Boris Would Have Banned Steam Engines

British prime minister Boris Johnson announced this week that he would make it illegal to sell petrol or diesel-driven automobiles from 2030, pushing the British into a fleet of electric cars. He proclaimed this would lead to a “green industrial revolution.” Fat chance! If Boris had been around in the 1780s, he would have had equally good “environmental” reasons for banning steam engines – and would thereby have snuffed out the real Industrial Revolution.

Imagine that Boris had been elected prime minister at the end of 1783, instead of William Pitt the younger. He would have been fat and middle-aged like Lord North, have had a love-life rather like that of Charles James Fox, and would have been an Old Etonian, like North and Fox but not Pitt. In other words, he would have fitted like a glove into the Fox-North coalition, and would perhaps through his affable charm have emerged in the December 1783 crisis as a compromise candidate for the premiership, less personally obnoxious to George III than Fox.

Now imagine a newly installed 1784-Boris, keenly environmentalist as he is (or as his fiancée Carrie Symonds is) examining the state of the country in early 1784. The population is ravaged by epidemics of smallpox and plague – better have a lockdown. Unemployment is high and the economy is depressed – time for a stimulus program. The National Debt is dangerously high – time for some QE, reducing interest rates to zero and forcing the Bank of England to buy Consols. Sinking Fund – what’s that?

Britain’s most important problem, to an environmentalist 1784-Boris, is the sudden rise in the numbers of heavily polluting, noisy steam engines. Vast swathes of the countryside are being desecrated by the things. From a humble but modest role in pumping water out of mines, which they have had for 70 years (and few of 1784-Boris’s friends spend time in mining districts) they appear to be proliferating all over the place, in both towns and the countryside, with London especially blighted by their appalling dirt and smoke. Surely the government can do something to regulate these menaces!

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(The Bear's Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of "sell" recommendations put ...

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