Mr Brown slips into reverse - and proves direct action works

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The Independent Online

Direct action works. Not since the bad old days of the union barons has a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer come to the House of Commons to cave in so abjectly to a pressure group. This statement did not herald a Budget for investment, savers, business or any of the usual chancellorial formulations, but one for lorries.

Direct action works. Not since the bad old days of the union barons has a Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer come to the House of Commons to cave in so abjectly to a pressure group. This statement did not herald a Budget for investment, savers, business or any of the usual chancellorial formulations, but one for lorries.

The reduction in taxation on lorries, the subsidies for scrapping older commercial vehicles, the grants for logistics and training, the daft "vignette" to discourage foreign competition, not to mention the reduction in fuel duties; never has Danegeld been paid in such varied coin. It obviously adds up to a cornucopia of goodies for the nation's truckers. But it was also a pretty clear act of appeasement, with all the dangers that that implies.

It is a pity the Chancellor did not stand his ground and argue the environmental case for high fuel taxes in general, rather than make these cuts in duties, accompanied as they were by some green camouflage. A Chancellor who can combine talk about Kyoto targets with a cut in the price of petrol deserves an award for chutzpah - but little else. At one stage his enthusiasm for the car so got the better of Mr Brown that he sounded like Jeremy Clarkson, reeling off the names of popular makes as if he were testing them, no doubt on behalf of beleaguered rural drivers.

No one can deny that the "greenness" of the fuel we use matters, as Mr Brown says; but so does the amount we burn. If our recent weather has not alerted us to the dangers of our profligate use of the planet's finite resources, that is all the more reason for ministers to make the point and, moreover, make the policies to match. Air pollution causes global warming and damages health. Road transport is a contributor to the phenomenon. Mr Brown, had he been less craven, might have pointed to the overcapacity in road haulage. Instead he has rewarded the fuel protesters for their militancy. He has set a dangerous precedent.

Much more laudable was the help for pensioners. Quite apart from the merits of their case and the patient fashion in which they went about making it (in contrast to the intimidation on the picket lines), public opinion and the pressure of Labour's grassroots would have tolerated no less. Here, Mr Brown bowed to the right kind of democratic, peaceful pressure and, in measures such as the minimum income guarantee, showed some seriousness about eradicating pensioner poverty.

For the rest, he heeded the warnings of the Bank of England and ensured that the overall fiscal stance of his plans will not prompt a rise in interest rates. Reducing public debt is as wise as Mr Brown claims it is. In these respects he showed every sign of living up to his record and his rhetoric about prudence and stability.

But what a shame this package was spoiled by such a strong whiff of appeasement. The Iron Chancellor may be made of a more pliable metal than we thought.

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