Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Back to the future

Last week was my 24th visit to Israel. Over the last three decades I have watched it transform, from a poor agricultural country, into a cutting edge high tech market economy. But during all that time, there is one thing that hasn't changed....getting there! It's over forty years since El Al, Israel's national airline introduced jet airliners to its fleet, and it still takes the same time, four and a half hours to get there from the UK.

When I was a child, all the movies, books, and science programmes told us we would be travelling in flying cars, flying at the speed of sound, and even going into space for our vacations. Instead of all that, here we are, still driving motor cars, still sitting in traffic jams, and still waiting for our delayed flights. Even the ageing space shuttle has been grounded.

When Concorde was retired last year, many commentators said that the demise of supersonic air travel was a unique example of progress moving backwards. I think they missed the point. Moving backwards has now become the norm. We've become luddites, and slowing down has become an aspiration. There is even a well publicised lobby group, the slower speeds initiative which dreams of taking us back to the days of the red flag act.

I often joke to my friends that by the time we have grandchildren, motorists will be forced to travel by horse and cart, and we'll be flying on propellor planes. What worries me is that my jokes might come true! What went wrong? I think it all goes back to the cold war. As long as there was rivalry between the US, its Allies and the Soviet Union, Governments were prepared to risk lives, the environment and huge amounts of taxpayers money to gain the technological upper hand. But it was also a very optimistic period where people believed that humans were capable of achieving almost anything. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, we saw things differently. The Russians had the most advanced military technology, yet the country was bunkrupt, and its people lived in abject poverty.

As soon as the cold war ended, we became more risk averse and realised what mattered the most was our quality of life. Technology is fine, as long as it makes us healthier, live longer, and saves us money. As a result, our priorities have changed. Why pay £7000 to fly supersonic across the atlantic, when you can fly on a regular plane for £200. Why travel half way across the world to go to a business meeting when you can have a video conference from your own desk.

And that's the point. With information technology moving leaps and bounds, and getting ever cheaper, there's less of a need to travel...unless you're going on holiday. You can visit the Supermarket without even moving out of your armchair. All those movies about the future missed one thing out. After flying at the speed of light and travelling in his flying car, our hero still had to find a phone booth in order to make a call. How old fashioned is that!

Sunday, December 12, 2004

The mask is slipping...

The Government’s current indecision over whether to give homeowners greater protection against burglars is proof if ever you needed it of how the mask is finally slipping from New Labour.

After increasing pressure from the public, Tony Blair last week belatedly responded that he would look into changing the law. He was swiftly contradicted by the Government’s top lawyer, Lord Goldsmith who declared that existing legislation was adequate.

The row is over the fact that the current law allows you to use “reasonable force” to defend yourself against intruders. No one seems to know what “reasonable” actually means. A number of householders who believed they were in danger ended up being prosecuted for defending their property….and several others who failed to defend their property ended up being murdered by intruders.

Now I don’t want to get bogged down in the law and order debate, I just want to illustrate how Labour has become increasingly authoritarian and only values public opinion when they feel they are about to be trounced by the opposition on a major election issue. Despite the republican instincts of many in Labour, their attitude is to regard the electorate as “subjects” rather than “citizens”, “the mob” if you like, who should only be consulted when it suits them, and only on issues that are considered “safe” for the electorate to make decisions on.

Long before Tony Blair came to power, he had to fight tooth and nail to modernise his party, many of whose members believed more in standing up for their beliefs than in seeking election. He was initially mocked as Bambi with teeth, but soon became caricatured as Stalin. From Disneyland to Dictatorship in just 12 months, he tightened the grip on his party, dragging it kicking and screaming into reality. He reduced the power of the trade unions and more closely aligned his party with Britain's middle classes. He stole the Tories clothes leaving them exposed without any policies to campaign with.

After much scepticism, in 1997 I finally felt it was safe to vote for Labour. And after 18 years of conservative rule, it was time for change. Labour seemed to offer the best of both worlds, a belief in economic liberalism combined with a commitment to strong public services.

Although I was impressed by Tony Blair's third way, I could never bring myself to take up membership of his party. They seemed to have something of an identity crisis. They had borrowed all the Conservatives ideas, from (claiming to be) tough on crime to favouring low taxation. And in a relatively short time, they jettisoned everything they once stood for, from nationalisation, to their rejection of unilateral disarmament.

And after seven years of being in power, my prejudices have been confirmed. It is now abundantly clear that the "New Labour" project was little more than a charade. The heart and soul of the party was never behind the Prime Minister, and even his own cabinet are having trouble keeping up the act. Ultimately, you have to believe in something to make it reality and the Labour party were more concerned with being electable than with anything else.

Although it's fair to say that the return of Nationalisation or even Nuclear Disarmament is about as likely as the reinstatement of flogging, the old demon of class envy is as strong as ever. I voted in 1997 on the misapprehension that Labour had finally got over their obsession with class, but the events of the last few months have proven otherwise. Take for example the recent ban on fox hunting, a sport widely practiced all over Europe and by all social classes, a sport that attracts little controversy over there. In Britain by contrast, hunting is perceived as an "upper class" pursuit, which as far as Labour MP's are concerned is as good a reason as any to ban it. You don't see Labour MP's clamouring to ban battery hen farming or abbatoirs, that would mean mass unemployment.

And then there is the War on the motorist. Back in May, Kim Howells, a Junior Government Minister compared Motoring to Smoking, claiming it could be taxed out of existence in much the same way as cigarettes have. The Government behaves as though we are still living in the days when Motoring was a luxury enjoyed by the privileged few.

Over the last seven years, Tony Blair’s Government has become a high tax, high spending Government. Although income taxes are relatively low, local taxes are high as are indirect taxes. People wouldn’t mind if the result was better public services, but in the old Labour tradition, they pour billions of pounds into services without making the necessary structural changes to improve them.

You only have to look at a number of their policies to see the contradictions. Willing to go to War against Iraq based on unsubstantiated evidence, yet unwilling to tackle the rising tide of violent crime at home. A signatory to the European Convention of Human Rights.(which bans Britain from ever using the death penalty), yet enacting legislation post 9/11 that enables the Government to detain suspects without trial. Scrapping investment in new roads yet unwilling to invest in public transport.

It all displays a lack on conviction in the whole “New Labour” project. It was always going to be difficult to be all things to all people and sooner you have to make some hard decisions and decide where your duties lie. Labour made a good start by in it’s first term by being socially active and giving Scotland and Wales their own assembly. Their second term was supposed to be about improving public services. They could have combined their higher spending by making radical changes in public services such as more private sector involvement in the NHS

Following the revelation that there were in fact no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Tony Blair’s MP’s have become restless. They stood behind him in order to get Labour into power and now want some concessions. They want higher taxes and big Government, and having lost credibility he is now in less of a position to stand in their way. As with the last Tory Government, Labour have been in power for too long, and their MPs are more concerned about vested interests than serving the electorate. It’s about time they had a reminder of what life in opposition was like.