Walter Harris: Politicians and the pleasures of fast cars
Tuesday 13 December 2005
In December 1965, the 70mph limit on motorways was brought in by Tom Fraser, the Labour transport minister, as an "emergency" measure. There was a faint whiff of the man with the red flag about it.
On 18 January, the new (non-driving) transport minister, Barbara Castle, continued it for a three-month "try-out" period - after which, of course, it became permanent.
Many reasons were given for its imposition, not all to do with speed. We were told that fossil products were finite, that far less petrol was used at lower speeds (an acknowledgement perhaps that 70 was low, but so what? Only the affluent few could afford fast cars), and that low speeds were safer.
The ratio of speed to time - in personal and economic terms, one of the principal reasons for building fast roads - had little influence on the killjoys and those many Labour MPs who, as today, had little experience of business and the world outside Westminster, and were driven then, as now, by a motive force that will sadly outlast all others: envy.
The pleasure of speed was beyond the comprehension of Castle and her civil servants; I do not recollect its ever being mentioned as worthy of consideration.
Logically, the 70mph limit on the almost empty motorways then should have closed down Jaguar, Ferrari and Porsche, and banished American cars such as the Mustang, Corvette and Thunderbird. It didn't, because one of the constituents of the human spirit of adventure, which has enabled us to accomplish so much, is speed for its own sake.
Also, humanity rather than technology still prevailed, and the police could only court so much unpopularity by enforcing the limit. These cars brought prestige and, with it, profit for their respective countries' economies, as well as pride to their owners.
These days, motorways are usually packed, so we are often unable to reach even the legal motorway limit. Told to embrace public transport, we find little value in its frequency or ubiquity, and are more sensitive to the loss of independence than to any supposed convenience or efficiency.
Now there are other parts of the world with a claim to enjoy speed and, when they build suitable roads, the chance to attain it. I do not believe that India, China and Brazil are going to shroud themselves in what currently passes for cosmic morality, and deny themselves the joys we knew - of driving fast cars without a thought for fossil fuels, global warming and other abstruse obstacles to having at last the time they believe they deserve. How can we expect them to?
Unlike those countries, we are seeing the end of our democracy; driving fast cars at speed (if we find a clear road), smoking, hunting (but not 24-hour drinking) are in the spoilsports' sights.
As the Brazilian and the Indian accelerate powerfully away, we here can only brace ourselves for the return of the man with the red flag who, after little more than 100 years, is ready to take up position in front of us once more.
And all, it seems, with the ultimate intention of destroying those freedoms that make it so much worth living the life that the oppressors want to change.
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