to seek other forms of transport.
This government's performance on the environment has been weak so far. Certain green measures have been taken, such as cutting the cost of the tax disc for cars with smaller engines, but whenever it is under pressure, the government's tendency is to bow to the "car lobby". Most regrettable was the Chancellor's decision in 2000 to abandon a planned rise in duty, something that is likely to be repeated in this autumn's pre-Budget statement. Brown has sought to shift the pressure on to oil producers, particularly Opec, urging them to bring down the price of oil by boosting production, which has been hit by a number of crises, most recently Hurricane Katrina in the US Gulf Coast states. He is not wrong to do this. The world's main sources of fossil fuels are increasingly unstable. The search for alternative energy sources, particularly renewables, is becoming urgent. But neither the British nor other governments will gain anything but short-term political respite by buckling under the pressure for "lower" prices at the petrol pump.
The UK's environmental audit is increasingly alarming. Far from falling as planned, carbon-dioxide emissions have been rising over the past two years. After abandoning its 2001 manifesto commitment to cut emissions by 20 per cent by 2010, the government now looks as if it will struggle even to meet the legally binding 12.5 per cent cut stipulated under the Kyoto Protocol, which came into effect in March. The figures are particularly embarrassing because the Prime Minister and Chancellor made climate change one of their top priorities for Britain's leadership of both the G8 and EU this year. Our dependency on the car has caused other damage, too. Between 1998 and 2002, some 20,000 hectares of previously undeveloped land, the equivalent of three times the size of the city of Nottingham, was turned into roads.
We are dangerously dependent on the car. The price at the pumps - more than £1 a litre - makes us grumble, but does not make us change our ways. More must be done. The congestion charge in London, bravely introduced by the mayor, Ken Livingstone, was a start. Special lanes for cars with more than one passenger will have an effect. Other incentives must be legislated for.
For all the myths that are propagated by the so-called car lobby, there is no flight from the difficult conclusion that, if only for self-preservation, more stringent measures must be taken to force us out of our cars.
Now give cricket a rest
Water-coolers hold an important place in media talk these days. The idea comes from America: an event is thought to deserve a lot of coverage when it dominates discussion around the nation's office water-coolers. The Ashes series subverted this, for the one thing you could not do was step away from your computer, radio or television for a drink, but in all other respects it was a water-cooler hit. Another run, another over, another wicket: like a dynamic Sudoku, the numbers captivated us. Women surprised themselves by caring. And then, to cap it all, the victorious team went on a public bender that took in 10 Downing Street. Can cricket stay this popular? For its own sake, let us hope not. Attention of this kind always turns nasty, and we have seen enough of this team to know that they are not always perfect role models. They and their game need a rest from us. Fortunately, the water-cooler is a fickle master.