A new line in hypocrisy

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS good to see old Jarvis Cocker stick his head above the parapet again this week, choosing to expand on his theory of cocaine socialism at the NME Premier Awards on Tuesday night. First formulated in a track of the same name for his latest album, This Is Hardcore, his argument is that champagne socialism has been superseded under New Labour by something far more pernicious. Cocaine socialism, then, is the politics of selfishness, and it is thus named after the overwhelming do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do self- absorption that is one of the most noticeable behavioural characteristics of someone on a cocaine high.

Jarvis, of course, knows whereof he speaks, and has himself displayed some of the attitudes of the cocaine socialist - not least in the replacement of Sarah, his girlfriend through the bad times before fame came along, with the teenage actor and model Chloe Sevigny. In fact, his behaviour is entirely consistent with his new ideology. Bearing in mind the massive majority of the New Labour Government, it is to be assumed that we're all cocaine socialists now.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in New Labour attitudes to transport policy, among both the officials and the voters. Chief offender among the administrators is Lord de Ramsey. His position as chairman of the Environmental Agency means that he is Britain's number one pollution watchdog, and might therefore be expected to spearhead the Government's stated policy of getting people out of their private cars and on to public transport.

Titters all round then, when the papers reported this week that, while His Lordship does indeed set an example by commuting on the train from his Cambridgeshire estate to London's King's Cross station, this example is somewhat sullied by the fact that his chauffeur sets out from his home in Reading in a Ford Scorpio diesel so that he can pick his master up from the station and drive him on a 20-minute trip through rush-hour traffic to his office in Millbank Tower.

The Tory-appointed peer refused to be interviewed, but a spokesman declared: "Lord de Ramsey is perfectly entitled to use a car. It stretches credulity to suggest he should be seen standing at a bus stop." He may have been appointed by his chum John Major, but since we're all expected to take this enormous line he's offered us, we can mark Lord de Ramsey down as an instinctive cocaine socialist all the same.

More amusing still is David Begg, the messianic anti-car campaigner, Edinburgh City councillor and sometime chief adviser to John Prescott. One of the main architects of the recent White Paper that outlined the Government's strategy for getting people on to public transport, Begg is a hate figure in Edinburgh because of his hard-line policies which are entirely geared towards getting cars out of the city altogether.

So apocalyptic is his future vision of the car that he makes farmer Jim, the farmer in Ohio who has dedicated his recent years to building and maintaining "Car Henge", an exact replica of Stonehenge but built using the cars he wishes would disappear off the face of the planet, seem perfectly normal.

Begg appeared on Scottish television earlier this week warning of a "traffic time bomb" and declaring: "I don't want to ban cars, but if we are not successful in reducing car use, then that is one of the Draconian measures which we will have no choice but to implement."

Few people remained untouched by irritation when the stunningly self- righteous Begg threw away his own car keys last year in a publicity stunt to promote a pollution-free Edinburgh. Since then, he's claimed that he has never, ever used a car. This was proved to be just another big fat line when it was revealed that Begg had run up a pounds 500 taxi bill at the council's expense.

We'd all naturally be much more keen to give up our cars if free taxis became available to us, but it's hard to see how this might bring down pollution, particularly when taxis, just like Lord de Ramsey's Scorpio, run on the diesel fuel that's so much more damaging to the environment than unleaded petrol.

Meanwhile, John Prescott himself snorts suspiciously when reminded that it may be time for him to give up his Jaguar, even if he personally launched last summer's integrated transport policy and, more recently, the Alternative Traffic in Towns initiative, which aims to ban all but low-emission electric- and gas-driven vans, cars and buses from city centres. Even the God of Green Living, Jonathon Porritt, who wants private cars banned entirely from motorways, admits that while he doesn't own a car himself, he does borrow his wife's little runaround to do the shopping.

But when it comes to hypocrisy and bloody-mindedness on the roads, we, the public, are the worst offenders. Few people could have remained entirely unrepelled by the launch this week of the world's first hermetically sealed baby buggy. It has a pollution-proof passenger capsule, plus a filter adapted from those used in the masks worn by firemen. Its battery-driven fan sucks air though the filter and pumps 160 litres of cleaned air a minute into the baby's plastic cocoon.

Despite its pounds 500 price tag, the Baby+Air pushchair is rolling off its Warwickshire production line at a rate of 1,000 a month, and is already in stock at Mothercare. Its inventor, Stephen Kuester, believes he's on to a winner, for parents are becoming increasingly anxious about their children's asthma. The figures are certainly sobering. The number of children with asthma has doubled in a decade. More than a fifth of under-fives were diagnosed with it last year, while one in seven children under 15 is now asthmatic. And it's not only children who are at risk.

The Chief Medical Officer, Sir Kenneth Calman, estimates that between 12,000 and 24,000 people may be dying each year from pollution in British cities. The Government's theoretically correct solution is to crack down still further on the private motorists who contribute most to air pollution, with workplace parking fees, tolls and congestion charges planned across the country and spot fines for drivers whose exhaust fumes fail an emissions test.

But Kuester's pushchair remains more likely to protect a few petted and privileged children from asthma than any of these measures. In a survey published yesterday, the car services company Lex found that 83 per cent of drivers believed that a car was completely essential to their lifestyle. More worryingly, 68 per cent of drivers were certain that even if the cost of public transport were slashed by half, they would continue to drive to work. More than 50 per cent said that tolls, fees and charges would be unlikely to stop them from using their vehicles.

It appears that the advance of the car is unstoppable, and while the estimate that traffic in Britain will increase by a third before 2010 seems hard to countenance, the public's attachment to private transport also seems unshakeable.

Yet it is simply physically impossible for more cars to be accommodated in cities. There's no room on the roads, there's no room to park and there's precious little air to breathe. A total ban on private cars in city centres, however Draconian that may sound, has to be the inevitable consequence of our love-affair with the car.

Zero tolerance is more likely to be successful in getting rid of the cocaine socialists on our roads than it can ever be when called upon to rid us of cocaine. Which means that we'll have no one to blame but ourselves when the likes of David Begg finally get their way. There's only one way of stopping him. Jarvis Cocker must enact his transport policies as Mayor of London.