In the 1980s privatisation was the big new idea in economic policy. I posed a question over a drink one evening to a friend who worked in 10 Downing Street. What is this policy really about, I asked? Is it aimed at improving the efficiency of nationalised companies or curbing union power? Is it intended to widen share ownership or just a means of raising revenue? I have never forgotten his response. You misunderstand, he said, the nature of modern politics. The policy is the policy because it is the policy. There is no more and no less to it than that.
Projects acquire political momentum of their own. The original rationale is forgotten, if indeed it ever existed. Even those whose support was only lukewarm respond to criticism by becoming ever more committed advocates. They seize on whatever arguments are to hand to justify their position.
And so it has been with HS2, the project to build a high-speed rail link from London to Birmingham and then to the north of England. Peter Mandelson has explained that the plan first won support from the Labour government of which he was part as an infrastructure project to lift the economy out of the recession created by the global financial crisis, although it is hard to see how a scheme that could not be “shovel ready” for a decade could have met that requirement.
The Conservative opposition, hoping to attract support in marginal constituencies in southwest London, backed the project as an alternative to the expansion of Heathrow airport, although the most cursory of calculations shows that only an insignificant proportion of users of that facility could be induced aboard Birmingham-bound trains.
So the plan acquired bipartisan political support. A government-owned company, HS2, was established, which in practice acted as an advocacy group. The cost-benefit analysis it commissioned confirmed, as its sponsors hoped, that the scheme would yield substantial benefits. Most of these benefits, however, were time savings to business travellers. Critics pointed out that modern business people are able to use the travel time productively — count the number of laptops on any train — and that, if these time savings were a real benefit, they were a benefit for which business travellers should pay.
The focus of argument shifted to claims that HS2 was the only effective means of dealing with potential excess demand for the West Coast lines out of London. On investigation, it appeared that the evidence of congestion on existing services mostly related to commuter traffic and the first evening trains on which long-distance travellers could use cheap tickets.
So more emphasis was put on the potential economic regeneration of the West Midlands, and the other provincial centres that might benefit from faster connections to the capital.
But this is a double-edged argument. The pull of London is strong. Would better access to the capital help or hinder economic growth in the regions? While there are examples of developments around the poles created by new stations, reducing the time it takes to travel between Birmingham and London may do more to encourage residents of Birmingham to go to London than to encourage London residents to go to Birmingham.
Britain’s archaic House of Lords gains lustre, even justification, from its economic affairs committee, whose work has provided models of bipartisan investigation by intelligent people genuinely trying to ascertain the truth. The committee’s report on the HS2 project, published just before the election in May and overwhelmed by it, is fully in this tradition. Members concluded, not that HS2 was a bad idea, but that no properly argued case had been made. They were right. The policy is the policy because it is the policy. There is no more or less to it than that.