Leading Article:Sitting next to Mr Norris

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The Independent Online
Steven Norris is one politician people do buy used cars from. So many have, in fact, that he is a millionaire. But the transport minister is in trouble again. This time it is his lack of love for his fellow-man that is the problem - his considerab le fondness for his fellow-woman was the earlier difficulty.

Extolling the virtues of car travel to a select committee, Mr Norris listed one of its advantages over public transport as ``not having to put up with dreadful human beings sitting next to you". Immediately the Opposition spokesperson, Michael Meacher - a man in whom piety tends to overshadow humour - laid into the unfortunate Norris. ``This is a gross insult to public transport users,'' thundered Mr Meacher.

The sin of Mr Norris is, of course, the sin of revealing us to ourselves. He knows how most of us feel a lot of the time. What is tolerable in ourselves - smells, habits, small selfishnesses - becomes appalling when exhibited by others in a closed environment.

Most of us dislike strangers until proved wrong, and most fellow users of public transport are strangers. We mutter at the man who unfolds his newspaper over us and edge away from the woman munching the foul-smelling contents of a fast-food container. Elaborate plans are constructed for dealing with rude fellow passengers. Whole survival techniques are planned to procure a seat or avoid the queue at the bus-stop or Underground escalator.

And proximity to unknown people is a source of fear. Tales of stabbings on station platforms feed our fears. Most yuppie nightmares seem to start on a train or plane. Mr Norris is right; we are misanthropes - more Victor Meldrew than the Vicar of Dibley.We want to be alone.

So the minister told the truth and should be applauded, right? Wrong. Ministers are paid to do more than remind us how unruly, selfish or squalid we are and then leave it at that. It is obvious to all of us, no matter how keenly we feel the need for acres of personal space, that we cannot sustain the present growth in the use of the motor car. Our cities are choking, our children asthmatic and things are getting worse.

Part of the answer involves restricting use of the motor car and encouraging more of us to embrace (metaphorically, Steven) the dreadful person on the next seat. That is the bit Mr Norris missed out. But then that is the trouble with the Tories; they have always been quite happy to accept us as we are.