Joan Bakewell: Don't we all know that red lights mean 'stop'?

Blair is now hurrying on his reforms regardless of how many trains are likely to smash into him

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The most intriguing and perplexing news clip of the week was the little red car that approached a level crossing, only to be clipped on the wing and spun to safety by a passing train. It has the unreality of a bubble car being bounced by Thomas the Tank Engine.

The incident grew odder still, when quietly and without apparent harm or shock, an elderly gentleman stepped from the driver's seat and strolled casually round to see what damage had been inflicted on his car. The whole episode missed by a whisker being a major catastrophe.

The sequence was part of Network Rail campaign to alert people to the fact that a flashing red signal at an unprotected level crossing does not mean "you have a few seconds left to make a dash for it", but rather "go no further or you will be instantly mangled to a horrible death".

It raises the question of what could make people so pressed for time that they would gamble with life and limb to save a few seconds? A frantic parent, perhaps, who's just heard their child's hanging from a window ledge? A dedicated doctor rushing to the deathbed of a patient?

Mostly people are simply impatient, consumed with an obsession to be there sooner, catch up on time wasted, be ahead of the game. Their lives are so crammed with events that only tight schedules and incessant clock-watching will do. Even then, the rhythm is one of haste and rush. It makes one almost nostalgic for the days when the Lord's Day Observance Society insisted that the world closed down every Sunday.

More seriously, this applies in places where a little more time taken would ease the huge pressure on world leaders to come to decisions, rush to judgement in politics and international affairs. It is the reverse coin of the overloaded bureaucracies struggling to implement often glib decisions made to impress on the world stage. There exists the world of quiet, thoughtful on-going diplomacy smashed to pieces by headline grabbing policies often at odds with what might be achieved by quiet consultation.

Take the democratic election of Hamas. The red lights flashed immediately, indicating a dangerous train that might be gathering speed just round the corner. With scarcely a pause long enough to bring together advisers steeped in Middle East politics and Palestinian power struggles, America made unqualified declarations about the unacceptability of the Hamas view of Israel. In haste to be the first to react, countries tumbled over themselves to say loud and clear what was evidently true. The world allowed no space, scarcely allowed a beat of time to discover how Hamas would behave as a government in power.

Now we shall never know, because the punitive response of the EU and America has hardened Palestinian resolve not to be cowed, and has perhaps delayed any recognition of the state of Israel which quiet diplomacy and the passing of time might have brought about. Consider how Colonel Gaddafi has been able - now everyone has stopped haranguing him as an evil threat - to find his way back into the international community.

Iran's new government certainly triggered the red lights, the new leader's style of hectoring abuse provoking Western powers to respond with all the subtlety of boys squabbling in the playground. Iran's plans for enriched uranium are on a time schedule that will take a decade to produce a bomb. But the American administration scarcely gave itself time to think before talk of war was in the air.

From the opposite point of view, Jack Straw's "Nuts" was a instant statement too far. He had to go, leaving Margaret Beckett to deal in the more opaque language of engaged debate. There's a woman who would stop the car - and the caravan - at the first blink of a red light at the crossing.

Not so Tony Blair, who is now hurrying on his radical reforms regardless of how many trains are likely to smash into him. A little quiet thought might be appropriate. Instead of declaring for the nuclear option, pressing on with contentious educational changes, cobbling together some House of Lords reform and promising controls on released prisoners that are unsustainable, he might put on the brake, idle the car in neutral and survey the scenery. It's changed almost totally since he was first in power.

I can't push the car-on-the-crossing metaphor much further, except for this. Eighteen people were killed on level crossings in the UK in 2003/4. It is now the prevailing wisdom that no more should be built, tunnels or bridges being preferred and greater protection such as gated-crossings being favoured.

In other words, the risks of human error and recklessness are so great that people need protection by other agencies than their own sense of responsibility and judgement. Yet again, the nanny state is being urged to do the deciding and caring.

This won't work in politics itself. In a lively democracy we don't want to be protected from confrontation with on-coming risks. We need to face up to the detail of nuclear cost and viability; we need to tackle the chance a two-tier system of education could emerge; we need to weigh the options in Palestine and Iran. There's never a time when individual responsibility isn't better than unquestioning dependence on others. So in life and elsewhere, always expect a train.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

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