Tim Luckhurst: Leave the blokes on their bikes alone

The readiness to bully groups of which it disapproves has disfigured this government
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The Independent Online

As I stumbled off my motorbike yesterday, my limbs aching after 400 miles in nine hours, my first thought was for my 12-year-old son, who had endured the whole exhausting trip as my pillion passenger. My second was an ungracious reminiscence about the driver who shed a four-foot plank from the flat bed of his truck just south of Dublin. If that plank had bounced right instead of left I would not be writing this. Then I thought: "What would Thomas Hobbes have made of the government's latest ideas for dealing with rogue motorcyclists?"

If the views of the 17th century English philosopher sound like peculiar cogitative fare for a dedicated motorcyclist then you have not been keeping up to date. These days we bikers are not teenage ton-up monsters in black leather. We are affluent, middle-aged and often highly educated. We can afford massively powerful motorcycles. Regrettably some of us lack the lightning-fast reaction times required to handle them at speed.

We are called born-again bikers because many of us last rode motorbikes 20 years ago. Ministers have grown alarmed by our propensity to kill ourselves. They think legislation is the answer. The proposal is to require adults with full motorcycle licences to prove their competence on small bikes before permitting them to ride machines with engines larger than 400cc.

There is no question that large, modern motorcycles are capable of frankly terrifying performance. I have ridden standard, production machines that can exceed the motorway speed limit in first gear. In recent years, motorcycle manufacturers have adapted race technology for the road by taking hardly anything out. Grand Prix performance is available at your local dealership for less than £10,000.

Is this wrong? In irresponsible hands it is certainly very dangerous, but only to the rider himself. A spokesman for the Department for Transport cheerfully confirms that "these accidents usually do not involve other vehicles or pedestrians". When born-again bikers crash at high speed it is almost always because they have lost control on a corner and hit something solid at a fatal impact speed. They are the victims of their own stupidity.

That is why friend Hobbes came to mind. I wondered whether he might not have regarded the proposed legislation as an arbitrary act liable to place the state in contravention of natural law and as such a breach of the social contract. That is certainly how I regard it. I respect the state's duty to restrain me from causing harm to others. But when it asserts the right to insulate me from the consequences of my own stupidity, things have gone too far.

If a period of contemplation with a copy of Leviathan is too much to ask of a busy chap like Alistair Darling then perhaps more recent political history can bring him to his senses. When I worked as an adviser to Donald Dewar in Neil Kinnock's shadow cabinet I was instructed to pay attention to a core message. It was that Labour governments thrive by serving the interests of the majority, begin to be distrusted when that instinct leads them into conflict with the rights of individuals and are always bitterly resented when they persecute minorities for no obviously good reason.

Legitimate arguments can be made for offending minority groups when the wider benefits are clear. Some in the Labour Party make that case when demanding the abolition of private education or the closure of private hospitals. In office, Labour has always resisted their demands. Sensible leaders from Attlee to John Smith have recognised that coercion of individuals is a dramatic step only to be used when the social benefit is clear and overwhelming.

The protection of a few middle-aged motorcyclists from the consequences of their own mid-life crisis can never meet that test. It looks like the sort of class war New Labour resolutely refuses to fight but for the worst possible reason.

Mr Darling should think again. Motorcycles are environmentally friendly. They reduce congestion and use frugal amounts of fuel. A sensible government would seek to maximise their numbers at the expense of wasteful, fuel-guzzling cars. Not this one. Its instinct is to export to Britain's roads the contempt for civil liberties it has pioneered in the war against terrorism.

The prejudice that still perceives motorcyclists as a deviant minority guilty of antisocial behaviour will be the Government's ally. Beyond the statistically tiny number of motorcyclists on our roads, hardly anyone will object to legal restriction of what type of machine we can ride. But they should.

This government's willingness to stigmatise and bully groups of which it disapproves has disfigured the Labour Party and rendered it unacceptable to many former supporters. Born-again bikers are simply the latest group to be identified as targets in a war against those who do not conform. If we prove anything beyond the fact that middle-aged men enjoy rediscovering a few of the thrills of their youth, it is that there are few limits to Labour's new-found contempt for individual liberty. Ministers really should read Hobbes. His sovereign was more tolerant than Tony Blair.