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HS2 – an artifact of a bygone age

It was meant to be a shining symbol of modern Britain’s place in the world.  In an entirely unintended manner, that’s what it turned out to be.  The dream, born in the age before the 2008 crash called time on modernity, was of a hi-tech, high-speed railway connecting Britain’s northern cities to the Channel Tunnel and the European high-speed rail network beyond.  And it would showcase British technical and engineering prowess for all the world to see.

There was always something of a cargo cult about it though.  The religious belief was that by creating a fast transport link between the ex-industrial North of England and still prosperous London, wealth would magically flow north.  To see how this nonsense works in practice, albeit on a smaller scale, just look at Ebbw Vale and the other upper valleys towns in South Wales, whose local authorities squandered billions of pounds on duel carriageways and new rail links to more prosperous Cardiff and beyond, only to discover that instead of the wealth flowing north, the best qualified people moved south.

Being creatures of narrative – even demonstrably wrong narrative – it has proved impossible for critics to slay the idea that new roads and railways will somehow bring prosperity to places from which prosperity fled for good decades ago.  Perhaps because construction projects of this kind also feed into the Keynesian belief that it is better to pay people to dig holes and then fill them in again than it is to have them wasting away on the dole.  Building a by-pass became a stock promise for politicians of all colours in the decades after the Thatcher government wrecked Britain’s economy… except that back then, Britain enjoyed the oil revenues which paid for it all.  Today there are no oil revenues and foreign investors are increasingly reluctant to lend the UK government this kind of money.

Nor is it any surprise that the HS2 project was born during the New Labour years when, after decades of economic turmoil and political unrest in the 1970s and 1980s, people really wanted to believe that Blair had discovered a “third way” that was neither the dead hand of socialism or free markets red in tooth and claw.  Except, of course, that there was no third way beyond a massive debt-based bubble built on the back of the last flows of oil and gas from the North Sea. 

Nevertheless, in the seemingly affluent conditions of the early years of the new century – with private companies using massive public borrowing to build and refurbish public infrastructure, the possibility of building high-speed rail links between the ex-industrial cities of the North and the HS1 link to the Channel Tunnel and beyond, seemed eminently reasonable.  And so, it fell to Gordon Brown’s ill-fated 2007-2010 government to develop the plans for the project.  Although its final approval was left to an incoming, post-crash Cameron-Clegg coalition concerned to minimise public spending.

Doubts about the value of the project began to surface immediately.  But the political class lacked the backbone either to commit fully or to bring it to an end.  Instead, bits of the project kept getting cut, and only the stretch of line between South Birmingham and the north London suburbs saw any construction – the vague promise being that lines to Manchester and Leeds would follow sometime later.

Almost immediately, the project faced three types of opposition.  First, political figures in Scotland and Wales complained that some of the cost was coming from their budgets despite neither country benefiting.  Second, councillors and MPs in the North pointed out that the main rail issue there was the lack of East-West line capacity, an issue again not resolved by HS2.  Finally, and by far the costliest, opposition came from the Tory shires where people opposed the compulsory purchase of land to make way for the route – the outcome being that more than a third of the route between London and Birmingham is tunnels beneath some of the most expensive housing stock in the UK.

The smart move would have been for the Cameron government to have scrapped the project in 2010.  Not least because, in keeping with the rest of the UK rail network, HS2 would require massive public subsidies – for a service that most of the public couldn’t afford – in perpetuity.  Instead, and in typical British fashion, the project went ahead with all of the attendant graft which accompanies large publicly-funded endeavours, to run over time and well over budget.  As Niall Gooch at UnHerd remarks:

“It has now emerged that yet more parts will be scrapped, including — remarkably — the section between Birmingham and Manchester. It has also been suggested that the London terminus will be Old Oak Common in Ealing, rather than Euston. If this turns out to be correct, we will have paid considerably over £100bn for a link between Birmingham and the west London suburbs. The improvements in capacity that HS2 was meant to deliver for the West Coast, East Coast and Midland Main Lines will be much diminished.

“Cost overruns have been crippling. Huge amounts have gone on consultations and consultants, environmental impact assessments, and all the other paraphernalia of the modern vetocracy. The need to placate Tory voters in the rural south Midlands has meant enormous amounts of expensive tunnelling — nearly half of the entire London to Birmingham route will be underground.

“Almost worse than the disastrous failure to control costs, however, is the lack of vision and managerial competence on show…

“The malaise that surrounds HS2 is far from unique when it comes to modern British infrastructure projects. From nuclear power to housebuilding and all points in between, our government and civil service seem paralysed by the scale of the task of national renewal. There are too many choke points, and too few politicians or administrators with the skill and the courage to overcome them.”

Like manned missions to the moon and commercial supersonic flight, high-speed rail – at least the British version – is a technology for more prosperous times.  But real prosperity in the UK ended some time in the 1970s.  At the time when high-speed rail might have been viable – and when Japan was introducing the first bullet trains – the UK government was engaged in the widespread destruction of its rail network and making the fundamental error of replacing steam locomotives with diesels rather than electric locomotives (something which may be about to come home to roost as global diesel shortages grow).

The reality is that the UK is a failing oil state little different to Venezuela save for the quirks of a longer history and an all too brief period of coal-based industrial power.  Visit any High Street in ex-industrial, rundown seaside, or small-town Britain in 2023, and you can see for yourself what the collapse of a modern economy looks like…  and this is before the recessionary impact of Bank of England rate hikes begin to take effect.

A bigger – and so, far less discussed – issue concerns the gulf which has opened up between the shrinking managerial and salaried classes in the still-prosperous pockets of the top-tier university towns and cities, and the increasingly impoverished masses across the rest of the UK.  Insular and almost entirely self-selecting, the contemporary cultural and political elite – who don’t even believe themselves to be an elite – have become something of a “Death Cult,” pursuing unachievable policy agendas whose costs fall disproportionately on the shoulders of those least able to afford them.  As Marcos Gonzalez Hernando explains:

“Recently, there seem to have been a lot of people like William, in privileged jobs and on six-figure salaries, complaining that they’re ‘struggling’ – including to The TimesThe Independent, the Mail and the Telegraph. Perhaps you recall the BBC Question Time audience member who, weeks before the 2019 general election, couldn’t believe that his salary of over £80,000 made him part of the top 5% of UK earners – despite the UK being a country where almost a third of children live in poverty.

You may instinctively feel little sympathy for these high earners, but don’t let that stop you reading on. Their views and actions should matter to us all. Like it or not, they have disproportionate political influence – representing a large proportion of key decision-makers in business, the media, political parties and academia, not to mention most senior doctors, lawyers and judges.

And in their private lives and behaviour, more and more of this group appear to be turning their backs on the rest of society…”

It is from the imaginations of this class that the chimera of HS2 sprang, and whose hold over the political debate even now causes governments to throw good money after bad, in what James Howard Kunstler called “the psychology of prior investment.”  Having wasted more than £100 billion on the combination of graft and incompetence that is HS2 – enough, by the way, to have paid Chinese engineers (who seem to know how to get things done) to construct three much-needed Hinkley C-type 3.2GW nuclear power stations – and despite the latest review reporting that the scheme is unachievable, the political class seemingly lacks the courage and common sense to let go.

Last winter, as government stepped-in to pay people’s energy bills – without which, energy companies would have been bankrupted in droves – millions of people across the UK had to choose between heating and eating.  Foodbanks – which were barely a thing in 2010 – were being overloaded.  Children were going to school hungry and unwashed, while local medical practices were facing growing strain from the impact of malnutrition.  This winter, with local government across Britain facing technical bankruptcy, and faced with diesel fuel shortages on top of a general energy shortage (which manifests in the UK as high prices) a wave of mortgage and credit card defaults, and a derivatives crash in the so-called “shadow banking” sector, it is hard to imagine many people viewing further spending on HS2 as a top priority.

Insofar as Britain still has some scope to make policy, what happens to an increasingly useless HS2 will stand as a metaphor for economic policy as a whole.  In the event that it goes ahead, we can only conclude that the political class has lost not only its mind but its sense of self-preservation.  But if the whole charade (not just the northern branches) is brought to a halt – ideally with fraud investigations into those who pocketed the money – in favour of measures to shelter the population from the ravages of energy and food shortages which are already washing over us, then we might at least conclude that there is some hope yet for the residents of Versailles-on-Thames.

As you made it to the end…

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