Matthew Norman: Citizens, rise up against the parking ticket!

When speed cameras arrived in Italy, public-spirited young men picked them off with telescopic rifles
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The Independent Online

Once only two things in life were regarded as inevitable, but now in British cities there are three - death, taxes and parking tickets - and a certain Harry McLaughlin managed to complete the hat-trick at the same moment. He received the form of covert taxation known as a penalty charge while lying in the cab of his lorry near Bothwell, in Lancashire, having succumbed to a fatal heart attack.

So legion are anecdotes about outlandish fines that Mr McLaughlin's, although tending toward the macabre end of the spectrum, will shock nobody. Everyone has a tale to tell, my wife's at least proving that the phenomenon, although worse than ever, is nothing new. She had the car radio nicked a decade ago and drove to the local nick to report it, and a warden who could see not only a smashed window but also that she was eight and three-quarter months pregnant, slid the ticket under the windscreen wiper within 3.2 seconds of her waddling away from the vehicle.

Compared with many incidents that misleadingly have the flavour of urban myth, that's pretty lame. Certainly it wouldn't impress Peter Holbrook, who returned from Australia to find an £80 ticket on his car, Waltham Forest council having painted yellow lines beneath it in his absence; or Peter Stapleton, done in north London, despite having a disabled badge, after stopping briefly to reattach his prosthetic leg. Two years ago, the mangled scooter belonging to the boss of polling firm YouGov was adorned with a £100 ticket while its owner was being stretchered into the adjacent ambulance.

Whether or not any warden has had the wit to replicate that great gag in Dom Joly's Trigger Happy TV, and ticketed a motorist waiting at a pedestrian crossing, there is already enough material to ensure that the forthcoming Christmas stocking filler, The Compendium of Traffic Warden Horror Stories, will make Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy look like a slim volume of Japanese haiku, and will struggle to fit even into Nicholas Soames's stocking.

Yesterday Gwynneth Dunwoody, that fearsome and magnificent boot of the old left and chair of the Commons's select committee on transport, formally launched a counterstrike on behalf of us all. By the way, lest there be any doubt, "us all" does not include that infuriatingly smug and self-righteous subsection of road users known for pith and brevity as "cyclists".

Among other observations, Gwynneth and her team dismissed as "absurd" the split system, whereby some offenders are handled by police and others by local authorities; understated the practise of rewarding wardens for volume of ticketing by calling it "misguided"; and proposed a sliding scale, whereby those who stop for two seconds on a yellow line are fined less than those who stop for an hour on a double yellow. Every idea proposed sounds so rational and inarguable that there is obviously no chance of any of them being considered, let alone adopted by those who bully drivers. But then, they're not the real problem.

The fundamental problem is that, just as the National Lottery is a regressive tax on the working classes, the persecution of motorists is its middle class equivalent... and the English middle class is the most pliant, malleable, craven societal group in the developed world.

At least with the Lottery, ticket-purchasers get something for the money. There is no compelling reason why the relatively poor should subsidise arts in which they have no interest, or support swimmers with half the above-mentioned Fatty Soames's chance of reaching an Olympic final. But if a quid buys a tiny slice of fantasy, and even a cut price fix of self-satisfaction for giving to good causes, that sugars the pill of the less well off subsidising the better off's pursuits.

With parking tickets there is no quid, or rather 50 quid (or £100 if you fail to pay within a fortnight), pro quo. No one seems to know what councils do with the vast proceeds of this legalised banditry, other than vaguely plough them back into road management. Myself, I'd prefer it if council leaders bought themselves yachts, cashing in on the fact that no one has yet worked out how to paint a yellow line in a sea lane. At least then someone would be enjoying the fruits of this highway robbery.

As it is, if anyone anywhere has noticed a dramatic improvement in traffic flow or road quality since the reign of terror began, they are keeping the news to themselves. Certainly the streets of central London, where champion collector Westminster Council plays Dick Turpin, seem little better.

Yet you can no more blame local authorities for operating this extortion racket than the much-abused phalanxes of Ghanaian and Nigerian wardens for enforcing it. The latter are only following orders, while the former are simply doing what politicians do when there is easy money to be levied. The fault is with us for tolerating it. No other populace would.

When the boot (not the marvellous Ms Dunwoody; the clamp) reached Paris, the citizenry rose up, armed itself with cutting devices, lopped them off their front wheels, and tossed them in the Seine. When speed cameras (the parking ticket's kissing cousin) arrived in northern Italy, public-spirited young men took to picking off the lenses with telescopic rifles.

Here, in the world capital of embittered acquiescence, we pay up even when the ticket is clearly unwarranted, due to that peculiarly narcotic cocktail of meekness and indolence (who has the will to fight intransigent bureaucracy?) that defines us a socioeconomic group. When every pay-and-display machine within a 500-yard radius is broken, what we should do is take an axe to the bastards and throw them through the windscreens of any unattended tow trucks in the vicinity. Instead, like those feckless diners who whined to one another about the Fawlty Towers food and said, "Ooh, lovely, thank you very much" the moment Basil asked after an inedible casserole, we sullenly fall into line.

The only major country in human history that fought a civil war to remove a monarchy, and couldn't wait to bring it back, is not the country in which the spirit of civil disobedience rages in the national psyche. What we specialise in is uncivil obedience... screaming and shouting at the injustice of being done for having one 16th of a millimetre of tyre nudging a white line, and then ringing the council the next day to settle up.

That's the way we are, and we might as well accept that, for all Ms Dunwoody's good work, nothing will change in the parking world so long as the untold millions are rolling in, and there will remain a single route to immunity from the rapacious appetite for fleecing us on the roads. Sadly, it's the one Mr McLaughlin pioneered in the cab of his truck.