Posts Tagged ‘Potter’s Bar’

Privatised Railways and the Failure of Popular Capitalism

March 23, 2015

One of the Ed Miliband’s election promises has been to renationalise parts of the rail network. As recent polls found, most of the population of this country would like to see the utilities returned to public ownership, including the railways. They’ve been marred with poor service and overcharging since they were first privatised by John Major back in the early 1990s. To make matters worse, the railways are receiving far more in government subsidies than they were when they were nationalised. The British public are paying through the nose for a worse service.

Anthony Sampson discusses the massive failure of the privatised railways in his book, Who Runs This Place: The Anatomy of Britain in the 21st Century. The book examines and describes how Britain has become less democratic, with politicians, government officials and industrialists more remote and unaccountable. He devotes nearly two pages to the privatisation of the railways, pp. 289-90, in which he states

The most disastrous of the privatisations was the last, British Rail, which was also the most visible to the public. Margaret Thatcher had shrewdly resisted selling it off, but John Major weakly gave in to pressure from bankers, and went ahead in 1996. The selling off of the vast railway network was devised by the Treasury to maximise the short-term gains, and was masterminded by Sir Steven Robson. The stations and the 23,000 miles of track would be run by a national company, Railtrack, while separate operating companies would buy and run the trains in different regions. The old railway managers were soon demoted: the chairman of Railtrack was Sir Robert Horton, who had just ben fired as chief executive of the oil company BP; and he chose as chief executive a finance director, Gerald Corbett, who had risen through Dixons shops, Redland cement, and Grand Metropolitan drinks. the track maintenance was delegated to private contractors.

By 2001 the whole railway system was in serious danger. Corbett was out of his field and Horton was in ill-health; he was succeeded by Sir Philip Beck, chairman (like his father) of the Mowlem construction company, whose experience came from the controversial Docklands Light Railway. The lack of effective accountability became tragically clear after a succession of train crashes, which revealed scandalous lack of supervision. The crash at Potters Bar was blamed on careless maintenance by the subcontractors Jarvis, whose chief operating officer blamed sabotage, of which no evidence emerged; he was then promoted to chief executive. The trail of accountability ended up in the sidings of a secretive private company.

The government at last intervened, withdrew support from Railtrack, thereby bankrupting it, and created a new non-profit company, Network Rail, chaired by Ian McAllister, the former chairman of Ford in Britain, with an engineer John Armitt as chief executive. The environment secretary Stephen Byers, who had responsibility for transport, resigned, and was succeeded by the Scot Alistair Darling, and Darling extended the government’s role in July 2004 when he abolished the independent Strategic Rail Authority – which had been created only four years earlier – and took over most of its functions.

The operating companies, which had been only granted short franchises, were more interested in quick profits than long-term planning, and most boards had little experience of railways. South West Trains was acquired by the bus company Stagecoach, built up by the combative Scots entrepreneur Brian Souter and his sister Ann Gloag, which the Monopolies Commission had earlier accused of behaviour that was ‘predatory, deplorable and against the public interest’. They made a new fortune by selling rolling-stock, and bought the magnificent Beaufort Castle in Scotland; but they soon made rash investments in America which brought down their shares and limited their investment in British trains. West Coast Trains was bought by Virgin, run by Sir Richard Branson whose background was in airlines and pop music. South Eastern and South Central trains were run by Vivendi, the French conglomerate which soon hopelessly overextended its empire, from water to Hollywood. The Great North-Eastern (GNER) was owned by the Bermuda-based company Sea Containers, controlled by its American founder-president Jim Sherwood.

The privatising of the network had undermined much of the traditional British pride in railways. The separate regional traditions and hierarchies of engine-drivers, signalmen and stationmasters were swept aside by the cuts and constraints imposed by accountants and financial directors at headquarters. Many of the cutbacks were necessary if the companies were to be made viable; but the upheavals in the operating companies and the collapse of Railtrack had left few people who understood how railways really worked.

The privatisation of the railways failed because the franchises were short-term, and the firms that bought them thus only interested in making a quick buck. They had no knowledge or experience of running railways, and refused to accept responsibility for the disasters and horrendous crashes that occurred. Margaret Thatcher herself recognised that privatising them would be a bad idea, but it clearly wasn’t bad enough to dissuade Britain’s bankers.

As a result, Blair’s government had to extend government power over the privatised railways, even though New Labour was enthusiastically pro-privatisation. Ed Miliband’s planned re-nationalisation of parts of the rail network will thus undoubtedly be an improvement.

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Quentin Letts on the Special Advisors

March 19, 2014

Quentin Letts pic

Quentin Letts on what looks suspiciously like Have I Got News For You.

Mike in his piece over at Vox Political on Osborne’s budget reported on the Chancellor’s double standards regarding public sector pay. This was to be kept low, while at the same time the government’s Special Advisors were to be given a 40 per cent pay rise. The Daily Fail’s parliamentary sketch writer, Quentin Letts, has a few things to say about them in his book, 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain (London: Constable & Robinson 2009). And none of them are complimentary.

They’re in chapter 55 on Harold Wilson, who’s in there for the reason that he created them. Letts says

Wilson was disinclined to do much heavy policy thinking himself. He darkly suspected the civil service of being a Tory conspiracy. He therefore hired others to do his thinkin’ for him. Worse, he had their wages drawn from public funds. Harold Wilson was in some ways a good Prime Minister. He kept us out of the Vietnam War, not least. He was in at least one respect, however, a very bad premier: he created state-paid Special Advisors. (p. 271).

These he describes thus

The Special Advisor is an appointed stooge, an outsider brought into Whitehall by a minister or political party. He or she normally lasts only as long in that department as the minister. Special Advisors are, by their very nature, short-termists. They tend to take decisions which help a minister avoid blame or trouble, usually at the expense of another minister, sometimes merely because the extent of a problem has been temporarily concealed. Special Advisors are antipathetic to openness. Secrecy gives them power. (p. 272).

He notes that under Wilson, Heath and Margaret Thatcher their numbers were low. He states that Maggie

with her keen suspicion of civil service obstinacy, created something of a praetorian guard of policy-thinkers at No. 10 but was never particularly keen on Special Advisors sprouting uncontrolled throughout Whitehall. She preferred her junior ministers to use their brains. She was never quite sure if Special Advisors were ‘one of us’, either. So little time. So many colleagues to monitor for signs of disloyalty. What an exhausting life she must have led. (ibid)

It was under John Major, who gave Cabinet Ministers rather more departmental freedom to form governmental policy with a greater degree of success, that the ‘Spads’ came into their own. And one of them is the honourable gentleman (and I use the term loosely) now running the country.

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David Cameron: a former government Special Advisor, of the type who were given a 40 per cent pay rise today. AS they aren’t actually Civil Servants, this is another example of the government paying massive subsidies to the government contracted private sector.

Special advisors became more self-confident. Arrogant youths, many of them, they would strut into newspaper offices a pace or two to the side of their bosses, dispensing business cards and massaging their own reputations. One of them, you will recall, was called David Cameron. Special Advisors started to become more prominent socially. They became better known as sources of press stories. They overtook backbenches MPs in the unspoken table of political importance. (pp. 272-3)

He then attacks the way the number of Special Advisors massively expanded under Tony Blair, so that by 2002 there were 81 of them. His ire is not so much about the money spent paying them, but on their corruption of the governmental system.

The many millions spent on their salaries may be irksome – a symbol of the waste and the stroking of the political cadre – but it was wee buns compared to the billions blown on other inessential parts of the public sector, often on the say of, yes, Special Advisors. And even more damaging was the way these Special Advisors corrupted our political system. Since the later years of the nineteenth century the British Civil Service had been a professional body. That is to say, it offered recruits a career of serious service. Entrance to the profession was possible only after rigorous examination and interview procedures. Civil servants were schooled to regard the nation as their employer. They worked for the long-term good of the country, the community, not for the good of whichever politician happened to be in power at any one time. G.M. Trevelyan, historian, wrote that the merit-baed entrance procedures to the civil service removed it ‘from the field of political jobbery’. Favouritism, nepotism and nudge-nudge-wink-winkism were trumped by measurable ability. These values slowly percolated to other parts of society. It wasn’t a bad way to run a country, you know. (p. 274).

He is particularly incensed at the way the were used by Tony Blair as part of his carefully stage-managed events, and that two of them, Jonathan Powell and Alistair Campbell, were given executive rights over permanent secretaries.

Letts has a particularly rosy view of the impartiality and efficiency of the British civil service. Sadly, experience has not always backed this up. Civil Servants are indeed required, under their terms of service, to provide ministers with impartial advice. I’ve no doubt that in many cases this is true. But not nearly in as many cases as we’d like. One of the reasons the railways are in the horrendous state they are in today, is because one particular senior civil servant, who was named in Private Eye, was a passionate enthusiast of free-market capitalism, with the result that they were privatised. The result is poor service, increasingly bloated subsidies for the rail companies, and the administrative chaos that led to several serious disasters like Potter’s Bar. These were particularly reprehensible because of the way the victims were denied justice and compensation for years afterwards as each company passed the buck from one to the other.

As a Daily Mail journo, Letts is, of course, a man of the Right, and has cause his fair share of offense writing for an offensive newspaper. He appeared a little while ago defending their attack on Ralph Milliband, Ed Milliband’s father, a Jewish refugee, who fought courageously for this country against Nazi Germany while Lord Rothermere wrote admiring pieces about how wonderful Adolf was. Still, Letts does have a point. The civil service is still required in theory to give impartial advice. The Special Advisors, with which the government has surrounded itself are under no obligation to do so. Indeed, quite the opposite. The government’s policy are all drawn from various loony right-wing think tanks, who tell the government exactly the type of Neoliberal rubbish they want to hear. The result is policies like today’s budget: cuts and privatisation for the poor, tax cuts for the rich. And 40 per cent pay rises for the Spads. Well, David Cameron was one of them, and so it really is a case of Osborne giving money to people exactly like himself. It demonstrates the very narrow class loyalties of the Coalition exactly.