Might today’s date live on in the history books as the official end of the industrial revolution, which began more than a century and a half ago? That’s probably a stretch, but the UK government’s announcement that all petrol and diesel cars and vans are to be banned by 2040 sounds like the beginning of the end for the internal combustion engine, the invention that changed human life for ever.
Following a similar announcement by the French government, as well as Volvo’s plan to make only fully electric or hybrid cars from 2019, a world without the sounds or smells that dominated the 20th century suddenly becomes imaginable. It won’t be a world without cars. But the car powered by the burning of fossil fuel – at different times and in different places a symbol of technological progress, of power, of wealth, of capitalism, of freedom and, yes, of a particular kind of masculinity – is entering the final phase of its life.
Still, the way the government took this decision makes it hard to see it in such grand terms. It was contradictory and incomplete – and it reveals two gaping holes in current Conservative thinking.
The contradictions are obvious. This announcement came days after the government confirmed that plans for the electrification of key rail lines in Wales, the north and the Midlands are to be abandoned: there, trains will have to run on diesel. But if diesel is so bad for air quality that it cannot be allowed to power cars, why is it OK for trains? And if we’re talking about threats to air quality, especially in London, why are the Tories still hellbent on a third runway for Heathrow, which will be operating at full capacity come 2040?
As for incompleteness, this new strategy raises questions about the infrastructure needed to make it possible. Motorists will need to see the plan for charging points across the country, on which electric cars will depend. More fundamentally, if every car is a plug-in, that’ll take a lot of electricity: how exactly are we going to generate it all?
There are technical answers to those questions, no doubt. But there are two larger weaknesses that are less easily solved. The first is the bogus localism that has characterised Tory thinking for so long.
Contemporary Conservatives love extolling the virtues of the local, quoting Edmund Burke and his “little platoons”, imagining a world of towns and villages taking the key decisions rather than big, bad Westminster. But in practice, their record is one of hoarding power at the centre, denying local authorities the right fully to raise and spend their own money or seeking to bypass them altogether when it comes to running, say, their own schools.
The key role allowed to local councils is that of fall guy. Councils are given the right to take the blame for decisions taken by central government. In the age of austerity, that division of labour has been especially clear. Whitehall cuts the funds, leaving council leaders to close the libraries or parks or children’s centres that local people cherished.
Michael Gove’s Today interview was full of that same thinking. The government needs emissions to come down, but it is passing the buck to town halls to implement the congestion or pollution charges, or outright city centre vehicle bans, which might be necessary. Again and again, locally elected politicians find themselves in that worst of all positions: responsibility without power.
The other Tory hole in this policy decision is, inevitably, Brexit. For why did this move come about at all? Was it because Gove and his colleagues suddenly realised the urgent necessity of clean air? No. It was because the UK faced legal action for its repeated failure to deal with excessive amounts of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere – legal action that could have resulted in heavy fines. And guess who was set to bring that court action. Why, it was the European Union.
It was the European commission – seated in hated Brussels – that set these pollution limits, and the commission that gave Britain its final warning in February, naming the UK as one of five countries consistently falling short of EU air quality standards. Absent that pressure, the government was quite happy to let the air get dirtier and more dangerous every day.
If Brexit goes ahead, then by 2040 we will of course be free to do our own thing – to foul the air as much as we like. But if we decide against that, the standards with which we will choose to comply (and with which any vehicles we make, and hope to sell) will have to be compatible – will, no doubt, be set – in Brussels. It’s just we won’t have any say in setting those rules.
It’s just one more illustration of the folly of Brexit and the folly of our current masters. The industrial revolution may be drawing to a close, but while previous generations could gaze confidently into the future, we seem fated to look ahead with only trepidation.