You can learn a lot from heckling lorry drivers

'Lorry-drivers fiddle tachometers, kill cyclists, and knock down bollards. Replace them with trains'
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The Independent Online

On Tuesday lunchtime I spent 10 minutes or so in Holborn heckling truckers. A convoy had ground into London from the east, and were making their way towards Hyde Park or Westminster. As they thundered slowly past, the drivers sounded their horns in the high-sided streets, a terrible noise that had the same effect on the ears of pedestrians that Joshua's horns had on the walls of Jericho.

On Tuesday lunchtime I spent 10 minutes or so in Holborn heckling truckers. A convoy had ground into London from the east, and were making their way towards Hyde Park or Westminster. As they thundered slowly past, the drivers sounded their horns in the high-sided streets, a terrible noise that had the same effect on the ears of pedestrians that Joshua's horns had on the walls of Jericho.

For me it was the last straw. I took up residence on a traffic island and shouted my disapprobation up to each lorry's cab as it went by. "Go home!" I yelled. "What about the schools and hospitals?" And, best of all: "Who elected you!"

I don't care for lorry drivers at any time. They fiddle tachometers, kill cyclists, fall asleep and flatten families marooned on the hard verge. They snap your wing-mirrors off and sneak away, park on fragile pavements and destroy them, take their vehicles down narrow lanes and knock down bollards, traffic signs and street lights. They are an ugly feature of modern society, and should be replaced by trains.

Having now exhausted my stock of epithets, I made off, with my fellow pedestrians making way for me. "Aha!" I said to one young man, by way of explanation. "Where were they [the hauliers that is] during the miners' strike?" He looked at me nonplussed. And I realised that he didn't remember the miners' strike. In fact, he probably didn't remember the miners at all. He wasn't aware that a few hundred truckers and tanker drivers had achieved within a week what the British labour movement failed to achieve in more than a year between 1984 and 1985.

Later that night the weird stupidity of the stock-piling and the strange and rather lovely emptiness of many roads were compounded by polls showing that the public supported the protesters absolutely overwhelmingly.

No matter what gloss one tried to put on the figures it was clear that - as long as the protest didn't kill anyone - the voters of Britain were in favour of action to bring down fuel prices. The last time I felt quite so wrong-footed by my fellow countrymen and women was when Diana, Princess of Wales died.

Given my own surprise, I can hardly criticise the Government for not predicting the speed of the collapse. Yesterday Tony Blair seemed genuinely bemused. It was all so illogical. Farmers wanted simultaneously (he pointed out) to receive more subsidy and to cut taxes. And the hauliers have been given loads of little concessions by the generous Mr Brown in recent months.

Unsurprisingly, the Government has found itself more or less friendless. Some critics on the left have consoled themselves with the thought that this blockade was - at least - collective action, and thus likely to be radicalising; tell that to the Nazi Sturmabteilung and the Rwandan Interahamwe. Others have detected a conspiracy of oil companies behind the blockade. Still more have said that the problem is down to the switch from direct taxes (honest) to indirect ones (sneaky and stealthy).

But it's hard to square any of this with the nature of the support received by the truckers. One bloke in a car said it all. "They're fighting," he told cameras, "for everyone who has a vehicle on the road." Not me, of course. I don't change into a mechanised centaur, half-man, half-car (the bottom half the man, and the top half the car), every time I step into my Toyota. But the motorist component of most people has been outraged by the sudden and unjustifiable increase in petrol and diesel prices.

Ah, say Charlie Kennedy and Friends of the Earth, the problem is that the Government hasn't won people over by explaining to them the benefits to the environment of higher petrol prices. If the Government had taken the lead a bit more, all would have been well. Yet this doesn't stack up either. The Government simply does not command public opinion in that way, as FoE - victors over Tony Blair on GM foods and themselves experts at direct action - must have realised. If the case for action in the face of global warming has not been made, one is entitled to ask where FoE have been for the last three years. In the fields digging up innocuous GM oilseed rape, that's where.

Ooh, adds Transport 2000, if the billions received from oil revenues had been spent on public transport, then there wouldn't be an outcry among car drivers about fuel prices. Unfortunately this is nonsense as well. And not just because it takes a long time to build new rail links and tram systems. The hard fact is that cars are door-to-door convenient and - once you've bought one, taxed and insured it - almost bound to be more economic than using public transport. There are indeed buses in the countryside: no one uses them. If you want to reduce car use then you have - in some way - to penalise driving. There is no pain-free method.

The Tories have understood this, and decided to junk the whole car-limiting business. Why court unpopularity and tamper with people's selfish behaviour when you can prove your green credentials by indulging their fears of being poisoned by GM food?

Hague's "must listen" actually means "reduce fuel taxes". Given that the Tories introduced the fuel duty escalator, and planned to run it till 2002, this position is nakedly dishonest. But understandable. Less so is the SNP's "must listen". Does its belief that "it's Scotland's oil" mean that it thinks Scots can burn as much of it as they like without affecting the environment?

The problem for both parties is that the recent protests probably owe more to the steepness of the recent rises than to the level of prices. Does that entail that the Government should reduce petrol duty to compensate for any oil price hikes? If so, that's another big, big hole in the Tories' financial plans.

So, when I was trying to explain the week to myself, and why it was that I'd been caught out, I found the most interesting explanation the one that used the phrase, "democratic deficit". Essentially, argued a number of people (including Mr Anthony Barnett of Charter 88), Mr Blair runs an elective dictatorship that is insufficiently responsive, and protest such as this is the only avenue open to people. The implication was that if we had proper accountability, with bolshier MPs, an elected second chamber and proper scrutiny, insurrections like this week's simply would not need to happen.

I agree. But we should be clear why this is the case. It would be true because such a system would deter governments from doing things that were unpopular. So, environmentalism would have to be very popular indeed before any government would take on the motorists. And just because a cause is right, and I like it, doesn't make it easier to sell.

In the meantime, I for one do not want to see a Haideresque government swept to power largely because Mr Blair was too adamant about fuel duties. Until we (that's "us", folks, not "them") have convinced our fellow citizens of the need for price hikes, it would be folly of the Government not to take steps to assuage popular anger.

That's what I learned from being the lone heckler of Holborn.

David.Aaronovitch@btinternet.com

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