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The two faces of public discourse

Paul Finch
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Public opinion, much like Transport for London, often resembles Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, says Paul Finch

One of the enjoyable things about Radio 4’s Today programme is the way it cottons on to newly minted clichés, gives them ventilation and, because it has done so, never questions whether the basis for the cliché is fundamentally flawed.

My favourite recently is ‘What business wants is certainty’. On the face of it a very reasonable proposition but, on examination, it turns out to mean nothing more than ‘children want sweets’. The human condition is essentially one of uncertainty, quite often radical uncertainty. This is partly because of our old favourites, war, pestilence, famine and plague, and partly because the behaviour of humans (individually and collectively) is not predictable with any great accuracy.

The same applies to products and technology. But one man’s disruptive business innovation is another’s misfortune. If only things could remain the same – but they can’t. So what sensible grown-up business people do is try to anticipate change, mitigate, adapt and move on or go out of business in a Darwinian fashion.

Given the history of the 19th and 20th centuries, it is extraordinary that infantile desires for everything to be like it was yesterday are treated as though they were pearls of wisdom. This of course fits the BBC worldview, which is that Brexit represents the collapse of civilisation as we know it – a position from which it is desperately back-pedalling.

Thinking about other oft-repeated unexamined clichés, I note that one of my all-time favourites is still doing the rounds: ‘There is no point in building more roads, they just fill up with traffic’. This is surely one of the dumbest phrases to gain currency in chattering-class circles. You might as well say: ‘There is no point in building more railway stations or Underground lines, they will just fill up with commuters and other passengers (sorry customers)’.

Below ground, Transport for London is utterly brilliant… above ground, alas, it turns into Mr Hyde

The same people who moan about roads can often be heard arguing the case for infrastructure, a good example of the cognitive dissonance that informs much of our political debate. Indeed certain worthies from the Greater London Assembly have gone on record in the past with the view that there is no point in providing more housing in London because it will just attract people to live here. What about the ones already here?

Contrast this with the dull civil service nostrum of yesteryear: ‘predict and provide’. What we have done in London in recent decades is firstly stopped predicting (or at least stopped publicising what government officials and politicians knew was happening in respect of inward migration); now we have moved to a final state of stasis in which we predict but – as a deliberate policy – we don’t provide. What a triumph: the policy of the ostrich.

As it happens, we have a perfect example of old and new attitudes in the form of one London organisation, Transport for London. It is a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde body, which below ground (including the Overground), is utterly brilliant. Its strategy planners understood what was happening to London’s population from the early 1990s and did something about it, hence the Jubilee Line, Crossrail and, one hopes, Crossrail 2.

Above ground, alas, it turns into Mr Hyde, with deranged policies of road closure, bizarre provision for tiny minorities (often clad in Lycra) which has caused chaos across central London, over-provision of mostly empty buses, and the eager licensing of more than 50,000 Uber drivers, who are cruising around adding to congestion although, needless to say, they don’t pay the Congestion Charge.

I would like to put Dr Jekyll in charge of roads for 10 years, and pack Mr Hyde off somewhere difficult to reach by public transport. 

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