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No political party to rescue us from this national breakdown

It did not take long for the cheers that greeted the publication of Our Towns and Cities to be replaced by groans over worsening rail chaos and uncontrollable traffic congestion. Or for these groans to frighten the government into bringing forth promises of public money for train operating companies, and inventing 'fast-track implementation strategies' for all the bypass roads they had so gleefully scrapped in 1997. Or, in the end, for all the wild promises of £50 billion here and £20 billion there to meet their comeuppance in a 1970s-style wigging from the International Monetary Fund about the inflationary consequences of reckless public spending.

Against this background the White Paper looks increasingly nebulous, overshadowed even by the grim prospect of 'design performance indicators' to make the return to nineteenth century-style double density urban living at least look alright, even if it sounds like a 24-hour nightmare. Asked what these indicators would indicate, a man from the Construction Industry Council (CIC) said that they would 'raise awareness among clients of the things that really matter'. Since raising awareness is a highly profitable business, this probably means that the CIC too is itching for a showdown at wrong stone portico pass.

How trivial such matters are beginning to seem!

The truth is that the simmering fuel protest, followed by the collapse of the railway network after the Hatfield crash, followed by the desperate return to bi-modal and tri-modal travelling by people with no other means to get to work, has ushered in a national crisis no less serious than the three-day week of 1974, which also brought the country to a halt. That matter was resolved by the 'Who rules Britain?' election, the winners of which then fell foul of the Winter of Discontent and promptly went down the tubes to be succeeded by the Thatcher Years. Which were, as we now realise, a golden age compared with the Dome-plagued Cool Britannia era that European historians will call the 'Fiasco Years'.

The uniqueness of the fiasco years lies in the way that the old political remedy - sacking one lot and voting in another - no longer works. As we have observed in recent years the convergence of political parties has meant that politicians, too, are converging. Increasingly they are career parliamentarians with little or no knowledge of the world of commerce, building or transport - as was clearly illustrated by the incomprehension with which they greeted the first round of the fuel protest. Voting these people in or out is no more effective than changing light bulbs. As Lord Skidelsky once said: 'The task of the political leader is to create space for the expert.' He might have added that in a situation where there are no experts, the political leader has a very difficult task indeed.

This is certainly what we see today. Expert judgment on the operation of the rail network - until 1993 concentrated within British Rail - has been subcontracted down to the level of functional incompetence and has practically disappeared.

London's Underground has been starved of resources and its management so macerated that it confronts complete collapse. The task of planning, as opposed to the game of suppressing road transport, has been allowed to fall into the hands of people so loony that they really believe pedestrianizing streets and squares, distributing speed bumps and painting bus and cycle lanes on main transport arteries is a good idea.

And so we reach our present paralysed state, governed by light bulbs, overwhelmed by centres of excellence and with as many quangos committees and subcommittees as Imperial China, trying to make sense of a bizarre combination of the horrifying and the trivial and never knowing how close to the abyss of national breakdown we may have come.

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