The Victorians were visionaries. They were the first to see the potential of rail travel, and they lost no time in building a countrywide network. They didn’t have local council planning committees to contend with, or environmental lobbies to counter.
Since then, Britain has been late to the party in almost every area of transport. Our first motorway opened more than 20 years after the Germans built the first autobahn. We’ve spent 30 years chuntering about a new hub airport to replace Heathrow and we’re no nearer to finding a solution. The only truly visionary project to be completed in the last half a century is the Channel Tunnel.
Now, in the case of HS2, it appears that we are so late that we shouldn’t even bother.
High speed rail came to this country decades after it arrived in Japan and France, and while HS1 – the line from London to the Tunnel – has been successful (despite outrageously high ticket prices), the business case for HS2 is collapsing before our very eyes. I had always been in favour of the scheme, but the pandemic has made its weakness all too transparent.
Eighteen months ago, few of us had heard of Zoom or any of the other video conferencing platforms. Now many people use them routinely. Technology has slashed business travel both internationally and domestically, while the rail network in general has struggled to recover, to the extent that it has needed several taxpayer bailouts.
So why not call a halt to HS2 altogether and relish the cheering that would be heard from one end of the Chilterns to the other? Simple. Billions have already been spent. These are known as “sunk costs” which are irretrievable. So far the “sunk costs” total an eye-watering £10 billion.
This week, the Government is expected to announce the scrapping of the eastern section of HS2 linking Birmingham and Leeds, instead promising to spend money on better local rail links. There will be howls of outrage from MPs and council leaders but if they examine the detail it is clear it would take too long for the benefits of the eastern spur to become apparent. If only we could be so clear-sighted about the rest of HS2.
When Alok Sharma was shunted out of the Business Department into the presidency of Cop26, most commentators assumed that it was the political equivalent of being put out to pasture. Instead, his charm, tact and diplomacy have won him admirers not just across the political spectrum in the UK, but also across the world.
The Cop26 deal was not perfect but it was probably the best achievable, and that was in no small part down to Sharma. He’s still got another year in the post, but then the Prime Minister faces a tricky decision – what to do with “No Drama Sharma”? In any normal government, in my view, he ought to be in contention to be foreign secretary, but this is no normal government.
My new book, The Presidents, is published on Thursday. It contains 45 essays by 45 different contributors on the 45 US presidents since 1789. One of the quirks of US politics is that each of them has a presidential library, which are both tourist attractions and research facilities. I’ve been to three – Kennedy, Nixon and Reagan – and am planning a tour of the rest.
I’ve often wondered why there are no such buildings in this country. Even Winston Churchill doesn’t have one. Plans have been afoot for some time to house a Margaret Thatcher Library at the University of Buckingham, and substantial amounts of money have been pledged, but apart from a small museum devoted to Lloyd George in Llanystumdwy there are precious few institutions designed to commemorate our prime ministers.
In the US the libraries are funded by philanthropy. We don’t have that tradition here to the same extent. Perhaps it’s time for someone to start a UK Prime Ministerial Library. Anyone got a spare £10 million or so? Just a thought.