Thomas Sutcliffe: The smallest steps are often the hardest

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The Independent Online

How refreshing it would be if the Queen's Speech today revealed that the Prime Minister has been busy thinking small. This is not what we're supposed to want as political consumers, of course. We're supposed to be hungry for big ideas and grand gestures, for the epic theatre of social transformation. And the prevailing anxiety surrounding Mr Brown as Prime Minister is that he might not be able to supply it.

Possibly Mr Blair used up all the big ideas and departed knowing that the cupboard was bare. Possibly Mr Brown himself has an innate timidity and caution that prevents him from pursuing the major chord changes that would count as big politics. But either way there's an anxiety about the "vision thing" – the implicit assumption being that the vision should always be fixed on the far horizon where – in a style that might be familiar to the Prime Minister from Presbyterian inspirational literature – there sits an image of a better world to come... a Britain fit for the 21st century, a Britain for tomorrow. To direct your gaze elsewhere is to risk accusations of shortsightedness and short-termism.

The big problem with the future though is that it never gets any closer. Indeed, its endlessly receding quality can be very convenient for politicians who wish to sound as if they have epic vision, without facing up to the niggling business of bridging the gap between now and then.

Take climate change as a very pointed and pertinent example. It's long been known that we're not likely to meet the carbon emissions reduction target of 20 per cent by 2012 so – if early briefings have it right – the Queen's Speech will commit us to reducing emissions by as much as 80 per cent by 2050. Such a commitment wouldn't contradict the Prime Minister's avowed ambition to make Britain "a world leader in tackling climate change" but it doesn't make it any clearer how that ambition will be achieved.

In this, big politics is often like being handed a staggeringly generous cheque which has been post-dated for thirty years. And with his talk of paradigm changes and consultations and increased research the Prime Minister has frequently sounded like someone postponing the "difficult decisions" he acknowledges are needed, rather than a man actually making them. It's as if you were to set out to cut down your domestic electricity bill by convening a commission of inquiry on the best methods, rather than by getting up at once and turning some lights off.

Indeed you could argue that a firm commitment to improve current CO2 reductions by just one percent within a year – on the face of it hopelessly inadequate to the long term challenge – would actually be thinking much bigger than promising to reduce it by 80 per cent (or whatever number you think best balances plausibility with seriousness of intent) in 43 years' time.

Grand proposals have an unfortunate way of inhibiting immediate actions, but immediate actions, even the smallest of them, have never made it harder to do more the following year. And there is – to quote the title of a famous lecture by the physicist Richard Feynman – plenty of room at the bottom. The woman who campaigned to persuade just one small Devon town to give up plastic bags achieved more to reduce the pollution they cause than big government has in three decades. The big ideas and long-term commitments in today's Queen's Speech will be promissory notes from a borrower with a bad record. Only the small ideas, modest enough to implement immediately, can be counted as money in the bank.

A labour of love that is truly lost

I visited the refurbished St Pancras station last week, and doubt that William Barlow's train shed has ever looked better.

There was just one fly in the ointment, but it was a colossal one – Paul Day's statue The Meeting Place, which looks like a hot contender for the grimmest piece of public sculpture of the decade.

Standing 30 feet high, it depicts a couple embracing gloomily. "I wanted them to be outside race and outside of time," the sculptor has said, but neither is true, since everything – from the hairstyle to the skirt length and high heels – instantly date it.

In a hundred or so years I suppose it might acquire a patina of public affection, but I wish there was a way of speeding up the process – as there is with bronze.

* I've been enjoying The Armstrong and Miller Show on BBC 1. It's beautifully performed and often very funny – a regular sketch about Spitfire pilots who talk like inner-city teenagers being reason enough to tune in.

But one running gag makes me uneasy. All variations offer the same basic structure – an ordinary-looking bloke reciting a catalogue of career disappointments and emotional setbacks before ending brightly with the punchline: "So that's why I decided to go into teaching."

I fear it's impossible to avoid sounding pompously humourless about this – but are teachers really our most deserving target for mockery? Is the profession's self-esteem and social standing so high that it is damaging the educational chances of our children ... or might the exact opposite be true?

And if you were bright and idealistic, would this sketch encourage you to go into teaching or make you think twice about it a profession so casually belittled? It is funny, as it happens – just not very clever.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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