The caricatures of Gilbert and Sullivan, not unlike their operas, have fallen out of favour in recent years, but if last month’s decision by Hollywood to award a couple of Oscars to Mike Leigh’s film Topsy-Turvy helps reinstate them, it will have contributed to our grasp of contemporary politics. One thinks in particular of the Duke of Plaza Toro, the self-congratulatory Spanish nobleman from The Gondoliers. In times of conflict, he selected the less exciting of command options, choosing to lead his regiment from behind.
Leadership from behind is rapidly becoming the hallmark of government by new Labour. It works like this. You find a cause that has already built up a momentum – the NHS, the internet, asylum- seekers – and by adroit use of the platform afforded to modern governments, you make it your own. You focus on issues that appear to have the backing of the powerful or the mainstream; you steer clear of those that do not. Occasionally, you may come unstuck – as Tony Blair did with GM foods, when it became obvious that the interests of the powerful diverged from those of the mainstream – but generally it makes good electoral sense. As to whether it’s what leaders are supposed to do, that’s another question entirely.
Leadership from behind has just reached a sort of nadir in Britain. On 22 September last year, over 160 towns and cities in France, Italy and Germany closed parts of their centres to cars for the day – an innocent enough experiment, one might have thought, given the incontrovertible need to reduce the west’s dependency on the automobile. This year, there are plans at European Union level for a Europe-wide car-free day – but the odds are that it won’t go ahead in Britain on any worthwhile scale because the government wants no part of it. A handful of local authorities may participate; as far as John Prescott and his transport ministers are concerned, they’ll be on their own.
The rationale for refusal is allegedly that car-free days are a form of gesture politics – what’s one day out of 365? Well, yes and no. Gestures are a vital part of the iconography of modern politics, a fact of which new Labour, with its cohorts of spinners, is as aware as anybody else. And gestures by governments carry weight.
In this case, too, gesture serves a vital function. How do you set about creating a better world, and the desire to achieve it, if nobody knows what it looks like or, more important, how it might feel? For most people in urban Britain today, quiet streets in which one can stroll and chat without the risk of being knocked over or forced to inhale exhaust fumes are scarcely even a memory. We’re stuck with the present, which means congestion, fumes and noise. So we curse other drivers, wind the window down, turn the car stereo up and dial home or office on our mobile to say we’ll be late.
Reducing car dependency is about alternative visions of reality. Therefore, it is crucially a matter of perception and psychology – of winning hearts and minds. It’s about, for example, dispelling the widely held belief that motorists are being asked to abandon, instantly, their cars. They’re not; they’re being asked to try using them a little less. It’s about measuring the much-vaunted freedom and convenience of the car against the toll in accidents and deaths, air pollution, stress, community disruption and economic inefficiency. It’s about persuading people of the undoubted benefits of public transport, walking and cycling – from health and fitness to habitable cities. If you’re a government that is serious about these issues, not least curbing the car-borne emissions that are currently, and disastrously, warming the planet, it’s also about standing up to be counted, not cowering behind local authorities or focus groups. Or at least, it should be.
Unfortunately, for all the bold words when it came to power about cutting car usage and switching funds from road building to public transport, the government has decided that this means a battle with the motorist, and it has bottled out. On most relevant decisions, from speed limits and drink-drive laws to the green escalator tax on petrol, it has, like the Duke of Plaza Toro, headed the retreat. In stark contrast, it took prompt action to cut new car prices following the Competition Commission’s confirmation that British buyers were being overcharged by 10 per cent. There is a real danger now that it will unlearn the lesson learnt over so many wasted years by the Tories – that you can’t cope with rising traffic by building more roads.
It really doesn’t need to be this way. For a start, the motoring lobby itself has mellowed. For example, the AA has acknowledged that road pricing may be necessary in London. Margaret Thatcher’s “great car economy” looks even more of a misconception now than it did when she spoke of it not much more than a decade ago, as economic expansion is increasingly driven not by A-roads or motorways but by the e-roads of cyberspace. But perhaps most tellingly, the evidence from the growing numbers of car-free experiments – whether it’s the regular Sundays introduced recently in more than 140 Italian towns and cities or the Home Zones pioneered in Holland and now being tentatively piloted in Britain – is that they work. People like them; they make for safety and neighbourliness; they improve quality of life; they’re good for business. This may be because those who use them are not merely motorists: they’re also parents, residents, citizens, pedestrians.
This, as the Duke of Plaza Toro failed to understand, is the great weakness of leadership from behind. When you’re so far from the front line, it’s hard to be sure that the enemy is not, after all, an ally in disguise.