Friday, 19 July 2013

If it's worth privatising, surely it's worth keeping

DON’T you love travelling by train? There’s a reality to it that no other form of transport can match.

There’s no jet-lag to cope with, none of the culture (and climate) shock that can come with stepping out after even just a few uncomfortable hours in a plane.
And while car travel has its advantages – mostly the freedom to go when and where you want – you can find yourself insulated from the world around you. Closed off in a bubble with no real contact with other people (except to swear at them as they overtake, pull out in front of you or hog the middle lane).
On a train you’re both in the landscape and among the people. Of course it’s much the most environmentally-friendly way of crossing distances you couldn’t easily walk or cycle.
And despite the recent ghastly high-speed crash in France, it’s still the safest way to travel. That’s why we hear about such events – because they’re rare.
I’ve had some fascinating encounters on trains with people I would never otherwise have met. Great journeys across France, Spain, Italy, Holland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania.
And every time it’s been a depressing comedown to return home to this land where the trains are less roomy, less comfortable, less smooth, less reliable. And so much more expensive.
Of course, in Europe the railways mostly continue to be run efficiently as state concerns. A service run by the people for the people.
Here there is little joined-up thinking between companies that compete for temporary contracts to run trains on lines owned and maintained (or not) by another company.
The whole system is geared to short-term profit, not long-term service.
You can’t really blame the companies concerned. With rapid returns required, long-term investment is hardly encouraged.
In this climate it’s heartening to see the rise of a pressure group calling itself Bring Back British Rail. Less so to realise how little chance they have of getting their wish.
On their website they explain: “We are the collective voice of disgruntled rail passengers and disheartened train employees, demanding a re-unified national rail network run for people not profit.
“Founded in 2009, Bring Back British Rail strives to popularise the commonsense idea of re-nationalising the ludicrously over-priced and over-complicated railway system, which the people of Britain have been left with as the result of privatisation in the ’90s.”
How long, I wonder, before we see an equally well-intentioned – and equally failure-doomed – movement to Bring Back Royal Mail?
Even Margaret Thatcher, who sparked the headlong dash to flog off Britain’s assets, baulked at what she called “privatisation of the Queen’s head”.
Not so her 21st-century successors, now intent on hawking off the postal service to the highest bidder.
Which, if experience with water, electricity – and the railways – is anything to go by, will probably end up eventually back in national ownership. It just won’t be this nation that owns it.
What I can’t understand is why, if there’s any company that thinks the Royal Mail is worth having, it isn’t worth keeping.
If it can be run profitably for shareholders, why not for the Treasury?
According to business secretary Vince Cable, “the public will always want to invest in schools and hospitals” ahead of the postal service.
That suggests it’s a drain on resources. If so, who would want to buy it?
If it were run efficiently if could make money to help fund those schools and hospitals. Not to put cash in a few private pockets.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Profit-motive zealots enjoying the dividend of democracy

After 10 unbroken years in the Ipswich Star, my column was cancelled - to be resurrected after a gap of just a few weeks in the Eastern Daily Press. Here is my first piece for the pages of the EDP:
The most depressing thing about the headline was that it probably surprised no one.
“Gove plans to let firms run schools for profit.” Well of course he does.
Just as the government he represents wants to let private firms cash in on the wreckage of what was once the National Health Service.
Just as they want private firms to run prisons for profit – as if incarcerating other human beings for money was in no way morally dubious.
Just as they want the judicial system itself to be run for private profit – as if depriving other human beings of their rights and liberty etc.
In a society less apathetic than ours, any one of the above would have the populace up in arms. Out on the streets protesting as vehemently as those in Istanbul, Athens, Cairo, Rio.
Here, however, a government of extreme reactionaries enjoys one of the prime dividends of a democracy. A compliant population lulled into shoulder-shrugging, do-nothing mode by the comfortable illusion that they have a “say” in what their rulers get up to.
Of course we have nothing of the sort. A minute share in a “choice” once every five years or so between one group or another is all we have. Then trust them to do what they say they will (which they don’t) and take decisions we like (which they won’t).
The bunch we’re currently three years into putting up with weren’t my choice – or the choice of anything like a majority.
In fact, given the unlikely nature of the coalition – it would certainly have seemed unlikely at any time before May 2010 – you could argue that they weren’t anyone’s choice.
Nevertheless they – or at least some of them, Michael Gove included – continue to rule with the zeal of a party of popular acclaim.
Those zealots, and the coalition partners who let them do as they like, make up the most ideologically driven government Britain has had in my lifetime.
And yes, I am including the Thatcher administration in that assessment. In hindsight, hers looks like a government driven more by ego than principle.
It is, I suppose, a matter of opinion whether or not the present government’s eagerness to dismantle the state is a good thing.
In my opinion, the government that came into power at war’s end in 1945, let by Clement Attlee, was by a long, long way the best we have ever had.
Among innumerable other benefits, it brought us the NHS, the welfare state, huge improvements in education and the biggest boom in social housing the country has seen.
All good things that the current government is intent upon destroying the last remnants of. Good things created, let’s not forget, in an era of genuine austerity.
If you share my high opinion of the Attlee government, you should surely also share my dim view of the present incumbents.
Or, I suppose, vice versa.
That I could almost understand – though of course you’d be wrong. It’s the quiet acceptance of iniquity that I find hardest to accept.


Those who, like me, ride the rails regularly on the Norwich-to-London line have over the past few years had the entertainment of watching the Olympic site at Stratford gradually growing. And then gradually being partly dismantled.
But the slight melancholy that brings on is nothing compared with the shock and disgust I’ve felt when passing through Chelmsford lately.
I happened a while ago to be sitting next to a former Marconi engineer who was bemoaning the derelict state of the factory where he used to work.
The factory, just by the station in the heart of Essex’s county town, was a place of real history. Not just of local, but of national – and international – significance.
The world’s first “wireless” factory, it was the place that gave Chelmsford its claim to be “the birthplace of radio”.
It was here, in June 1920, that Dame Nellie Melba sang two arias that were heard all across Europe and as far away as Newfoundland. The first “light entertainment” radio broadcast.
The start – before TV or the internet – of real-time mass communication.
The buildings, including the white 1930s Marconi House and the art-deco factory, were architecturally splendid too. Classics of their era.
I took my camera on the train last week to capture Marconi House for this page. I was too late. The building was half down, a wrecking-ball embedded in its upper storeys. Nothing now remains but a sad pile of rubble.
And all to make way for a housing estate to be built by a national developer in the same drab style spreading across every town in the land.
Not perhaps quite such a calamity as the levelling last week of a 4,000-year-old pyramid by developers in Peru. But bad enough.