Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs, Travel

Will the new “British Railways” be truly Great?

It is hardy news that the British national sense of self has taken a battering in the past half-decade – but in fact, the decline has been going on for far longer than that. It is deeply ironic that the political party that claims to represent most strongly the national sentiment has been most instrumental in demolishing many of the physical expressions of that nationhood, which spoke to people of a coherent sense of community no matter where they happened to live.

A nation exists to a significant extent in the minds of those who experience it; symbolism is important for fostering a sense of common identity and belonging. That in turn is important for creating familiarity with, and loyalty to, a national identity in a way that can embrace the multiple individual identities and ways of life that co-exist in any nation. Done well, they can become a source of shared pride in the institutions that we all use.

I wonder if the politicians who have spent the last four decades fragmenting and privatising most of the key institutions of this country realised what they were dismantling; not only was the disposal of the “family silver” often done at a huge mark-down, but in the process, many of the institutions that embodied the national identity of this country were abolished. We lost a sense of national infrastructure, and a significant part of our sense of cohesion as a result. I am by no means a nationalist by inclination, but that does not prevent me from regretting the way in which this nation’s symbolic institutions have been destroyed in a way that others have not permitted. Having a national “sense of self” need not be incompatible with internationalism, even if some see it otherwise: what I would like to feel about this country is that it can look its peers in the eye as equals, neither better nor worse than they.

This is not about the economic performance of sometimes-inefficient state enterprises, though experience has shown that their private replacements have been only a patchy improvement at best – but the fact that in breaking them up, an important intangible quality of nationhood was also lost. It is perhaps telling that the only one that remains reasonably intact, the NHS, has increasingly become a focus for precisely such national pride.

The infrastructure of a nation needs to stand for more than shallow commercialism; it is a statement of confidence and pride in that nation. It also represents one of the relatively few ways in which citizens can interact directly with the machinery of the State. As such, I have always felt that things like hospitals, schools, post offices and railway stations merited the best ‘identities’ that could be devised: national ikons of sorts.

If that sounds bizarre to British ears, then I can only suggest that we have become so used to seeing such interactions as a simple economic race to the bottom, that we no longer perceive the more symbolic value of belonging that can be a part of them.

Unfortunately, the organs of the British state were run down for years before they were abolished; their supposed inefficiencies were hardly surprising given the low and intermittent nature of their funding. Even in our small town of 5000, the local post office was a civic space; sadly, in its latter years it was neglected to a point of semi-decrepitude, and then replaced by a ‘position’ on the counter of a local convenience store. True to name, its extended hours are indeed convenient – but the loss of civic pride and focus was nonetheless the price we paid. Across the nation, Post Offices have been dumbed down until their civic function was all but unnoticeable.

Another major expression of this idea is the national rail network – but a quarter of a century after it too was privatised, dismantled and fragmented, it seems there is finally hope of a better future. The recent Williams-Shapps report seems to have accepted that fragmentation was a mistake, and that there is a need to re-establish a coherent, national institution.

There has already been plenty of criticism from both left and right; for some, nothing short of full renationalisation will do, while for others, anything that impedes red-blooded commercial competition is anathema. There is plenty of detail to be worked out in the next couple of years, but what matters to me is the fact that we may get a unified national institution back. And that ought to be good for the nation’s sense of self, in the way that Scotrail has become an emblem north of the border.

I’m not hung up on who ultimately runs such institutions and am not unsympathetic to the suggestion that commercial innovation is not something the State does well on its own; maybe there is indeed a place for partnership with the private sector. But I am most definitely unsympathetic to the notion that communal aspects of the State’s identity and purpose should be run solely has hard-driven commercial operations – not least because they have little or no time for the more symbolic values mentioned above. The establishment of a national co-ordinating body (even one with the naff “Great” on the front of the obvious British Railways) is a recognition that railways are inherently an integrated network, whose purpose is more societal than commercial.

If they get the branding and wider planning right, in due course we may end up with a national carrier to be as proud of as the Swiss are of theirs. The signs are again promising: the retention and up-dating of the classic double arrow symbol and the re-adoption of the Rail Alphabet font. Yes, these are seemingly-superficial aspects of a much more profound restructuring – but they can hopefully become the “shop window” for what could become a matter of national pride. I just hope that the final designs are as sleek and forward-looking as the best continental equivalents, and not some horrible, fake-heritage return to the “golden age of the Big Four” pre 1947, or some bombastic confection that majors on in-your-face Union Jacks. There are more subtle ways – but on this, I am less confident…

The key things needed are adequate funding, long-term certainty and operational freedom; if those are delivered, it will indeed be progress in this short-termist nation. The signs are surprisingly good – we now need to see them converted into practice, with simpler ticketing, more coherent timetables and trains designed for quality not capacity-maximisation. Whether the private sector will be sufficiently interested in fixed-profit concessions remains to be seen, though it presently seems they will: after the Covid bail-outs, they are in no position to argue.

Equally, it should be made impossible for them to boost their profits by cost-cutting, which is inevitably reflected in the quality of the service. I am encouraged to see this government (which I mostly despise) accepting that state oversight of state assets is a desirable thing, in the name of public service. I think that is a more major shift in mindset than has yet been realised, and it would be good to see it extended to other sectors. Covid has made clear the necessity of good public infrastructure, and the limits of the commercial sector for providing it. If a sweet spot can be found whereby private-sector skills are harnessed for the public good, in return for a reasonable payment, that is indeed very encouraging, and I think ideologically acceptable.

The key thing is that the public interest (for which read the state) that should be calling the shots, not opportunist private profiteers. That includes valuing the more symbolic aspects of national life that have been ignored for far too long: when I am moving around the country, I want to feel as though I am in the care of the State in which I travel, not just a figure on a private company’s spreadsheet.

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