Wednesday, 22 April 2009


Credit where it's due. The government's attempt to set price signals - through taxes and charges - to encourage environmentally beneficial behaviour is correct, if long overdue.

If we're to retain many of our freedoms but still take the environment seriously, we have to make sure the prices of things reflect the true price, which includes the cost to the environment. If a product or an activity has an environmental cost, that has to be paid for by the user - simple economics really. And we have to move towards a situation in which doing the right thing is also the cheapest and/or easiest thing.

But the idea that offering motorists £2000 to scrap an old vehicle and buy a new one is not, repeat not an environmental measure. Nor is the idea that it has been successful in Germany a comment that should go unchallenged.

It's not an environmental measure for two reasons. Firstly, around 20 per cent of the energy used by a car in its lifetime comes in its manufacture, a factor seldom taken into account when emissions from old vehicles are compared with emissions from new. There's also the waste problem of disposing of even larger numbers of used vehicles.

Secondly, much less progress has been made on emissions reduction than the car makers would have us believe. A study in 2008 showed a Volkswagen Beetle now is no more fuel-efficient than a Beetle made 60 years ago. The car makers held out scandalously against EU efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from the average new car to 120g per kilometre, saying it was technically not feasible when several makers were already doing it! What they meant was that they make greater profits on the bigger gas guzzlers. Regrettably the Commission and member state governments fell for it.

The 'scrappage' payments in Germany (they offer €2500, very close to Alistair Darling's £2000) have been a success in terms of a massive take-up, so successful that the government has exhausted the money it put aside and has been forced to make more available. It's like a drug German car buyers have become addicted to in a very short space of time.

A central argument made in all this is that the car industry is central to our economic well-being. But it isn't! We have learned - for cost and environmental reasons - to treat electricity, gas, oil and other sources of energy as something we need to use as little as possible of. We should view transport the same way - some is needed, some is even desirable, but the sign of a well managed and efficient economy is that we use no more than is necessary.

Imagine offering state subsidies to encourage people to use more fuel than necessary to heat their homes - it would be laughed out of the political arena! So why is offering state subsidies to boost an industry whose dependence we should be weaning ourselves off any different?

These £2000 payments are like a financial methadone programme for addicted car makers.

Thursday, 9 April 2009


They say in areas of the world like America and the Middle East that foreign policy is an integral part of home affairs policy, as it affects basic national security. I sense that’s becoming the case here too.

While it’s right that we should never cave in to terrorism, we always have to ask whether there is a legitimate claim behind terrorist activity. And if that legitimate claim is being thwarted, then that will feed terrorism.

The Middle East is an area of the world which has an increasing impact on how safe and secure we feel in Britain. Britain played in a part in the current grim state of affairs. OK, our biggest blunder was 92 years ago when the Sykes-Picot agreement totally betrayed the indigenous Arabs, and today’s politicians shouldn’t be blamed for that. But we can play a part in building a peace that would strengthen our own security.

One of the major lessons to learn from relatively successful peace settlements such as Northern Ireland and South Africa is the role of forgiveness. People who were bitter to the core about having lost friends and relatives had to put aside their understandable wish for vengeance in the interests of long-term peace. And that has to happen now in the Middle East.

I was recently listening to Paddy Ashdown, who, as well as being the former LibDem leader, is one of this country’s leading foreign affairs analysts. He said the problem Israel has is that it has yet to learn that it must deal with and make peace with its neighbours, however abhorrent it finds them. If it doesn’t, it will never know peace for itself and will endanger the safety of others.

I have a natural affinity with Israel. While not Jewish myself, some of my ancestors were, in fact I lost great aunts and great uncles in the concentration camps and have relatives today in Israel. I therefore like to feel I understand some of the pain and anger that still lingers in Israeli citizens.

But that’s no reason to turn a blind eye to some of Israel’s atrocities – and yes I mean ‘atrocities’ – in the occupied territories. And I fear those atrocities could continue with the new Israeli government.

We need to use our powers of persuasion – such as they are – to encourage the state of Israel that it must deal with its neighbours, including the hated Hamas. Hamas is a dangerous body, but it has been fuelled by the failure of past statesmen to address legitimate concerns. With the White House now in the hands of someone who seems to understand world affairs, we have the chance to put pressure on Israel, in a way that the Blair-Bush alliance miserably failed to.

Criticising the actions of the Israeli government is not anti-Semitic. I am British and pro-British, but still criticise the British government. So I can be pro-Israeli but still criticise Israeli action. If our foreign policy can be directed at persuading Israel to be more forgiving, we might reduce the extremism that fuelled the July 2005 London bombings and make our own country a little safer.