Leading Article: Protests illustrate political gridlock

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The Independent Online
CIVIL disobedience has been defined by John Rawls, a liberal US theorist, as 'a public, non-violent, conscientious political act contrary to law, usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government'. Yesterday's events in the London borough of Wanstead, triggered by protests against the extension of the M11, square with that definition. If the political content was relatively low, the protesters certainly hoped to change the Government's road-building policy.

To those whose grandmothers took part in the suffragette movement, or with memories of the heyday of the anti-nuclear Committee of 100 in the early Sixties, the defence of the self-styled independent state of Wanstonia against the forces of law may have seemed parochial. The fact is that in the post-Cold War world, environmental causes - with road-building to the fore - have replaced nuclear weapons as the prime target of Western protest.

Two main groups were active in Wanstead yesterday: those opposed to this particular motorway extension because of the number of homes it would destroy or ruin and the damage it would do to the community; and those who oppose all or most new motorway building as environmentally damaging and counter-productive, because it generates extra traffic and discourages investment in public transport. Both motives are entirely honourable, and there is much to be said in their favour.

The M11 extension will undoubtedly further damage the not very high quality of life in the area through which it passes. The motorway will, furthermore, undoubtedly attract an increase in the volume of traffic. At peak hours in particular, the result may well be to slow rather than accelerate progress, at the same time greatly increasing air pollution. The same funds invested in public transport would yield far more pluses and fewer minuses.

Yet to proceed to the more extreme proposition that all motorway building is unjustified and counter-productive is surely perverse. Anyone who has driven over the same route for the past 20 years is likely to find that - at least outside rush-hours - the time it takes has been cut by a third or more. Many villages, towns and cities once wrecked by through traffic are now by-passed. The protesters represent an authentic swing of opinion, which the Government should note. Through time-honoured tactics, they challenge it to strike the right balance between roads and public transport. No easy feat, but one the Government has so far manifestly failed to pull off.