The fuel demonstrators won't succeed next time

'The weird events of September could no more be repeated than Diana's funeral be held twice'

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I'm contemplating the construction of a gigantic banner with the two words "GO AWAY" stitched on to it in yard-high letters. I wouldn't bother for a single occasion, but since Londoners are now threatened with two million-person demos inside six months - one by the People's Fuel Lobby (as it calls itself) and one by the Countryside Alliance - I'll be able to make full use of my banner. I'm sure the police won't move me on, since they don't seem to do that any more.

I'm contemplating the construction of a gigantic banner with the two words "GO AWAY" stitched on to it in yard-high letters. I wouldn't bother for a single occasion, but since Londoners are now threatened with two million-person demos inside six months - one by the People's Fuel Lobby (as it calls itself) and one by the Countryside Alliance - I'll be able to make full use of my banner. I'm sure the police won't move me on, since they don't seem to do that any more.

The fuel demo is, of course, preferable to the renewed blockade that some diehards in the Kiss My Volvo movement want to see happen. But whether demonstrator or blockader, if I were them, I wouldn't hold my breath. I don't think that the weird events of early September could be repeated any more than Diana's funeral could be held twice. For a start, we're now beginning to have the debate about fuel costs, the environment, the real economics of transport, taxation, car use and the tactics of the blockaders that we didn't - strangely - quite manage to have two months ago. For example, the Today programme enterprisingly came up with an investigation just yesterday suggesting that there had been widespread intimidation of tanker drivers. A bit late, but they got there.

So there is, I think, a slight but significant change of mood. Back in Crisis Week, environment and transport correspondents found it almost impossible to get on air: the story (editors told them) was the protests, not the possible consequences of bowing to their pressure.

Now the focus has shifted a bit. When the protesters' leader, farmer Brynle Williams, declaimed this week that "what we want is parity with Europe", it seemed more relevant to wonder whether or not Mr Williams was in favour of full tax harmonisation with Europe and the introduction of road tolls too. Or did he just want to cherry-pick the conditions from abroad that best suited him, leaving the rest of us to pay the resulting bill?

Events in the Middle East have also reminded some people of the fact that underlying the fuel protests were increases in world oil prices, to their highest point for 10 years. Yesterday's 2p hike by BP and Shell wiped out - in one day - two thirds of the "carefully costed" cut in fuel duty that was recently proposed by the Conservatives. William Hague now has two choices: he can stick to the 3p proposal and look pathetic, or he can up his bid to 5p, in which case he'll look mad. You cannot have a regime of compensating consumers for international price rises with tax cuts.

Not that the Government won't itself be seeking to buy off some of the fuel lobby this week. It can reduce road tax on small-engined cars, slice a weeny bit off diesel duties, tax French lorry drivers (which will make sod-all difference since - contrary to myth - they are not out-competing our native hauliers in the domestic market), and earmark money more clearly for rural buses.

It shouldn't be doing much more than this. The fuel tax increases of recent years have had a dual purpose, both of them still relevant. One was to encourage a flattening out of the upward trend in fuel use, helping us to meet our agreed targets for a reduction in carbon emissions. The second was to give money to the Treasury for other things. We would tax damaging behaviour and provide goodies for the sick, lame and halt. And that is still a fine idea.

Now, it doesn't much matter whether ministers do make minor concessions to hauliers and farmers in a bid to defuse the campaign. What matters far more is that the toxic alliance between protesters and motorists should be broken up. Because it would be disastrous if we threw away all that we had learned over the last decade about the unsustainability of big increases in car use.

There is a huge political problem. Contrary to everything said by the car lobby, the cost of motoring has gone down over the years. It is now almost a third cheaper in real terms to buy, own and run a car than it was when I were a lad. Vehicles themselves have become much less expensive. Yet, at the same time, the amount that the average family with a car spends on motoring now represents the greatest cost in their household budgets - 35 per cent greater even than housing costs.

What does this tell us? It tells us that big rises in petrol are bad news for many families. Obviously. But the hidden story is the full extent to which we now privilege ourselves as car owners above ourselves as virtually anything else. Whatever we say about "need", the fact is that we choose to spend more on cars than on kids, granny, health, bills, holidays or home. The other day I was listening to a discussion on Radio 4's Feedback programme concerning the cost of upgrading to digital radio. A man called in to say that he had 21 radios. One seventh were in his family's cars: his own, his wife's and his eldest son's. Forget the radios; that's a hell of a lot of cars for one house.

This dependency leads some to counsel total passivity. Pamela Meadows, an economist writing in this month's Prospect magazine, attacks the "metropolitan élite" (thinks: "where have I heard this before?") for not comprehending how vital the car is to ordinary folk. Meadows states that "outside London, the call for people to use public transport rather than their cars is unrealistic" - because there is none.

Someone ought first to introduce Ms Meadows to Manchester, Sheffield, Newcastle and other cities that do have adequate public transport, and secondly to point out that it wouldn't make much difference to car dependency if such transport did exist in the suburbs, and we did nothing to curb car use. We live in a door-to-door, mobile culture, the true victims of which are the carless.

Ms Meadows' article ends with this judgment: "The public supported the fuel blockaders," she claims, "because... they were seen to understand and in some way to embody the central role of the car in the life of ordinary British people." The only conclusion of which is that we should simply shut up shop on trying to limit car use.

But we cannot do that. Studies suggest that, without the last seven years' fuel price rises, the level of car use would indeed be higher than it is now. Fuel is not totally price-inelastic. The figures for projected car numbers and use are still almost as intolerable as they ever were. The Meadows/fuel lobby position is asking us to accept not only the failure to tackle carbon emissions, the worsening gridlock and a world ever-more constructed around car use, but that we should cut public services to give motorists a hand-out.

No more. Our own cars are invading our space and our aesthetic environments, endangering our children and limiting our lives too much already. I think most of us realise this. Enough, certainly, to give the car lobby a bigger argument in Hyde Park than they got on the petrol-station forecourts in September. Get sewing.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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