Sunday, 28 July 2013

Keeping the enemy at bay

Margaret Thatcher died not long ago. Love her or hate her, what cannot be denied is that she left her mark. I grew up in the UK in the 1970s and 80s and have a strong memory of her. Primarily it is through the eyes of 'The Young Ones' with Rick shouting things like "Thatcher's ruddy Britain!" the whole time.

What strikes me is how much she looked like Meryl Streep:

A bit like Lindy Chamberlain used to:

Lady Thatcher is credited with saying a few things including the mythical, "A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure." One thing she definitely did say though is, "In my lifetime all our problems have come from mainland Europe and all the solutions have come from the English-speaking nations across the world."

Really? All our problems?

When I lived in the UK, there was the ever present threat of the problem of a reliable and functioning train service intruding from mainland Europe. Mrs Thatcher successfully kept that at bay. One of their best secret weapons was the "we've had a centimetre of snow and the points have frozen" excuse. It was hugely successful. Even though she is long gone, her legacy seems to remain in England. The British have the dubious honour of the most expensive train tickets in Europe.

Another dreadful threat from mainland Europe was a functioning and high quality health service. I thought we were in big trouble with the National Health Service. However, plucky Mrs Thatcher stuck to her guns (as did Tony Blair after her) with a slow and deliberate strategy of internal markets and sub-contracting. They're slowly making headway.

To their credit, the whole way through my childhood, the Government showed steely resolve in steadily eliminating the European threat of providing all citizens with the freedom of getting around at low cost and under their own steam. In the late 1970s, kids my age were probably the last of misguided generation who thought that it was somehow appropriate to ride a Raleigh Chopper around the neighbourhood. That sort of ridiculous behaviour has rightly all but been eliminated.

Australia (another English-speaking nation full of solutions) did the same but just to make sure, it carpet-bombed the problem with an all ages mandatory helmet law. Genius. And that is one of the reasons why you never see this type of crazy foreign mainland-European threat:

(Borrowed from here)

Children on bikes? Pfft. Look at them. They're clearly on drugs.

I do not know why but it seems to be mainly English-speaking countries that have the problem with this.

I have never understood why. Without too much effort, it is possible to think of a number reasons why it is beneficial to develop a transport and planning system that does not have the car at its heart for every single journey no matter how short and no matter how many other people may be going in exactly the same direction at exactly the same time. They include:

  • it is cheaper;
  • it is safer;
  • it is more democratic;
  • it is healthier in so many ways;
  • it is better for business - both through exposure and to the fact that there is more disposable income available;
  • and so on.

How a transport system with the private car as its primary focus was allowed to develope is clear. Back then, it seemed like it would work. Nobody seems to have predicted that the system would eventually suffocate under its own weight. We now know better and slowly but surely the public opinion seems to be turning. Despite that and true to form, we still have two recent announcements for huge pointless road projects - one in Melbourne ($8 bn) and one in Queensland ($6.7 bn). To put it in perspective, that total is more than the entire Gonski reform. They have 'barely raised an eyebrow'. On top of that, the Australian Automobile Association is demanding better roads (in other words, more money). The claim is that it is for "all Australians" but have a look at the sample petition letter to your local MP and you see it is for the minority of the population with access to a car - "As a motorist, ..."

Why do we persist with a system that excludes well over half the population? One that not just encourages the least efficient way of getting around but actively discourages others? There is no reason other than the type of thinking that led to that ridiculous and embarrassing comment for which Margaret Thatcher will always be famous.

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