During the Blair Terror, true socialists would gather at conference fringes to lament a Labour government the way only Labour members can.
They would grieve the party’s triangulations and console themselves that the voters were more radical than the government. Why, just look at the polls showing most wanted to renationalise the railways.
Most do and last week we were treated to another poll confirming this. YouGov found 56 per cent in favour and only 18 per cent against. Even among Tory voters, state ownership enjoys a 17-point lead.
What happened? Did Britain suddenly turn red?
Not quite. Public opinion has been trending left for some time now. A National Centre for Social Research survey last September showed 60 per cent in favour of higher taxes to fund public services, up from 31 per cent in 2010. Financial crashes, with their spivvy pocket-lining for the bankers and brute austerity for the masses, tend to prod the public in this direction.
This explains, in part, the backing for public ownership. Last week, commuters in Scotland were skelped with a 2.8 per cent hike in average rail fares, while passengers down south took a 3.1 per cent hit. Meanwhile, managing director Alex Hynes has seen his salary rise from £255,000 to between £270,000 and £275,000 — not including bonuses — in his 18 unimpressive months in charge of ScotRail. And he probably gets a seat on the train to work, too.
In October, ScotRail’s performance fell to its lowest level yet and the company was fined more than £2 million for poor services last year. When at first you don’t succeed, just pretend it’s not happening. At least that’s the attitude of SNP transport minister Michael Matheson, who has delayed compliance requirements until June. Even ScotRail’s performance targets just show up when they feel like it.
Against this backdrop, support for renationalisation is perhaps understandable but it is not an expression of socialist radicalism. Public ownership appeals to so many because we are conservative creatures at heart — suspicious of modernity, respectful of the past, yearning for order. British Rail evokes nostalgia in much the same way as Ben Elton or Phil Collins. It was a bit cringey but reassuring to know it was there.
The Tory sell-off, starting in 1994, seemed to many then and now an unnecessary and ideological upset. You knew where you stood with British Rail, even if it was usually on a platform glancing at your watch for the third time. Privatisation took away that familiarity and sense of ownership and the Tories’ chosen model — dividing rail services from the rail network — was complicated and unwieldy.
Markets are messy and don’t always work. That’s the price of freedom, something everyone is for in principle but only occasionally in practice. Most people don’t want to be free — they want to be home in time for Coronation Street.
Public ownership sounds like an easy answer and thus it is the one most popular with politicians. The SNP has been promising to nationalise the railways since Thomas the Tank Engine was a tramcar. Jeremy Corbyn hopes it will be his route to Downing Street. There are even Tories who will tell you privately that privatisation hasn’t worked.
As with all easy answers, nationalisation is a put-up job. It plays on legitimate frustrations and preys on ignorance of the past. Rail fares are much higher in real terms than under state ownership. The cost of the average anytime ticket has risen three times as much as the retail price index since privatisation. But the quality of the rolling stock is unrecognisable from the days of British Rail.
Billions have been invested upgrading engines, tracks and customer services, so that, when they eventually turn up, our trains are modern, air conditioned and complete with free Wifi. The customer experience matters in the private sector. To understand the priority given to the customer experience in the public sector, please visit your local A&E or ask to send your child to the good school one town away.
The problem with our railways — and the reason the customer experience isn’t infinitely better — is a lack of competition in the franchise system which allows rail operators to function as near monopolies. Give ScotRail some proper competition and watch as prices fall and performance rises. Give the railways to the state and you’ll have to take what you’re given and lump it. Fares might be lower but you’ll pay for it out of the other pocket in taxes. Services will be just as late and just as overcrowded and any potential remedies will have to compete with schools and hospitals for funding.
Nationalisation advocates urge us to consider Germany’s Deutsche Bahn, hailed as a success story of state ownership, but German Rail has private sector rivals and in survey after survey Germans are found to be markedly less satisfied with their trains than we are with ours. Germans also took one billion more rail journeys than us last year. An upsurge in passengers on UK railways would require significant increases in infrastructure spending.
The public ownership argument ultimately rests on an appeal to authority: the state knows best how to run an essential service. Ronald Reagan once quipped that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’. Rail nationalisation is the proposition that the people who can’t negotiate us out of a 28-member trading bloc are best placed to deliver 1.7 billion passenger journeys across 9,866 miles of track every year.
Capitalism may have fallen out of fashion in this age of economic populism but free markets are still the best system of delivery for most of the goods and services we cherish. In our day-to-today lives, there are few areas of private enterprise where we can feel confident the state would do a better job. Would you rather have an iPhone designed by HMRC or HMRC run by the people who designed your iPhone?
Open-access competition, which allows private companies to purchase slots on the mainline, is how we begin to drive up standards and drive down prices on the railways. The alternative is to put your faith in the state to deliver in rail what it has failed to deliver elsewhere. The private sector will let you down some of the time. The state will let you down almost all of the time.
The news that Jews are ‘actively considering’ leaving Scotland over rising antisemitism is horrifying.
Ephraim Borowski, who heads up the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, says Scottish Jews feel ‘alienated, vulnerable and not at home’.
If even a single Jew were to flee this country because of prejudice, it would be a damning moral failure on the part of Scotland as a whole. Antisemitism is the oldest bigotry, stretching back to pre-Christian times. The world knows well where this fanatical hatred can lead but we seem to be forgetting the lessons of history.
It is essential that we start remembering them. Jews should feel safe going about their lives, raising their children and practising their faith. There is no excuse for antisemitism, even when it cloaks itself in the supposedly civilised language of anti-Zionism.
Today’s antisemites will fail as their predecessors did. A Jewish prayer, Vehi Sheamda, sums it up: ‘In every generation they try to destroy us and the Lord saves us from their hands.’
What a joy to see Sir Billy Connolly record a video for his fans, playing the banjo and singing: ‘Not dying, not dead, not slipping away.’ Despite the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, this Anderston boy is made of steel and not giving up without a fight. His example, just like his comedy, has much to teach us about life.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.