In 2012, the government announced the largest investment in railway electrification since the 1970s. Lines to Bristol and South Wales, Sheffield and the East Midlands, and across the Pennines between Manchester and Leeds, and from Southampton to the Midlands were all due to be wired. We were told that it would bring journey savings, efficiency gains, environmental gains, removal of freight from the roads, and more – all of which in technical terms is true.
Last week, the same party scrapped most of the schemes due to cost over-runs on the one that has actually got underway between London and Bristol. We are now told we don’t need electric trains and the ‘visual intrusion’ they bring. They can’t both be right.
Why does this county so often fail in matters of national investment? By comparison, virtually all of the French, German and Italian main line networks have been electric for decades – and in Switzerland the coverage is 100% – even down to rural branch lines. Then there is the money that has already been wasted raising bridges and tunnels for wires that will not now appear, and designs for trains whose performance will be compromised from the start by the need to carry round heavy diesel engines.
What the government never admits is that the problem here is of its own making: by privatising the railways, a great deal of technical expertise has been lost: private franchise holders are not interested in this kind of long-term investment, and much of the skill-base that was present under British Rail was simply pensioned off. Replacement expertise can be, and has been bought in – at a cost. The new infrastructure was developed in Switzerland – but as with all private ventures, the costs of the profit motive, delay compensation and legal complexity ratchet up overall costs and have resulted in a huge cost-overrun on the Great Western scheme even before it is finished.
The other unspoken matter, I suspect, is the imminent loss of EU moneys that would have funded some of the work under the Trans-European Network programme and for instance, the follow-on electrification of suburban lines in the Welsh Valleys, which will presumably not now happen either. In the past few years, schemes in this country have been funded to the tune of €43 million by the E.U. Also note that it is the provinces that are going to lose out yet again – I wonder whether the same decision would have been taken for London’s network. The graph below shows per capita investment by English region in public transport in 2016. It makes salutary viewing in that respect.
A fast, modern and efficient rail network is an essential piece of infrastructure for any nation, but yet again our masters have failed to grasp the opportunity to make a radical step forward – a valuable scheme torpedoed by short-term political expediency. Once more, this country is failing to deliver something than many of our neighbours have had for decades, and which will be all the more necessary to allow the British economy to compete when or if Brexit occurs. The contrast is notable between the fanfare with which the programme was launched and the way it was unceremoniously buried on the last day before the parliamentary recess: standard procedure for failed policies. Yet again, our sclerotic, indecisive political system will have wasted money planning but then failing to deliver what a few years it told us we urgently needed.
I wonder how History will judge this period in the story of the British nation(s). Living through it, the predominant impression is of directionless chaos, with all the usual certainties about the State we live in suspended, not least that unspoken national belief that disasters happen elsewhere.
Having encountered grass-roots continentals on an annual basis for the last couple of decades, it has only reinforced my view that by comparison there are some very ugly, uncivilised characters in Britain. We’re not the only ones of course: there is a segment of German society which is pretty brutal too, and no doubt most countries have their equivalent – otherwise we would not have seen the rise in far-Right support that we have. How do you respond to such threats?
When Theresa May became Prime Minister, I suspect like many, was prepared to give her space, if only because the alternatives were worse. Despite her secretive and authoritarian instincts, she is no fool, and at least projected the right image. It doesn’t need me to describe what has happened since.
But I wonder whether History may still judge her more kindly than we currently suspect. When I was teaching, I sometimes used a form of reverse psychology with difficult pupils. If one creates what is admittedly an illusion between the consequences of two courses of action, it is possible to deflect people from self-destruction without a loss of face. It uses a classic cognitive flaw where people fall for a false dichotomy.
I find it hard to understand May’s trajectory on Brexit without recourse to one of two explanations: either she was a closet Brexiteer all along, and she simply kept her powder dry during the referendum campaign – which is disingenuous enough that if true, she deserves to lose her position on the strength of it alone; or she is playing the same cognitive flaw with the nation. Realising the democratic impasse created by the referendum result, could she be giving the nation a taste of the consequences that it will face if hard Brexit goes ahead, in the hope that enough people will recoil before it actually comes to pass, that a rethink becomes possible? Why else would she still be playing hard-ball? It is like my teacher-strategy of outlining consequences to a difficult pupil and then asking, “Do you REALLY want to go down that path? Are you SURE?”
Meanwhile, prominent characters on the EU side seem to be doing as much as they can to leave the door open for Britain. Their motives may be less than pure, of course – but my admittedly-biased impression is that they are showing a concern for the people of this country that many do not show for themselves, and nor indeed do their national leaders. Will they yet save us from ourselves?
The current debate in Britain is not just the one that should have happened before the Referendum, but the one that should have been happening for the last forty years. But maybe at last, the British are starting to realise what the European project is really about.
Events in the interim have clearly not gone to plan for May – but there are some signs that public opinion is indeed beginning to shift about what outcome it prefers. Maybe the brinksmanship is starting to have an impact. There’s a long way to go, and I offer this theory without much confidence that it holds water.
But if it turns out to be correct, May could still go down in history as one of our most courageous Prime Ministers after all.