Edinburgh's roads rage with contempt for New Labour

One constant theme running through the Festival is disillusion with the Government
PUZZLINGLY, THEY call Edinburgh the Athens of the North, though, as one of my Edinburgh friends points out, the August weather makes it feel more like the Reykjavik of the South. There is the Castle and the Royal Mile, but these hardly evoke the Acropolis. And the annual Festival, though a breathtakingly catholic event, is hardly the repository of cultural antiquity, unless you count some of the precious relics on the stand-up comedy circuit.

Maybe what they mean is that the traffic is so bad that, as in the real Athens, they should allow cars to enter the city on alternate days only. The congestion is now so acute that the best drama in town may turn out to be the eruptions of road rage that mark your passage across the centre of the city.

I have heard of elephants and rhinos attacking safari jeeps, but I've never before seen a pedestrian attack a car. Yet on Friday I experienced this unlikely assault while sitting in the back of a black cab stuck in the traffic. Admittedly, the taxi-driver had crawled through a red light; normally, this might have provoked a shaken fist or a curse on your progeny for seven generations. But, in Scotland, they do not like to risk being misunderstood. If you've done wrong you should know about it. One young mother wheeling her toddler across the road took umbrage at the taxi's offence, and delivered what sounded like a hefty boot to the rear door. Her friend followed up with a volley of oaths and a clenched fist. Understandably, the taxi driver did not stop to engage in debate; such women are not to be trifled with.

Edinburgh seldom stops talking about its traffic. The day before, John Prescott had thrown his weight behind the plan to pedestrianise Trafalgar Square; Edinburgh yawned at the gesture. Now, take Princes Street, laddie - that's a serious problem. I had plenty of time to chat to the driver about the problems surrounding Edinburgh's main thoroughfare, since it took nearly half an hour to travel four miles, including crossing Princes Street. According to a Friends of the Earth survey for the London Cyclist, Edinburgh gives over 70 per cent of its road space to 9,000 motor cars, leaving the other 30 per cent for 40,000 pedestrians. Most of the other 8,999 seemed to have parked themselves between us and my destination.

As we inched forward, my cabbie made it clear that he had little time for the Trafalgar Square plan, and was just as scornful of any ideas that would pedestrianise Princes Street, which is a combination of Oxford Street and Knightsbridge. It all sounded like a typical bit of New Labour namby- pambyism to him. The only answer, he said, had to be a savage road-pricing regime that would lock motorists out of the city centre, particularly punishing those who drove in on their own. Most London taxi-drivers' solution to the traffic problem also comes down to shutting everyone but their own vehicles out of the capital. However, their Edinburgh brethren seem less self-centred. My companion - we spent so much time together that we began to feel like old pals - argued selflessly that three tram routes would make it unnecessary for the people of Edinburgh to bring their cars to the centre of town. And probably put a few black cabs out of business, I would have said.

However, the transport system of Edinburgh seems to produce its own extraordinary theatre , complete with a pantomime villain, Mr David Begg, the councillor in charge of the city's transport. It is said that Mr Begg does not drive, and therefore is biased; if that is true, it is a bias in the right direction. Edinburgh City Council seems to be ready to pioneer exactly the the sort of theatrical gesture needed to tackle the real villain of the piece, the motor car. These include closing parts of the city to cars, road pricing, and punitive taxation of private parking spaces. While pedestrianisation schemes may be attractive, and may even have some local effect, ultimately, it will take some rather large-scale melodrama to tackle the congestion facing cities such as London and Edinburgh.

Of course, at the moment, even if you're on foot, Edinburgh is so packed with actors, musicians and stand-up comedians that it's hard to move without bruising an over-inflated ego. There are, as it happens, many brilliant moments to be experienced. You've already missed the chance to hear Alfred Brendel stroke his masterly way through Mozart and Schubert; but you may just catch the African Julius Caesar, a rollicking production played with no reverence whatsoever for the text ("adapted in Central Africa, from an original text by William Shakespeare"). Performed in the Botanic Gardens against the magnificent backdrop of Edinburgh Castle, it is the sort of event that seems to take place only at the Festival, with flaming torches cutting through the chill of the night, and talking drums competing with the sound of fireworks over Princes Street.

I was in fact there for the Book Festival, which featured a galaxy of international literary stars looking, it must be said, disappointingly human. At breakfast, I sat next to DM Thomas, the celebrated author of The White Hotel; I eavesdropped shamelessly, yet he did not seem the slightest bit mad, nor did he drop any Freudian references in his discussion of the merits of muesli as opposed to other cereals. Strange.

However, there was one theme that seemed to run through all the Festival's literary and political chatter, and even the running debate about the crowded city streets - the disillusion with the Government.

Edinburgh, thought to be the most pro-UK of Scottish cities, cannot abide New Labour, and neither, it seems, can the sort of middle-class intelligentsia that come to its Festival. The most responsive of the political chuckles has been at the expense of Tony Blair and Donald Dewar. As the Tomahawk missiles flew in Afghanistan and Sudan, it was the sign for uproarious laughter at clumsy comparisons between our government and Monica Lewinsky: has the special relationship become and "inappropriate" relationship?

The appointment of Gus Macdonald, the boss of Scottish TV, to the Government seems to be an especially sore point. The problem isn't the man; everyone knows that Macdonald is tough, smart and extremely competent - exactly the sort of beef that Labour needs if it is going to combat the SNP. But the straws in the Edinburgh wind are all ominous for New Labour.

The Prime Minister should enjoy his holiday as far as the job will allow; but on his return, he needs to be told that even though the Ides of March may no longer be in the calendar, the knives are being sharpened.