Was a political brickbat from the left ever more elegantly lobbed than J.K. Galbraith’s jibe that conservative governments create ‘private affluence and public squalor’? It came to sum up perfectly the feelings of many people towards Britain in the 1980s, when Londoners would step over the homeless as they made their way back to flashy new homes.
It is not an accusation David Cameron cares to risk being levelled at his own Britain. But this (partly) Conservative government is suffering from an equally pernicious problem: pointless, gimmicky public spending. We may be deep in austerity measures, but they seem destined never to reach the sports stadiums, the high-speed rail lines or any other pet public projects. The battle to control public spending is disguising a fascinating pattern whereby cash is increasingly being diverted from the everyday things we all need into Cameron’s vanity projects.
On Monday, the Prime Minister continued a pointless Gordon Brown innovation: holding a cabinet meeting — in private, of course, the minutes not released until New Year’s Eve 2042 — away from Downing Street. Only the photoshoot was public, the venue being chosen purely to show off the Olympic Park. There seems to be no limit to the cash available for the Games. Never mind the recession, David Cameron recently announced a doubling in the budget for the opening ceremony from £40 million to £80 million.
Meanwhile, school sports partnerships — which seek to increase participation in sport among children whose schools, in some cases, have lost their playing fields — have lost all but £47 million of their £162 million funding, and would have lost the lot had it not been for a public outcry. Half an hour of pyrotechnics, in other words, has been put above half a year’s school sports. But then of course there is no glamour in the sight of fat kids puffing their way around a basketball court, not compared with a firework display which promises to out-Beijing Beijing.
There are useful ways in which we could emulate China — such as by lowering unit labour costs — but putting on a better firework display isn’t one of them. Trying to copy a Communist regime’s vanity projects is a sign of deep insecurity among our leaders. And it won’t end with the Olympics. You can tell what is coming next, through the softening of the attitude towards Boris’s island airport: we are going to have to have an airport that is just a little bit bigger and better than Hong Kong’s or Shanghai’s. It won’t be BAA that foots the bill — private finance wouldn’t touch such a vanity project. Once again it will be you and I who bear the cost of building a glass palace from which ministers can fly off in style on their foreign trips. Meanwhile, most of the flying public, through the growth of the budget airlines, will carry on demonstrating how they prefer to fly: from a tin shed, so long as the ticket is cheap.
It’s the same story with high-speed rail. You can bet the PM is already dreaming of following up that Olympic Park photoshoot meeting with Britain’s first 225 mph cabinet meeting — not that he is likely be in office by the time the high-speed line to Birmingham (confirmed this week) is completed. There certainly won’t be any squalor on view when the ministers arrive in Birmingham’s Curzon Street station. The artist’s impression depicts a scene of great public opulence, in stark contrast to the private squalor currently on view all over the city.
HS2 trains will eventually come from Manchester and Leeds, but the business case might as well come from another planet: one in which there is not a budget deficit but rather a large pile of money that must be spent quickly, before it vanishes into thin air. As William Astor notes on the opposite page, the £32 billion estimate put upon the scheme when it was launched by the dying Brown government is already out of date. It seems that David Cameron has sanctioned an extra £500 million on a tunnel in order to prevent the resignation of his Welsh Secretary — who, as befits a Welsh Secretary, sits for Amersham.
The business case for HS2 rests on some preposterous guesswork. It claims to be founded on the assumption that HS2 will tempt London businessmen to invest in the provinces rather than, as is more likely, turn Birmingham and Manchester into commuter suburbs of London. A better mission statement is this: a 225mph train will be a jolly nice way for MPs to get around the country, and feel smug that we have trains that go a few miles per hour faster than the French. HS2 is pure political vanity, with little basis in what rail passengers, let alone taxpayers, actually want. When the public are given a choice between high-speed rail and conventional rail — as in Kent, where high-speed commuter trains now run on the Channel Tunnel rail link, and on a new line in Holland which has had an embarrassingly light number of passengers — they tend to choose cheaper tickets over extra speed.
While billions are committed to HS2, funding for more mundane forms of public transport has been slashed. The £800 million a year spent supporting bus services is being cut by between £200 million and £300 million as the government and councils between them cut the subsidy. Two councils — Cambridgeshire and Hartlepool — have ended all subsidy for bus services. It is no bad thing that the cost of public services be borne by the people who actually use them, but why is the same principle not applied to trains? It is hard to escape the conclusion that the big difference is that ministers see buses as unglamorous vehicles used by schoolchildren, elderly ladies and goofy men in anoraks.
Given a direct choice between having their money spent for them on a fast train or a posh airport, or being allowed to spend it on a little private affluence in their own homes, I think I know how most people in Britain would vote. The trouble is that the government seems determined to make the choice for them.