Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A light morning fisk of Steve Richards

Every now and again I read a column that just enrages me so much I have to do a long post on it because it so littered with annoyances. This happened when I read this morning's Independent, where Steve Richards has decided to argue about the issue of road pricing now that even more people (well over a million) have now signed the Downing Street petititon. His argument starts off by simply dismissing all those that signed the petition as "short-sighted" and intellectually "lazy" and then, amusingly, proceeds to opine utter rubbish henceforth. He says,
"There is nothing new in this. Progressive government requires strong leadership because quite often it involves taking measures that are unpopular in the short term. The upside is that genuinely progressive policies acquire popularity once they are in place. The congestion charge in London is an obvious example. Ken Livingstone took the risk against the weak populist opposition of the Tories and the silent caution of the Government. He has been vindicated subsequently, including being re-elected against a Conservative candidate who pledged to abolish the charge. Sometimes boldness is necessary even if the voters are grateful only retrospectively."
This is of course absolute and total nonsense. Londoners did not vote for Ken over Norris on the basis that one wanted to scrap the Congestion Charge and the other one didn't. It is quaintly amusing though that Richards would accuse the petitioners of being "short-sighted" and holding "lazy views" and then put forward such a reductionist argument about the outcome of an election. What actually happened is that Londoners were fooled into voting for Livingstone's manifesto on the belief that he was telling the truth when he said bus fares wouldn't go up, and that the congestion charge would remain the same. In the words of The Who, they won't get fooled again. Richards goes on,
"When the Government has dared to take risks it has also been vindicated. Indeed the level of vindication can be measured by the Conservatives' U-turns. The Tories now support policies such as the minimum wage, a London-wide elected body and the higher investment in schools and hospitals, all of which they meekly opposed. Where the Government was weak and cowardly, such as adopting a conservative foreign policy position over supporting the US in the war against Iraq, it is condemned subsequently. It is much better, surely, to be praised retrospectively for courage."
He seems to be a little confused about the nature of conservatism I think. After all, conservatism is about gradualism from the status quo based upon an instinctively averse attitude to making changes without quantifable known outcomes. Thus Conservative "U-turns" on those policies doesn't actually vindicate them at all. It simply states that they are now embedded and therefore part of the status quo, thus should be approached with a traditionally conservative attitude to change. It's a bit like all that privatisation and trade union legislation that Labour didn't reverse. They're not vindicating Tory policies by failing to roll it back, they're just acknowledging it would produce unquantifiable results to do so. Amusingly he then says,
"Transport is a crisis issue. To their credit ministers have done more than the previous Conservative administration, increasing budgets and halting the decline of the railways into what had become a decrepit Third World service. But that has been nowhere near enough. Roads are congested. Trains are over-priced and unreliable. Parts of the London Underground are a disaster area and at weekends do not appear to function at all. In some areas of the country the privatised buses are nowhere to be seen."
So lets get this straight. The transport system was crap. After ten years of Labour the transport system is still crap. The only difference is that Labour have just done more less crap less. Sorry Steve, I think that argument is crap. The fallacies really start coming out now though,
"[Road pricing] recognises that road space must be rationed. Some on the left argue that road pricing would penalise the poorest, but then offer no alternative solution. There are too many cars on a small and congested island. Road pricing would free up some space."
Just because they offer you no alternative it does not make them wrong. Let's see, couple road pricing with the inherent dependency culture fostered by tax credits amongst the poor and you instantly remove another means for social mobility. It is not for critics to offer an alternative, it for policy wonks to solve the much greater issue of restricting the free movement of the already Government-nurtured underclass. There was me naively thinking that the Left cared about the many, not just the few at the top. Richards has kindly helped me out with that perception though,
"The policy should not be seen as a sacrifice, a mistake made too often when new charges are introduced. On the contrary, for selfish reasons I want fewer cars on the roads so I can get to places more quickly."
To quote the ever wise Edmund Blackadder, "Toffs at the top, plebs at the bottom, and me in the middle making a fat pile of cash out of both of them." OK, maybe he won't be making cash, but the inherent point remains, don't bother with aspiration if you're poor, just accept your tax credits, stay in your sink estate, and let us more important elite snobs have our roads back because we can afford them. Pull the ladder up Jack! Richards then starts using London as an example again (I wonder if he actually lives there?),
"Secondly, the revenues from road pricing should be earmarked exclusively for improvements to public transport and cycle lanes. The cash should not disappear in a vacuum. Again, Livingstone points the way by spending cash from the congestion charge on buses in London. The capital is the only part of the country where bus usage is up."
Why do you think buses are so popular in London right now though? Is it because of all the lovely "investment"? No, it's up because all the cars have moved to the outskirts of the congestion zone blocking them up. We don't take the bus out of choice. We do it because we have no choice at all. This said, Richards then proceeds on to his "critque" (and I use the term loosely) of the philosophical argument against road pricing, he states that,
"The civil liberty arguments are a red herring. Some worry that the Government will know where everyone is driving. So what? Unless we are driving to rob a bank I doubt if some imaginary secret police force will be very interested. The Government is having problems sorting out tax credits and tracing foreign prisoners. Everyone is far too busy to make use of film footage of motorists heading for Waitrose or a dodgy motel to conduct some sordid affair. Presumably, there will be no road pricing cameras in the motel to check up on any further mileage."
Oh dear oh dear.... firstly, just because the current administration is utterly incompetent it does not mean that we should build the technological infrastructure to allow a future non-incompetent Government to control and monitor our every move. It would be false to assume that incompetence today will exist in perpetuity. Ask yourself this, would someone like Stalin have found a system that could monitor everyone in their cars useful?

Now, as for this supposed "red herring", using humour to essentially put forward the age old "if you've got nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear" argument, he's actually completely missing the point. Information about ourselves, where we are, and what we are doing is ours, it is not the states'.

We have autonomy over that information and we make the choice when we disclose it. For example, we choose to let supermarket marketing people know what we buy by accepting the loyalty card. We will have no choice over any tracking ability. It matters not whether someone is looking at it or not. It is about the relationship between the state and the individual.

We, as individuals, are the ultimate creators of the state; and we, as individuals are the ultimate arbiters of our information, not the state. It is not about how the information may or may not be used, it is about the assumption of who owns that information in the first place. Richards finally closes his article at this point by saying,
"The petition against road pricing will be scaring everyone from Blair downwards. Yet this Government prevails when it is genuinely bold and stumbles when it pretends to be courageous. It deserves credit for contemplating radical measures. Now it must implement them."
Well excuse me, but I fail to see what is radical about a Labour government introducing another tax for the purposes of spending. Surely that is simply acting to type?

This post also appears on The Fisk


The Tin Drummer said...

Good post. I still haven't heard a single progressive politician or hack actually tell us why it is a good thing to punish people out of travel, especially those with lower incomes. This guy says it all: "I don't care - I'll still be able to get around, so everyone else can get stuffed." I thought that it was greed-is-good selfish love-the-rich Tory bastards who said that sort of thing.

London Salmon said...

Reminds me of a Monty Python sketch;

Woman about to give birth says to the doctor, "What do I do?"

The doctor peers at her contemptiously and replies, "Nothing dear, you're not qualified!"

It appears the good word of the Independent should be enough, the government knows best and those who don't agree should shut up.

Well I don't agree, and nor, apparently do the million plus people who signed the petition.

Excellent post, the Indepedent should have it's very own fisk blog, as every day it's propaganda scrapes the bottom of the socialist barrel.

Yet another annoying voter said...

What he's saying is: poor people bad - who cares about them? Rich people good - they deserve nice clear roads uncluttered by all those irritating impoverished serfs having the gall to be on the road IN FRONT!

There is a tiny problem in the argument though - how are all those downtrodden peasants to get to work to serve their betters? Public transport crap (he says so) and very expensive (he says that too). Perhaps he expects them to walk to work - after all, what's 15 miles anyway, stop whining peasant.......

How does he get to work, I wonder -works from home perhaps?

Anonymous said...

Nice work in taking apart the illiberal, statist and partisan views of Steve Richards.

Is Steve Richards on the Downing Street or Treasury payroll?

Adam said...

Interesting stuff. I don't miss travelling around in London, I can tell you.

I enjoyed reading this:

"He seems to be a little confused about the nature of conservatism I think. After all, conservatism is about gradualism from the status quo based upon an instinctively averse attitude to making changes without quantifable known outcomes."

I wrote something of a not entirely different sort about conservatism and change the other day (in the context of global warming). What you say here (and what I didn't say there, because I was talking in a different context) is that there is a difference between change in the future (subject to conservative's caution and requiring analysis of outcomes) and change in the past (which is done and which would require a change *in the future* to change it back, with that change in the future needing to be treated with the same caution, and subjected to the same analysis, that conservatives require of any proposed change).

glasshouse said...

Dizzy & Adam.

I think the Tory party has moved on since Edmund Burke. Especially since 1979.

Saying that the Conservatives are all about gradualism ignores that fact that 1979-1990 was probably the most sustain period of radical government in the UK in the 20th century.

I understand what you're saying but your talking about conservativism, not Conservatism.

The Underdoug said...

Steve Richards lives in the North Finchley area (only evidence is that I've seen him walking from Sainsbury's several times.

As for the increase in bus travel, the bendy buses are often packed to overcapacity, even on Sundays, that there is little chance for revenue enforcement to be practiced. I suspect that there are many freeloaders thinking why use petrol when for putting up with being cattle for a few miles, one can get around for free. The wonderful thing about Oyster (especially pre-pay) is that it is all too easy to blag about the fare-deducting reader machine not working properly - "I touched the card, guv, but it didn't do nuttin. And it's so crowded that I can't get down the bus to the other reader."

And no, I haven't tried the above excuse - I paid for my trip from hell on the number 25 bus route on a Sunday afternoon (Stratford to Oxford Circus) - never again.

Adam said...


I don't have a problem with 'radicalism' if it's proportionate to the size of the problem, unless you mean to use 'radicalism' in some sense that implies disproportionate response. Some of the Tory government's actions in the period you discuss were clearly radical AND conservative (breaking union power, for example, or student grant reform; the issue with the unions, in particular, was carefully planned, particularly the conflict with the NUM), and some were radical and poorly considered (community charge being a fantastic example; additionally, some of Ken Baker's education reforms were splashy nonsense, although others weren't so bad).

It seems to me that conservatism places no absolute limits on changes that should be made, but just generally has a different opinion about how much caution is wise and how much change is proportionate. Some of the 'radical' changes that Thatcher's governent made were to deal with issues that were thought by many to be very serious.

I'm not in the business of defending all of the actions of Thatcher's government, but I don't think that it was 'unconservative' in the sense that I consider conservatism.

glasshouse said...

I wasn't really saying that Thatcher wasn't a saying Thatcher wasn't a conservative, just that her government marked a break from traditional Conservative gradualism.

Adam said...

glasshouse: fair enough

I think that gradualism is typical of 'business as normal' for conservatives just because it's normally the proportionate response to the challenges faced. When the challenges are severe, though, gradualism can in fact be timidity, and bolder actions are, in fact, proportionate even from the conservative viewpoint.

Of course, judging that is the problem, because splashy radicalism can win votes and also keep the electorate bamboozled as you skip from one dubious adventure to another. You can see that sort of strategy behind the Republican Party's enormous 'bait and switch' strategy that has finally started to wear thin on the American electorate.

koba the dread said...

Great stuff Dizzy, Henry Porter's worth reading too:
Don't ignore a million angry voices, Mr Blair
"It's the apotheosis of a New Labour policy, a highly evolved and inescapable double whammy that combines taxation and snooping in one simple device, a device which, by the way, the already burdened taxpayer will be expected to buy at a cost of £200. New Labour's backroom boys have come up with the equivalent of the self-cleaning oven or set-top box. All that remains is for Rupert Murdoch to be given the exclusive contract for supplying the inboard tracker."


Man in a shed said...

The roads are blocked because new ones are not being built. Blame John "integrated transport policy" Prescott, and Swampy.

The truth is that people like Steve Richards aren't democrats, but rather socialists who think they know what's good for all the lesser little people.

morrocanroll said...

Gents - last week in front of a Commons committee Mr Blair said that road pricing would cross-subsidise public transport. That's how it's been sold to him.

In guidance to local councils Douglas Alexander said that they had to use a charging system that took into account an engine's CO2 emissions to help with their 'social and enviromental' aims.

That means the middle classes in smart cars get bashed. Even better, any car registered before 2001 has to be charged on a flat rate, so poor people in old bangers won't get hit too hard, even if the car has big engine.

You just might have an argument for peak-time charges, but this lot cannot help ladle on the social engineering.

Incidently, Steve Richards should look at the GLA website and check out this year's London bus subsidy. A tad over£1bn. And the glorious c-charge raises a tad over £100m...

Buster George said...

I hav ebeen watching this petition grow since i posted on it last month.
It still beggars belief that they are openly saying they will ignore the petition even though it stan at more than 1.2 million signatures.

Equaly disturbing is that Brown refuses to say if the money raised would be targetd at transport, saying that it would not do to set a presedent by ringfencing tax revenue.

Given that he raises over 42 million on road tax and fuel tax, and puts only a quater back into transport, can we realy expect him to change his ways.

Benedict White said...

Good article Dizzy. The pratt from the Libdemograph forgets to mention quite a few on the right see this as an unwarrented tax on the poor also.

I really also hate the people who pedle the "if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear" crap. he should F*ck off.

Yaffle said...

There is no logical reason for a road pricing tax in addition to the current tax on cars and on petrol to be introduced. Indeed there is no such thing as a logical tax as our history proves. Steve Richards is an idiot to say otherwise and is a fascist like the rest of this corrupt government and every Labour government. They always want to direct every moment of your life so that you will live it as they dictate whilst exempting themselves from their own laws and the inevitable failures thereof.

It is a sad fact that this government is so corrupt and has abused its power to such a degree that it must be legitimate to ask whether we have to obey the law any more. After all historians tell us that the Crown has for centuries been sensible of the fact that it can only rule by consent. Why should Parliament have any special privilege?

Peter said...

It makes perfect sense to me that those who use the roads should be the ones who pay for them.

However, I would have thought the most efficient way of ensuring this would be a levy on petrol to cover all the costs of highways maintenance, road building, maybe even to cover the costs of externalities like pollution.

This would ensure that people only pay in proportion to how much they drive, and could be equalised by abolishing car tax.

Surely this would be so much better and easier and less intrusive than road pricing?

towcestarian said...

You miss the most important reasons against the the new tax; it will be massively expensive to set up and administer and will be hugely unreliable as a system.

Praguetory said...

Peter - is that a gag post? The taxes raised from petrol already cover all that and more.

Adam said...

That plus the road tax.

Chris Paul said...

Scuse me but there are some feckwits on here. Purpose of this concept is to reduce congestion and spread travel out more evenly - clearly in Mcr we are not the first adopter cf Academies and will come up with something brighter.

Avoid certain hotspots and major arterials 7:45 to 9:15 etc and avoid tax. Work from home, avoid tax. Use new and improved passenger transport, avoid tax. Use local school, avoid multiple school runs, avoid tax.

Do none of the above pay more for the privilege.

Whether you believe in anthropowarming or not there are plenty of reasons to cut fossil fuel use.

The Manchester way at least this can be a progressive and behaviour changing tax. that needn't be paid at all by the canny and careful.

But which charges the stupid and careless.

Near perfect.

Letterman said...

Tory hates tax - well blow me?! Sorry but I wasn't exactly blown away with excitement by this post - yes there are things wrong with the congestion charge but a) less cars in London can only be good and b) charging motorists for improvements in public transport is the way forward if you believe in any form of green taxation. c) however, granted Labour do see all forms of new taxation as a cash cow rather than a way to reduce other taxes. d) yes I am a liberal, I'm sorry.

e) I didn't read all the way to the end it got quite boring but I'm sure you're lovely really.

dizzy said...

1: Glasshouse: Thatcher wasn't really a conservative. Listen to the speeches of Cameron, say conference, in refernce to grand theories of society, and you'll realise that he is a conservative. Thatcher was relevant to her and mentioning 1979 as if it is totemic zero day on tory ideological purity is just silly.

2: Letterman: This is not about hating a tax. a) why can less cars only be good? That's a shit argument. b) motorists are already charged over and over for public transport. The money doesn't get there though. Saying you're going to take money for something and then spending that way simply doesn't happen. c) Yes Labor do and so do the Lib Dems. d) Who cares if you're a liberal or not? I don't. What I care about is proper argument. e) You should, the part about liberty is at the end, if you were a liberal that argument would seal it for you.

Disillusioned and Bored said...

Interesting article in the sun today that is bang on where you come out.

I've blogged it here