Wednesday night at Westminster was one of those times. The lowly born were riding in their cloistered, chauffeured ministerial cars to the House of Commons to debate the intricacies of Maastricht. Meanwhile, His Lordship the third baron Colwyn was cycling over potholes and through broken glass to debate, in the Lords, a matter of real interest to the common man: the Benefits of Bicycling. 'Britain's 15 million cyclists are not, at present, in a contented frame of mind. They feel neglected, even treated with contempt by the Government]' declaimed Lord Marlesford.
Despised cyclists may be, but they need no longer feel alone. Their lordships are by their side, often literally, pedalling furiously uphill. For many peers now cycle, and have experienced in person the city cyclist's dilemma: which comes first, limb or law?
In January Lord Marlesford admitted that he is frequently forced to pedal on his Fifties Raleigh not only down one-way streets the wrong way, but to cross at red lights, and even ride on pavements. The storm provoked by this controversial confession has not deterred Lord Marlesford from his mission. He spoke for 15 million British cyclists on Wednesday night, and he spoke with passion. In London, he said, 60 per cent of cars carry only one person, and 66 per cent of car journeys are less than five miles. The bicycle, Lord Marlesford believes, is the answer, if the Government only had vision. Lord Marlesford's personal vision includes new hollowed-out cycle paths in underpasses and 'a cantilevered wooden cycle shelf along the Thames from Chiswick to Wapping'.
Then Lord Broadbridge stood. 'My wife and I have seven bicycles between us,' he announced. 'We have bicycles like other people have mice.' His lordship, a management consultant, spoke movingly of the perils of cycling. 'From personal experience,' he said, 'a hump can be as destabilising as a hole.' The environmental advantages of cycling were overwhelming: why should the Government give it so low a priority? There was no doubt in Lord Broadbridge's mind as to what was now required. 'A nanny is needed,' said he.
The smack of firm government] The only result of laissez faire is laziness. Of the 1,000 miles of cycle lanes planned for London 10 years ago, several indignant peers pointed out, fewer than 200 have been completed. The piecemeal processes of local authorities are no substitute for firm national policy. In such chaos only a firm nanny state can break up a fight which the weaker-wheeled are losing to the strong. According to the Department of Transport, 204 cyclists died in road accidents last year in Britain, and 3,769 were seriously injured.
Lord Colwyn, a dentist who commutes daily by bicycle, admitted he, too, was forced to cycle down at least one one-way street every day. 'I must say,' said Lord Swansea later, 'I am shocked. My noble friend is setting a very bad example. Cyclists on footpaths are a great source of danger, especially to old people.'
Later still the 15th Viscount Falkland, or Lucius Edward William Plantagenet Cary, as he is known to his friends, named the guilty parties. 'The main dangers in London,' he said, 'are Post Office vans and diplomatic cars. If you see them coming, draw aside.' He paused. 'I don't want to be sexist,' he said, 'but I would add, Peugeot GTIs driven by attractive young girls.'
Is the Government, in its chauffeured state, aware of these problems? Lord Colwyn went so far as to challenge the Minister of Transport to cycle with him down Bond Street and observe the way in which chauffeur-driven limousines hog the poor cyclist's space. The climate of revolutionary indignation in the Lords grew hotter. Around a score of peers sprawled on the red benches beneath the gilt ceiling, expressing solidarity with the underdog of the roads. At the end of their chamber the throne, scarlet and empty, stared down upon their deliberations. If their lordships' zeal runs so high, so populist, can a cycling monarchy be far away?
Almost everyone is backing bicycles. Except perhaps the Government, which still, as Lord Goschen's closing speech made clear, takes refuge in the excuse that the matter of bicycles is largely a problem for local authorities. Friends of the Earth, and all their green friends, support cycling. The British Medical Association is pro-bike. The Labour Party, if Lord Clinton-Davis is to be believed, is the Party of the Bicycle. And true conservatives, as opposed to mere Conservatives, cannot but support the bicycle, on grounds of its harmlessness and nostalgia. The mention of bicycles had transported Lord Swansea back to a day long gone when he attempted to ride a lady's bicycle down Park Lane, Lord Lyell to his Oxford youth, when he cycled through the balmy breeze to Woodstock on the A34, and Viscount Falkland to his schoolboy days at Wellington College, when he joined the Natural History Society and bicycled to the local nudist colony. Even without the subject of bicycle sheds being raised the associations of bicycles were, with the possible exception of Lord Swansea, invariably happy.
Midnight chimed, and still they talked. The debate lasted more than two hours. Hardly ever, the peers said, had their house shown such unanimity. Through much of the talk, Lord Clinton-Davis of Hackney on the opposition front bench had been displaying, propped on the table before him, a fine pair of ankles clad in black socks, well fitted for bicycle clips. The debate was near its end: he returned his feet to the floor and rose. A Chilean, he revealed, whose name he could or would not spell, had once prophesied that 'Socialism could only arrive by bicycle'. 'I don't know what that comment meant,' said Lord Clinton-Davis. The Commons was still sitting when the Lords arose and loosened their bicycle chains. Lord Clinton-Davis may not have understood it, but to those who had listened carefully, the Chilean slogan made perfect sense.
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