Sunday, 19 October 2008

My fantasy Cabinet

A very sharp piece today by Andrew Rawnsley points out that neither of the current front benches has any credibility at all in the present crisis situation:
Gordon Brown in June 2005 giving the Chancellor's annual speech to the City at the Mansion House (.....) paid lavish homage to 'your unique innovative skills, your courage and steadfastness'. They had his personal thanks 'for the outstanding, the invaluable contribution you make to the prosperity of Britain'.  (.....)

Gordon Brown surpassed himself when he returned in 2007 to deliver his final Mansion House speech (.....) 'A new world order has been created,' he proclaimed. Britain was 'a new world leader' thanks to 'your efforts, ingenuity and creativity'. He congratulated himself for 'resisting pressure' to toughen up regulation of their activities. Everyone needed to follow the City's 'great example', emulate this 'high value-added, talent-driven industry'. 'Britain needs more of the vigour, ingenuity and aspiration that you already demonstrate.' Thanks to their 'remarkable achievements', we had the huge privilege to live in 'an era that history will record as the beginning of a new Golden Age'.

(.....) What he then hailed as a 'Golden Age', the Prime Minister now deplores as an 'Age of Irresponsibility'.
David Cameron comes out of all this no better. In June 2006, Rawnsley reminds us,
he trumpeted 'the victory of capitalism, privatisation and liberalisation'. (.....) It proved that 'light regulation' and 'low regulation' were 'keys to success'.
(.....) In September 2007, Mr Cameron (.....) chose to amplify his thesis about the ascendancy of unconstrained capitalism. In a section entitled 'The End Of Economic History?', he answered the question by declaring that: 'The debate is now settled.' 'Liberalism' had prevailed. The left's silly idea that markets required tight regulation had been thoroughly discredited. 'The result? The world economy more stable than for a generation.' 
All this being so, perhaps it is time for a Government of National Unity. We have coalitions in wartime and now we are at war against the danger of economic meltdown. Here are some suggestions for a Lib/Lab/Con coalition cabinet that brings in sensible people of talent irrespective of party, and that removes from office those most tainted with blame for getting us into the current mess:

Prime Minister: Kenneth Clarke
Chancellor: Vince Cable
Housing: Jon Cruddas
Transport: Norman Baker
Leader of the House:  Tony Wright
Energy and Climate Change: Michael Meacher
Culture: Gerald Kaufman
Chief Whip: Charles Kennedy
Europe: David Curry
Leader of the Lords: Chris Patten
Foreign Secretary: Ming Campbell
Business: Chris Huhne
Communities: Diane Abbott
Education: David Willetts
Social Services: Frank Field
Health: Evan Harris
Security: Dame Pauline Neville-Jones
Immigration: Damian Green
Defence: Sir George Young
Environment: John Gummer
Justice: Bob Marshall-Andrews
Home Secretary: David Davis
Scotland: Malcolm Bruce
Wales: Lembit Opik

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Whither the railways?

Gordon Brown's partial nationalisation of some big banks has prompted new interest in the question: what else might be about to go bust and could usefully be nationalised?

Almost every essential service, seems to be the answer. As far as transport is concerned, airlines are already going bust all over the place, but most of their services are anything but essential. Railways are a different matter, and historically it has always been the case that passenger numbers fall sharply in times of economic slowdown. If we are really going into a severe recession, several of the companies operating the existing railway franchises could easily go down the pan. When their premium/sudsidy agreements with the DfT were drawn up, steeply rising ridership into the distant future was the forecast.

I noted the other day that New Zealand, having privatised its railways, has decided that the experiment was a failure, and has re-nationalised them.

Now comes news that Germany, which has been gradually moving towards rail privatisation for some time, is abandoning the project. It will keep its major railway network, Deutsche Bahn, in public ownership after all. (Some smaller branch lines there are already operated by private companies on a franchise basis.)

True, the form that the German privatisation was going to take was not nearly as stupid as the British one. Railwaymen on the continent have for years been citing the British model as a classic lesson in how not to do it. But even their more sensible version will not now go ahead.

Meanwhile, Christian Wolmar observes that re-nationalising our railways need not in fact cost anything, contrary to what ignorant politicians like Peter Hain keep saying. CW writes:
What New Labour refuses to let on is that the railways are effectively largely publicly-owned anyway. Network Rail, which owns the infrastructure, is a company without shareholders that is dependent on government backed debt (to the tune of £20bn), for its survival. It receives billions in annual grants direct from government and is, to all intents and purposes, a state-run enterprise.
So all that needs to happen is for the operating companies to hand back their franchises either when their terms expire or when they get into difficulties.

Nobody should worry that public ownership need involve excessive interference by civil servants. On the contrary, one of the great paradoxes of the railway privatisation saga is that we have ended up with far greater micro-management by Whitehall of services, rolling stock deployment and timetables now than was ever the case under British Rail, which in fact was an arms-length operation rather like the BBC. 

The present structure is also phenomenally more expensive than the old one, both for the taxpayer in subsidies (BR in its latter days was actually rather efficient in its use of resources) and for the passenger in fares, some of which are astronomically higher than in any comparable country. Truly we now have the worst of all worlds.

Neil Clark, founder of the Campaign for Public Ownership, is naturally cock-a-hoop at recent developments

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Cripes! Boris goes all Keynesian

Well, I never. Until a couple of days ago or so, all Tories and the people they represent were scornfully dismissive of J.M. Keynes and everything he stood for.

How the worm turns! BoJo in today's Torygraph extols the virtues of Roosevelt's 1930s efforts to spend America's way out of depression by such projects as building the Hoover dam: 
It is no wonder, frankly, that the average tourist to America still spends a lot of time looking at 1930s infrastructure, because Roosevelt's New Deal created 122,000 public buildings, 77,000 bridges, 664,000 miles of road and 285 airports, as well as jobs for 8.5 million people. Like the German autobahns - built at roughly the same time - these investments were indispensable to the country's future growth and economic might.
The lesson to be drawn, says the Mayor, is that in our present economic mess we must press on with big projects in London: Crossrail for starters, various other rail schemes, the Thames Tideway tunnel, and maybe, in the long run, his favourite fantasy, a new airport in the Thames estuary:
We will beat this recession more speedily, and emerge in far better shape, if we make sure we put people to work in projects that boost the long-term competitiveness of the country. That means investing in the things that can radically improve the transport, attractiveness and general liveability of the capital city, the motor of the British economy. We may be in a hole, but the lesson of history is that tunnels and bridges and dams can bring jobs and growth.
Boris Johnson's attempt to pose as the new FDR is a bit rich: Crossrail and the other rail schemes, notably the transformation of the North London Line into the London Overground and the inclusion in the latter of the extended East London Line, due to open in a matter of months, were planned and got started under his predecessor, Ken Livingstone. BoJo has merely inherited them all. Ditto the various DLR extensions that are well under way.

Still, his confidence that Crossrail is definitely happening is reassuring. Presumably he knows something we don't, because all the rumours recently have been to the effect that the project is being drastically scaled down, as first noted back in August by The Railway Eye and later picked up by Private Eye.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Eight bits of good news

Not everything is gloom and panic. Here are eight pieces of good news on the transport front.

1. The US government is suddenly spending money on 15 projects to boost intercity rail passenger capacity. Amtrak carried more passengers in July than in any month since it was set up in 1971.

2.  Road travel in the USA fell by 9.6 billion vehicle-miles in July.

3. The European Parliament has rejected enormous pressure by the motor industry to water down new EU regulations on fuel efficiency and lower CO2 emissions for motorcars.

4. New UK car registrations fell by 21% in September. The BBC report implies that this is assumed to be a "Bad Thing". They are essentially regurgitating a press release by that gang of shameless crooks, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. Obviously, for the rest of us it is a Good Thing.

5. Aviation worldwide will lose more than £5bn over 2008 and 2009, with scores of airlines expected to go bankrupt, according to the IATA. This is excellent news. (But do not travel on airlines you've never heard of, and do not buy shares in any airline.) The unsustainable nonsense of "cheap flights" must surely now be almost at an end.

6. October's Modern Railways reports (text not on line) that building work has started on Edinburgh's new tram system. The first line will link the airport to Leith via Haymarket station and Princes Street. No thanks to the SNP minority government in Scotland, who tried to junk the scheme when they came into office.

7.  As a by-product of the Thameslink programme, Catford Loop trains from Sevenoaks that currently terminate at Blackfriars will, from next March, be extended through to Kentish Town, Monday-Friday. This appears to mean a 50% increase in frequency, from four trains an hour to six, between Elephant and St Pancras. Unlike Crossrail, the Thameslink scheme is now, at last, visibly going ahead and will cost far less while bringing improvements of a similar order, once it is all finished in 2015.

8. The new Rail Minister is Lord Adonis, who is a railway enthusiast. Christian Wolmar has the background.

Monday, 6 October 2008

"Casino capitalism and sheer greed"

Will Hutton is one of the few people who appears to have a clear idea about what has gone wrong with the financial system and what must be done to put it right. His long piece in yesterday's Observer, This terrifying moment is our one chance for a new world, is an absolute must-read.

Hutton writes that the crisis has been 30 years in the making, caused by "libertarian free-market fundamentalism, unregulated globalisation, the collapse of social and political forces committed to fairness, the explosive impact of financial innovations ... and sheer greed".

He notes that, after the collapse of the Soviet Union (though I'm not too clear what that really has do with it), there emerged in the USA "an ideological commitment to the view that government regulation had no place whatever in the economy".

(My own take on this has always been that the emergence around that time of new technology that facilitated further globalisation made it easy for these far-right economic notions to take over the world in what is essentially yet another form of American imperialism. Trotsky told us long ago that you can't have socialism in one country; but now we cannot even have European social democracy in several countries, though it worked perfectly well in most of Western Europe for several decades and remains, I am sure, the preferred model for most Europeans. Because American fundamentalist capitalism wanted untrammelled free-market forces to let rip, all based purely on individual greed, the whole of the rest of the world was somehow obliged to follow suit.)

Anyway, Will Hutton forensically sets out the stages that were gone through to reach the present mess, with ever more obscure financial instruments to disguise what was going on, ever more grotesque opulence for the wealthy few who benefited, and an ever-growing gap between rich and poor. "There was no effective opposition", he says: the left everywhere simply collapsed as an intellectual and political force:

There was no conviction that any alternative to this shareholder value-driven financial, 'securitised' capitalism existed, or any political muscle to support it even if there were. Mainstream culture moved away from public purpose and fairness; the new priorities were individual self-fulfilment, personal experience and loyalty to self.
This kind of ruthless, selfish, short-termist, fundamentalist capitalism, which now seems to be self-destructing, is contrasted with the "stakeholder capitalism" that he espoused in his 1995 bestseller The State We're In. He puts forward, in some technical detail, his plan for what now needs to be done, involving the creation of a new system, "built around different principles -- a long-term commitment to building businesses, support for investment and innovation, and fairness". To achieve this, the government must become the biggest shareholder in the financial system, so that banks are forced to behave differently -- "to move from financing casino capitalism to productive enterprise". He concludes:
The world of go-getting investment banks has gone forever (.....) What we are witnessing is a system failure that requires a systemic response – the creation of a new system that sponsors a fairer, more productive capitalism in its place, while maintaining high flows of credit and debt.

This is a terrifying moment; but it is also our generation's once-in-a-lifetime chance to change British capitalism. Brown has an awesome responsibility to his party and his country. I hope he rises to the challenge.
In the following 13-minute extract from last Thursday's This Week, Hutton outlines some of his ideas and discusses them with Andrew Neil, Michael Portillo and Diane Abbott (the soundtrack is slightly out of sync, apologies).

End Of Part One

My mention in passing this morning of Brian Walden reminded me to look out this very funny clip from a now completely forgotten TV comedy show of around 1980 called End Of Part One.

To get the most out of this, you have to be old enough to remember (1) Brian Walden presenting Weekend World -- living embodiment of the "Birt-Jay thesis" -- every Sunday morning, and (2) an extremely irritating Welsh trade union leader called Clive Jenkins.

Reshuffle (2): Tom Harris

Who knows what was in Gordon Brown's mind when he sacked Tom Harris from the government over the weekend: these things often seem unfathomable, with pretty useless people being promoted while manifest talent is left to rot on the back benches.  It was ever thus: I remember Harold Wilson's inexplicable failure to give jobs to Brian Walden, John Mackintosh and Tom Ellis.

In the case of Tom Harris as Rail Minister, though, one can only say "good riddance". What was the point of giving that particular job to a man who doesn't like railways? He it was who put forward the preposterous idea that the government should be "modally agnostic", i.e. he could not bring himself to say that it is better for us all if more people go by train and fewer by car.

Of course he could just have been parroting what his civil servants told him to say. The head of rail at the DfT, Dr Mike Mitchell, has been fingered many times in the railway technical press as the source of a great deal of nonsense, notably the department's rabid opposition to further electrification until it was forced recently into a U-turn.

UPDATE:  Christian Wolmar now reveals that Tom Harris admitted to him that he (Harris) had got it wrong about modal agnosticism.

Railway poster of the day

This is from New Zealand - where, incidentally, the privatised railways have recently been renationalised.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Reshuffle (1): Peter Mandelson

To the avalanche of comment over the past 48 hours, I add just two short points.

(1) I think many observers haven't taken account of the fact that Mandelson has been in a very high-powered job for the past few years. This is no doubt largely because the insular and ignorant hacks in this country don't understand anything about the EU and its institutions.  Some people still imagine that the Commission is a sinecure, and merely a graveyard for failed domestic politicians. Having worked there myself, I know that that is nonsense.

The job of Trade Commissioner, in particular, is extremely powerful because trade is one of very few policy areas where the Commission has a wide remit to negotiate binding agreements on behalf of the EU as a whole. And the fact is, Mandelson is regarded as having been pretty good at it.

So, whatever we think about the man and his politics, he comes back into British government a much more substantial figure than when he left.

(2) I was surprised to see it suggested in yesterday's Telegraph that one reason for Mandelson's undoubted unpopularity in the country at large is his "feline manner and his homosexuality". Surely his being gay is not relevant. Nobody minds that Alan Duncan is gay. Nobody minded that Chris Smith is gay. Surely in 2008 we have left all that behind. The reason people don't like Mandelson is that he comes across as very devious, which I'm pretty sure he is. (Mind you, so is Gordon Brown, so now they can be devious together.)

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Countries I have visited

visited 31 states (13.7%)
Create your own visited map of The World

Updated to take account of Cyprus trip, though it is almost too small to be visible here.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Back from Cyprus

We have just spent a week in Cyprus, thus becoming briefly part of that singularly unprepossessing group, The British On Holiday Abroad.

Not too guilty about my carbon footprint, as this was the first time I've set foot on an aeroplane for almost two years. My policy is to fly only if surface transport is completely impractical. Getting to Cyprus by rail and boat would take about a week in each direction

In any case, I wouldn't want to get on a plane unless I absolutely had to. Air travel is tremendously stressful, wearying and uncomfortable. It must be the most uncivilised form of transport ever devised. It is also extraordinarily unreliable: we arrived seven hours late on the way there, and two hours late on the way back.

Purpose of visit: The boyf spent his childhood in Limassol, and wanted to show me where he grew up. Much has changed out of all recognition, but he managed to find still standing the house in which he lived up to 1958.

Limassol has been largely spoiled by tourist overdevelopment. Nicosia is more interesting: oddly, the tragic fact of its political division since 1974 has been a blessing in disguise, in one respect -- it has clearly enabled the historic centre to remain unspoiled.

It is very encouraging that political tensions have recently relaxed to the point where visitors can now cross easily into the Northern (Turkish) sector.  The two communities in Cyprus now have leaders who appear genuinely to want to make progress towards what has in theory long been the agreed solution, a bizonal, bicommunal federation. This is the obvious compromise between the single unitary state that the Greeks originally wanted, and two completely separate states, as once hoped for by the Turks.

But there are an awful lot of thorny and sensitive details to settle, and talking to people on the ground it is far from obvious that the optimism expressed in this Guardian piece by Mary Honeyball is really justified. Let us hope it is.

Meanwhile, good news and bad news on the environmental front.

The bad news is the complete dominance of the motorcar and the car-culture mentality. Everybody is assumed to possess one. Visitors have to hire one, or take taxis. Public transport is dreadful. (I think Cyprus might be the first country I have ever visited that has absolutely no railways at all.) Bus services range from sporadic to non-existent. Provision for pedestrians in Limassol is lamentable, except along the seafront. Where there are pavements, you usually find them completely blocked by parked cars.

The good news is that practically every house, in the south at least, has solar panels on the roof. It is a very sunny country, and they take advantage of this to heat their water.

Busy heffalumps of the day