Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The Conservative Case Against Cars

Ed West writes:

In my own version of Hell there's a special circle specially reserved for post-war politicians who mismanaged and ran down Britain. In this nether world, which resembles one of England's ruined, concreted town centres, you will come across such figures as Edward Heath, who sold us into the European Empire, Tony Crosland, who left millions unable to read and write, and Herbert Manzoni, who as City Engineer helped to destroy Birmingham (one of many men who ruined our cities after the war).

And among them you will find one Richard Beeching, of Beeching Axe fame, who under the Tories produced a report which led to the closure of 4,000 miles of railway and 3,000 stations. Now the train operators say we should reverse some of them after all.

The closure of so much of our railway network, which had started before Beeching wielded his famous axe, was a disaster, one that coincided with and was related to the attack on Britain's cities (for a look at what was taken from us, I'd recommend Gavin Stamp's Britain's Lost Cities). Both were a mixture of Tory greed and Labour ideology - and when these two interests converge there is no force on earth that will stop them.

And while saving money was the pretext, I've always suspected there was more to it than that - the Tories had fallen in love with the car. Conservatives can be quite easily divided into two camps - Car Conservatives and Train Tories (I'll welcome alternative names, those are the best I can come up with right now). The former are mostly Thatcherites, worshippers of the free market who think that if something cannot pay for itself, it is not worth having (to a certain extent). The latter group, and I dare say you can tell from my tone that I include myself among them, hate what the car has done to society (even if we might enjoy using them).

Cars are incredible inventions but England is not car country - we simply don't have room, especially in the South-east - and they have had a negative impact on public life.

Cars have made us ever more aggressive, and ever more selfish; they lead people to close in within themselves, which is especially easy when standards of public behaviour decline. (Liberals who wonder why people prefer the car should try taking a train after 10pm - my mum finds the route between London and Kent such an ordeal, thanks to the swearing and yobbish, sometimes threatening, behaviour of so many young men.)

Cars have led us to abandon the inner cities to the underclass and to escape to ever distant car-dependent suburbs, most of them ugly and soulless and boring. We go there to escape urban decay and to bring our kids up in a safer environment, and yet cars are far more of a menace to children than paedophiles or hoodies. And I haven't even brought up the environment yet, and the fact our oil dependency helps to fund Wahhabism.

So plans to put Hyde, Fleetwood, Skelmersdale and Wisbech back on the rail map are a good start in righting the wrongs of the last few decades. Maybe one day a truly conservative government will also free us from the legacy of Heath, Crosland and Manzoni. A cold day in Hell that will be.

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