High Speed to Nowhere
The resistance to continuing Westminster, Unionist politics in Scotland has never been about Scottish politics alone. Scotland’s predicament is shared by others in the UK. The inability of Westminster to confront directly the demanding political implications of these two simple propositions, for both Westminster and the Constitution, is the source of Unionism’s profound failure; and in consequence of failing to understand this the Labour Party is now collapsing into unseemly, panic-stricken incoherence. Meanwhile, the real nature of the mutual political difficulty throughout the UK, is better illuminated for the rest of us by illustration of a key, strategic policy area: Britain’s commitment to invest in major infrastructure projects across the country, outside London; given the shared importance of infrastructure to all of us in the development of a modern, thriving economy. There is no ‘special-pleading’ required for Scotland to illustrate the point, therefore this article will focus on the issue from the perspective of England. Wales and Northern Ireland are not included because they are also devolved administrations and this would distort the analysis below.
The people of England, most of whom live outside the charmed circle that surrounds, protects, serves and permeates London, see little of the economic benefits they should expect from major public infrastructure projects. They are still required to over-rely on an infrastructure that was built principally by the Victorians (much of it 150 years old, or more), from sewers, through drainage to railways, and scarcely altered or modernised since, but patched-up and over-used to the point of exhaustion. This is an infrastructure designed and built for ‘another country’ that is long gone; an infrastructure built for a much smaller population; an infrastructure already long out-of-date by the outbreak of World War II, that has since been overwhelmed by the demands of the modern world. We can demonstrate the scale of the problem by a simple comparison of Census population statistics for England between the mid-Victorian era (1871) and the most recent census in 2011:
Population of England in 1871: 21.4m, and in 2011: 53.0m (ONS). This represents a population increase of 31.6m, or almost 2.8 times.
It is nevertheless quite obvious to the most casual inspection that a visionary commitment to public infrastructure investment across Britain, to modernise the whole country, does not serve the vested interests behind the prevailing UK economic ideology; or the dogma that private enterprise investment alone advances economic growth; rhetoric that has been exploited somewhat predictably to serve London and the Westminster Cartel uniquely well over the last thirty years; but serves everyone else badly.
This does not mean that the Cynics of doctrinaire Free-Market Dogma do not know that public investment in infrastructure is vital to economic growth, or that with or without strong public sector investment, the private sector in Britain’s ‘lop-sided’, unbalanced, low-productivity, low-wage, low-interest-rate, savings-disincentivised, high-house-price economy may serve London’s narrow, pernicious interests, but is economically unsustainable save with large destabilising ‘corrections’, rarely reaches out beyond the fringes of London, and is particularly susceptible to regular, short-cycle, spectacular ‘busts’. The ideological dogmatists however, like to keep the facts quiet; like just how much of London’s economic progress relies on major public-led infrastructure projects, or being oiled by regular infusions of major world events like the Olympic Games, preferably paid for by everyone else; or how little benefit percolates through to the other UK nations, or to the rest of England from this lavish support for London.
So let us examine how the infrastructure resource allocation between London and the rest of England actually works: an overview, a photograph if you will, providing a snapshot of the allocation of big-ticket items. Do not think about the mechanics of the process of British resource allocation; it is in the interests of government that this process is not transparent or open; the illusion that “we are all in it together” offers a cheap-and-cheerful distraction from reality, especially when subliminally accompanied by constant media reminders of D-Day, Dunkirk or Churchill.
Governments never wish anyone to see precisely who it is discriminating against; think of the Barnett Formula, a masterpiece of opaque dissimulation that is even now being raised from its long overdue death-bed to serve another preposterous turn for the dogmatists in Westminster. On infrastructure investment, therefore look only at outcomes; it will tell you everything you need to know.
As London soaks up most of the capital expenditure on major projects in the UK over many, many decades, it is worth first listing some of the major items. Investments that if the equivalent financial commitment, in even one or two of the cases, had been lavished on the North East or North West of England, could have transformed prospects for many, and for generations: the Olympics, East London regeneration, Millennium Dome, Crossrail, HS2, St.Pancras-Channel-Tunnel, Docklands Light Railway, Jubilee Line, Wembley , etc., etc. It has caused much puzzlement to a growing number of resource-deprived regions or cities in the English regions, that so little of the scraps from the rich man’s table in London reaches out, North or West.
Notice also how every shiny new, major national project, like HS2, must always and inevitably start by, with, from, or in, London. London’s prime reserved position at the forefront of the infrastructure hand-out queue is a sine-qua-non; although London is of course the most expensive place anywhere in the UK (perhaps in Europe) to invest in infrastructure, by a very, very large margin. How many miles of HS2 could be built north of Birmingham, for every mile north of London; much of the latter required to be underground at vast national expense for aesthetic reasons, and solely to mollify influential Londoners?
If you wish to go anywhere in the UK (or by air or rail to many locations abroad) almost invariably the traveller will require to pass through London. Typically to transfer within or across London, at considerable expense of money and time. Effectively many people travelling in or through Britain are compelled to pay what is nothing more than an exorbitant London tax or impost on travel. That is why Air Passenger Duty (APD) became a hot devolution issue; it exposed to view what I might term in broader terms, the London Monopoly Tax Advantage: which even affects the pricing structure of the National Grid.
Returning to rail transport, it would be a bolder commitment to a genuinely national vision, to connect HS2 from the major cities outside London, directly to the existing Channel Tunnel line (HS1) and bypass central London; which is, after all, already connected. The object of HS2 should not be simply to connect Birmingham, Manchester or Newcastle with London, but to open access for the greater part of England directly to Paris and Europe, without a detour or wholly redundant transfer required of the traveller in London. Ironically, the original plan to connect HS2 with the Channel link (HS1) was scrapped by the Government in June, 2014, for an HS2 line connecting our major cities only to a single terminus in London, Euston; with a current cost estimate for Phase, 1 of HS2 to Birmingham – (principally the London cost) of £22Bn; this is slightly more than 50% of the total cost estimate for the whole HS2 project to connect the North of England, of £42.6Bn. It should be pointed out that by May, 2014 HS2 had already overrun its its initial £110m budget, largely for professional services, by no less than £87m (overspend +79%), and its initial civil engineering contracts by £11m (ThisisMoney.co.uk, 16 May, 2014). The £42.6Bn is based on a completion date north of 2030.
It should also be noted that the decision to reject HS1/HS2 interconnectivity places the British Government in breach of an EU directive (96/48/EC) on trans-European high-speed rail systems “interoperability”; which seeks to harmonise trans-national European high-speed rail travel, for fairly obvious and common-sense, large-scale economic reasons. In Britain we know better. Why would anyone in Birmingham, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds or Newcastle either need or wish to go anywhere in Europe other than London? All these cities are, incidentally in the HS2 plan, sometime later, but perhaps not for up to 40 years, or next door to never; and if any optimistic Newcastle travellers ever need to go to Paris, (it is more likely to be their grandchildren) they can travel to central London and carry their bags from the Euston terminus to the St.Pancras terminus for Paris.
What influence does London have in allocating the vast proportion of infrastructure spend in England, compared with the whole of the rest of the country? Let us examine just how undue London’s influence is; just how easy it is to oil the wheels of London’s stately progress, at everybody else’s expense. Conveniently the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) can give us the 2013 infrastructure spending in London and the South-East, compared with England as a whole:
“When we consider transport infrastructure projects which are deemed by Treasury and the Department for Transport to be primarily ‘regional’ and which involve some element of public spending, we can identify 69 projects with a combined projected cost of £32 billion. Here, a very clear picture of the dominance of London becomes clear. Two-thirds of planned spending on regional transport infrastructure is committed to London alone; when combined with projected spending in the South East, 86 per cent of (sic) is committed to London and the South East. By comparison, just 6 per cent is committed across the whole of the north of England.” (‘Still on the Wrong Track’: IPPR North, 2013; p.8)
A substantial element of the final funding of this joint public-private £32Bn is private sector, but if we focus on the £8Bn where the public sector is the sole funder, then London and the South-East’s share drops to a meagre 84%; a drop of a mere 2%. All that Public Sector effort; all that Parliamentary representation from the rest of England; all for 2%.This is how democracy works in Britain. London alone accounts for almost 80% of all solely public sector funded projects in England. In the 2011 census, London’s population is given as 8.2m (Office of National Statistics). This represents 15.4% of the census population for England & Wales: 15% of the population merits 80% of the national public-sector infrastructure investment.
It is difficult to see what role equity in resource allocation actually plays for regions or nations throughout the UK; the answer appears to be, none at all. It is therefore a matter of profound regret to many of us in Scotland that so few people in England stand-up to London; but these are the facts. Nobody stands up to London. A soporific surrender to suave celebrity seduction appears to have taken hold. What ‘England’ now offers as resistance to Metropolitan charlatanism is a feeble parody of the robust heritage of English radicalism exemplified by Milton or Harrington, or even Bright and Cobden; or the new dynamic of political engagement revealed in Scotland by the referendum campaign. Change in England is now improbably, no; ludicrously represented by UKIP, with its warm-beer-and-cricket nostalgia for a bluff, twilight Britain of uncertain authenticity and less substance, capped by a future of promised, backward-looking, isolationist inertia; a party run by a feckless Home Counties, pastiche amateur dramatics society, holding a script more appropriate to Gilbert and Sullivan than modern Britain. Meanwhile England’s radicalism is in profound hibernation; buried under a neo-liberal, ideological permafrost.
Scotland cannot reform the ‘UK’ alone; and that is Scotland’s greatest lesson from its long history: yet life is too short to wait for England’s somnolent inactivity to show some slight sign of conscious awareness.We have learned the lesson in Scotland; we understand the message; if Unionists wish to claim, with their accustomed vulgar zealotry that ‘No’ means ‘No’ the answer is simple and obvious: No, it doesn’t; and for the avoidance of doubt, ‘No’ is Not Enough. From the moment a Second Question in the referendum was refused by the Better Together parties, against the prevailing, well established and monitored opinion of the electorate, the Unionist interpretation of “No”; trading on a false ambiguity, sank ignominiously without trace. There was no vote on HomeRule/Devo Max in the referendum quite simply because it was anathema to Unionism. Somehow Unionists seem to have persuaded themselves to place their unbounded capacity for blind faith in yet another ridiculous falsehood – that the voters have not noticed they were summarily disregarded.
‘No’ to Home Rule will not last; nor will Smith; nor will Cm8990; and given the naked, self-serving cynicism required to produce Labour’s latest devolution drivel, nor will the Union.