The 20mph revolt

September 29, 2023 3 Comments

I usually float through the sewage and green algae of political debate in the UK buoyed up by a comforting belief: that here in Wales people are in some way insulated from the worst of the reactionary and cruel madness that now passes for politics in Westminster.  Comforting, but, I fear, quite wrong.  The extreme response to the Welsh Government’s imposition on 17 September of 20mph speeds on some roads in Wales has shaken me.  If a mild – and mildly applied – policy on altering the rules of the road to save lives, prevent injuries and improve life for non-car users can result in such a widespread and violently expressed rebellion, what hope is there for the more radical measures that we need to help our environment and respond to the climate catastrophe facing us all?

What accounts for the instant, enraged reaction?  Let’s consider the proximate causes first. 

To begin with, it’s true that the Welsh Government did too little, too late, to prepare people for the change.  As in other policy areas, it put a great deal of effort into getting its strategies and policies lined up, but then failed to convey the arguments to the public, or to convince people of their justice.  There were pilot schemes in a few local areas.  These were fairly well-received, and adaptations were made to the original scheme.  But the effort to prepare the rest of us was meagre, and the arena was left empty for the contras to occupy.  (This in turn, raises another problem, the lack of Welsh media with enough penetration to reach ordinary people and with enough insight to discuss environmental issues plainly and fairly.)

Then there’s the nature and motivation of the opposition to the 20mph measure.  The Tories and their friends have clearly now decided that anyone seeking to save the planet is a ‘woke’ enemy, and that there’s plenty of room for a populist campaign against all green policies, one that they hope will rekindle kind of the massive fires that made Brexit such a rewarding inferno for them.  The 20mph measure gave them a convenient bonfire to set alight.  The Daily Mail, the most popular newspaper sold in Wales, has poured gallons of fuel on the fire, alongside other organs of outrage and loathing.

Andrew R.T. Davies

In true Trump style the contras aren’t content to restrict themselves to argument and debate.  No weapon is off limits, including lies, illegality and violent threats.  Andrew R.T. Davies, the Tory leader in the Senedd, has never stopped calling the measure a ‘blanket 20mph speed limit’, a clear untruth, since local authorities have latitude to make local decisions on speed limit designation.  (I reflect in passing that the days of Nick Bourne, when the Welsh Conservatives could engage rationally and independently with opponents in political debate, seem a distant age; Davies, by contrast, comes across as a cynical and nihilistic loudmouth who bends, in a Pavlovan way, to whatever hot prejudices blow from Tory England.)

No doubt the online petition calling on the Welsh Government to rescind the 20mph rule was capable of manipulation by dirty tricksters.  All you needed to register your outrage was some sort of email account, and there were anecdotal accounts of signatories from the Vatican City and other interesting countries.  Beyond the Tory Party are others who go further.  New 20mph signs have been defaced.  Ministers, particularly the First Minister and Lee Waters, who was primarily responsible for the 20mph measure, have received large quantities of abusive and threatening messages

Lee Waters

So you might argue that the size and fierceness of the reaction can be explained by ‘special factors’, like the Welsh Government’s failure to prepare and the cynical exploitation of an issue by forces intent on opening up a new Western Front in the culture wars.  But I fear there are more depressing, less immediate factors in play.   The contras’ campaign would never have taken off, to the extent of sparking a petition that now exceeds 440,000 signatures, even making allowances for false signers and near-Nazi levels of propaganda, had there not been plenty of people who were already disposed to be hostile to the new limits.

There’s some encouraging early evidence that most drivers are happy to stick to the new 20mph limits.  And, if the dynamic of opposition to the introduction of compulsory seat-belt wearing back in 1991 is anything to go by, people may get used to the new regime and will eventually wonder what the fuss was about.  But the ‘20mph revolt’ is still a depressing reminder that very large numbers of people are highly resistant to the Welsh Government’s modest changes.  So far the Government has stood fairly firm in the face of opposition.  On the ground things may be different. I’m not sure about practice in other counties, but here in Swansea the Council, that could never be accused of prioritising environmental concerns, seems to have done the absolute minimum (or maybe less) to conform with the Government’s intentions.  In our part of the city few streets have 20mph signs, and almost all seem, on the surface, to be still 30mph, even in completely residential streets, leaving drivers uncertain about which limit applies.

The Welsh Government has presented the 20mph policy mainly as a means of reducing avoidable road deaths and injuries, but it has another clear aim, to create the conditions for promoting greener and healthier means of transport, like walking and cycling.  But substantive progress towards greener travel – I don’t just mean a switch to e-vehicles, which would be only a partial improvement – is going to need much more radical and determined decisions, like changes to the relative economics of different modes of travel, a big boost to bus services, re-planning of streets and kerbs on car use.  I wonder whether any government, however progressive in its vision, is going to have the stomach to pursue any of these against fierce opposition from car owners and the car lobby?

The addiction people have to cars is remarkable, but often little remarked on or researched.  As early as the mid-1940s there were complaints that car owners felt a strong sense of entitlement when behind the wheel, with dire consequences for other road users.  But I suspect the dependency is much stronger now, and it goes a long way towards explaining the antipathy of many drivers towards restrictions on what they see as inalienable freedoms.  In effect cars, for a lot of people, have become a fifth, indispensable limb.  This is the real barrier that confronts planners keen to rein in private vehicles, which are now responsible for a third of all greenhouse gas emissions.  In 2020 the Luxembourg government introduced free bus travel for all, but found that car-users were still reluctant to forego their car journeys.

Behind the extreme reluctance of car owners to adapt their transport behaviour lies a still stronger brake on policy change.  At last the vast majority of people, excepting Tory and libertarian extremists, now accept unanimous scientific evidence that disastrous anthropogenic climate change is happening.  No longer does the BBC invite the ghost of Nigel Lawson and other deniers to television and radio studios for ‘balance’.  But there’s a huge gap between accepting that humans in general are responsible for the problem, and accepting personal responsibility for tackling it – or supporting moves to do so.  Today, acting to benefit other people, and especially other people in the future, seems to test the limits of our altruism even more than in the past, after forty years of unchallenged neo-liberalism and individualism.  Finding ways to close the ‘responsibility gap’ is surely the most pressing necessity we all now face.

Comments (3)

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  1. Heather Williams Thompson says:

    Agree with all you say here. Right wing think tanks and propaganda have a lot to answer for. Something will have to give soon.

  2. Hywel Davies says:

    Diolch yn fawr for your sane expose of this ugly example of the Tories’ increasingly desperate pre-election campaign. I was glad to hear BBC Radio 4 UK news explaining this morning that the Welsh Government’s ‘blanket imposition’ of 20mph limits – as they had previously quoted Rishi Sunak as so untruthfully describing it – is in reality limited to residential streets. On the other, you are absolutely right that the Welsh Government let itself down badly by not ensuring that the new policy would implemented and explained with complete clarity and that the new speed signs would be put up promptly.

  3. Byron Ashton says:

    Da iawn, an excellent post!

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