Why a privatised railway drew bad reviews

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David Hare’s play on rail privatisation, The Permanent Way, offers drama along classical Shakespearean lines – what is foredoomed to fail, fails. However, as an intriguing conversation reveals, Hare seems to have missed a key point.

On Monday night I went to see David Hare’s new play on Britain’s rail privatisation, The Permanent Way, which was opening at London’s Royal National Theatre. As I sipped a glass of wine in the bar during the interval, I heard the following conversation:

“I love the way modern art is so socially aware! It’s exhilarating to see it probe contemporary issues. And not just in the theatre! Grayson Perry won the Turner Prize for painting disturbing images of family life on vases. And Bono is raising awareness of world poverty!”

“It’s all pretentious rubbish. Don’t tell me that transvestite potters exhibiting abducted children on vases reduces child abuse. Or that Bono has anything to say about world poverty, except that he’s against it. Do you know anyone in favour?”

“But David Hare is so right! One of the characters says: ‘Nobody believes that by being angry, by expressing anger, anything changes, anything can change.’ That’s what’s wrong with us. And his work is so focused. None of those 35-line soliloquies about ‘to be or not to be’. Just: ‘What’s the fucking point?’ We need more blunt speaking.”

“You’re confusing anger and emotion with social comment and political analysis. Nothing changes just because you express anger, nor should it.”

By coincidence, I found myself sitting near the same couple in the restaurant after the curtain fell. A more considered exchange took place:

“So what did you think of the play?”

“I laughed at the self-serving City gents and the smug Treasury official. There’s some truth there. But the play was caricature – more Dickens than Shakespeare. The head of Railtrack was more finely drawn, though, a portrait of a man out of his depth.”

“All too typical of privatised industry bosses! People who joined a local authority in 1969 and suddenly imagined themselves titans of world business when underpriced flotations made their share options very valuable. Fat cats were criticised because often the same people did the job after privatisation as did it before. But that wasn’t the real problem.”

“So what did go wrong?”

“Well, you learn very little about that from the play. Hare simply asserts that ‘what was foredoomed to fail, failed’. That was equally true in Hamlet and Macbeth. But Shakespeare provides a thoughtful analysis of why people embark on doomed courses of action. There’s nothing comparable here. The play’s explanation of privatisation’s failure, apart from the general venality of its proponents, is the fragmentation of the industry. Like many people, the playwright identifies the division of responsibility between operating companies and Railtrack, the network business, as the main problem. But I’m not convinced. Most processes in a modern economy are broken down into a vertical chain of relationships governed by rules, contracts and other market mechanisms. The person serving your steak didn’t butcher the cow. The ability to co-ordinate disparate functions is one of the strengths of market economies.”

“Well if it wasn’t fragmentation that led to failure, what did?”

“The nature of legitimate authority is a central theme of Shakespeare’s, and a central issue here. British Rail was disliked, but the public still saw it as their British Rail. But in John Major’s weak government, no attempt was made to win support for a coherent programme of reform. Few people were ever persuaded that the restructuring that was implemented made sense, or that Railtrack should be a private company. This absence of popular consent didn’t matter so long as things worked reasonably well. But when accidents happened in the privatised rail industry – such as the Paddington and Hatfield crashes – the press and public turned on those resented institutions and individuals.

“The problem was not that there were many more accidents after privatisation than before it – there weren’t – but that the response to them was different. The same issue had emerged earlier in the water industry – people used to blame nature for droughts, now they blamed the water company. After Hatfield, Railtrack panicked and destroyed itself. Well explored, the story has all the structure of a Shakespearean tragedy.”

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