Friday, February 25, 2011

Musings about Britain from Continental Europe

Another small hiatus from blogging, the result of a fairly intensive travel schedule. This week, it was five different European countries, and as I write I am in the Swiss commercial capital of Z├╝rich. It has been some time since I was last here, but I note the renewed infrastructure investment: the spiffy new trams and the general air of prosperity that seems to be the birthright of the Swiss.

Alas that can not be said of London. From touchdown at the grubby and disorganized terminal 3 at Heathrow, until departure via the cramped London City airport, the sense is one of half measures and false economies. As I took the DLR out to City Airport I met by chance and old University friend who now works on Crossrail. Crossrail is a long overdue cross-London rail link. Yet he reports the considerable difficulties that this critical project is still facing. The money will run out before a quarter of the project is underway. Yet this rail link, which has been talked about for more than sixty years would still leave London way behind Paris, which has five such cross-city fast rail links: the RER. The North-South London Rail link, the Thameslink is desperately overcrowded, and it seems pretty clear that the Crossrail will face the same fate almost as soon as it is opened. Yet no one is discussing a strategic plan to enhance and develop public transport in London. Politicians seem to think that if they ignore the problem for long enough they will not get the blame. Alas this short sightedness is evident in so many ways across the spectrum in the UK.

The latest growth numbers - revised estimates for Q4 2010 were supposed to be better than the initial forecasts. The have proved to be worse. Despite the slump in Sterling, the recovery in Manufacturing has proved to be something of a chimera. In fact the UK no longer has the capacity the improve its position in this sector, so countries like China and Germany, which continued to invest in Manufacturing are now facing the future with far greater confidence, while the situation in Britain continues to decline.

In a word the decline of Britain rests on sloppiness.

Instead of doing a decent job, the desire of business and politics alike to get jobs done "on the cheap" has undermined the capital and the productive base of the entire economy. What kind of policy can argue in favour of a constant devaluation of the currency as a way to retain competitive advantage? I guess the answer is a policy that recognises that Britain remains fundamentally uncompetitive.

It is still a shock to understand the acceptance of failure that this implies. Once upon a time, the UK mitigated its decline by pointing out that it could "still" punch above its weight, in diplomacy or military power. The fact is that the monstrous inefficiency of the public sector and the pensions time bomb that is now finally beginning to explode will reduce living standards drastically for the coming generations. Those who retired at 55 on a pension they had not saved for have essentially stolen their money from the next generation which will now need to work for decades longer. The failure to invest has left the employment market for the young generation bereft of opportunity for those in the critical first few years of work. These people will be permanently poorer as a result. Meanwhile the physical infrastructure of the UK is so poor that it is putting off investment and reducing competitiveness to a dangerous degree.

Yet Britain can still fix its problems.

Heading out to City Airport I espy the new Olympic Park- it is nearly completed. Unlike the fiasco of Athens or Montreal, London is going to have the venues completed well ahead of the deadline. I feel confident that the Olympic Games will run smoothly, with none of the authoritarian overtones of Beijing: a true festival of the human spirit. Of course 2012 will also be Queen Elizabeth´s diamond jubilee, and I for one hope that the nation can unite in a joyful double celebration.

Nevertheless, it is clear that it is time for the UK to get focussed and serious about tackling its problems. In my view changing the electoral system, even to the compromise of AV is important because it sends the message that the wider necessary political reform is still possible. Without political reform, we will continue to have a political class that is shallow rooted and more focussed on PR than the greater challenge of real leadership that is needed if the challenges of weak infrastructure and declining power can be reversed.

The political class has been even more sloppy than our business leaders. It is time that the UK improved its level of self discipline and that is a challenge that the political leaders must address by example. Alas the antics of Ed Miliband, and to a lesser extent David Cameron and Nick Clegg do not give me much confidence that such changes can be made quickly.

Yet as the Arab world rises in revolt against decades of misrule, is it not too much to think that the British too can take their destiny in their own hands and force their political leaders to accept the challenge and face reality?


Tim Fenton said...

The Swiss have made the commitment to spend more on public transport: this has not always been the case in the UK, and isn't universally held in other European countries.

On London, I was there yesterday and the city I walked around was not as you describe. On the PT front, Thameslink is being upgraded - it would be nice if the work had already been done, but at least it is in progress.

There is more upgrading being done to the London Overground system, and another addition to the DLR - from Canning Town direct to Stratford and on to the site of the 2012 Olympics - will open soon.

And there are lots of new trains already delivered for the "heavy rail" systems around the capital, plus several Underground lines are being re-equipped.

It is not perfect. But, equally, all is not doom and gloom.

Piers said...

On the cheap.

Or "Make do and mend." I long dispaired of this complete lack of foresight and confidence but then I realised that my parents' generation, and those around it, had experienced – and were proud of –formative decades of The Depression, WWII and post war austerity.

I'm no economist but Keanes' paradox of thrift applies as much to public spending as it does to the individual: my father, who died a relatively wealthy man, was darning his socks and sweaters well into his 80s.

This is a huge subject and, if I let it, this comment would become a treatise.

For the moment I'll just say this: it is in part the tabloid media prism (they're still fighting the war y'see and, in pure economic terms 'twould be better had we lost it) that leads to such paltry investment these days. The Olympic park is an exception ... after all the world is watching and both the last government and this one can see that Mail/Murdoch bear trap a mile off.

Cicero said...

Tim, I was trying not to be gloomy- and you are right Thameslink is being upgraded, but it still seems inadequate. Thwre is so much to do.

Richard T said...

Galbraith had it right about private affluence and public squalor - what 50 years ago - plus ca change.