Opinion: Government is at its best when it’s boring

If Alistair Darling had ever walked into the pub when I was pulling pints, I would have thrown him out on his ear for introducing the now deceased beer escalator.

Now I find myself applauding him. What he said today about High Speed 2 and transport policy was probably bad politics, but it is exceedingly good government.

Darling told the Times and the Today programme that HS2 is too expensive and the money could be better spent. Hurrah! I have long argued the environmental and economic credentials of this Tonka toy project do not stack up. But he also said something far more important: “Transport, rather like banking, is at its best when it is boring.”

Let me expand on that. I believe that government is at its best when it is boring. The careful adjustment of policy, which at its best is a crude tool, ought to be the goal of every government. Eye catching initiatives should be a rarity.

In transport, Darling has it spot on when he says the money for HS2 might be better spent investing in existing lines and northern cities (I might add that rural areas would benefit from a spot of cash too). We need a lot of incremental and localised improvements. Of course, many of these improvements will too small to be spotted from Westminster, but they would be much more effective and achievable that the grand vanity of high speed rail.

High Speed 2 is not alone among government schemes that seem more about demonstrating that ministers are “doing something” than solving real problems.

But hang on. If government was to concentrate on the boring rather than the eye-catching, where would that leave ministers? What would occupy Michael Gove if he was told he had to improve the existing education system rather reconstruct it? What would Eric Pickles do in the summer if he could not issue missives on bins and parking enforcement?

The logic of Darling’s argument is that dull government is good government. I concur. A government in which very little happened and where everything got better is my ideal. It’s not good for politics though. Could any party get elected with a manifesto that promised gradual, incremental improvements? I doubt it.

Despite this, I am attracted to the idea of dull, effective government, however politically unreal that might be. And suddenly I find myself an Alistair Darling fan – though I still doubt I’d buy him a pint of overtaxed beer if he strolled into the pub.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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25 Comments

  • Tony Dawson 23rd Aug '13 - 3:47pm

    “government is at its best when it is boring”

    This should have been tattooed on the foreheads of Pickles, Lansley and Gove on the first day of the Coalition. Sadly, they have been allowed to bring in a succession of silly costly (politically as well as financially) measures for the satisfaction of nothing but their egos. 🙁

  • Peter Davies 23rd Aug '13 - 5:13pm

    The Government is not putting all its eggs in one basket. The trouble with all those boring value-for-money rail improvements is that nobody seems to notice that they have been given the go-ahead. Leaving out HS2, the current government term will see more rail improvements than the thirteen Labour years.

  • Clear Thinker 23rd Aug '13 - 5:30pm

    I disagree strongly with this title. I suggest instead:

    > Boring Government Leads to Absent Oversight Which Leads to Corruption
    > Best Government is Accessible, Understandable, and Interesting
    > Best Government is Necessarily Controversial

    Society contains or consists of groups which compete with each other for resources, power, etc. Best government somehow modulates the competitions in a way which optimizing some or many measures of benefit, and all such modulations are likely to be controversial. Perhaps the beer escalator is one aspect of that!

  • Cllr David Becket 23rd Aug '13 - 7:09pm

    Alistair Darling is right. On a working party for my Council on HS2 I have gone from neutral to totally opposed. There is an opportunity for Liberals to propose alternatives that will produce economic benefit now, not in the distance future. Alternatives that will have far less environmental impact. We have a long way to go when you hear the rubbish produced by Danny Alexander on TV tonight.

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Aug '13 - 9:59pm

    Oh dear, now we have a load of ignorant moaning minnies queueing up here to join the fashionable mainly right-wing rubbishing of HS2. A few points.

    (1) Anyone who thinks that the money for HS2 would be spent elsewhere on the railways (let alone in the northern cities) if the project was scrapped is in cloud cuckoo land. As Peter Davies says, the amount being investe d in the railways other than HS2 under this government is at record levels and there is no reason to think it will not continue. (And let’s be clear – if HS2 was scrapped and the money improbably diverted to other railway projects, they would be in London and the SE (Crossrail 2 is lurking in the wings!)

    (2) Let us remember that the half-hearted upgrade of less than half of the West Coast Main Line (WCML) cost around £9 billion with massive disruption to services while it was happening. If you assume at least the same would be needed on both the East and West Coast routes to the North of England and more up to Scotland you are probably talking of £25 billion and for what end result? Apart from capacity there is a real problem that those two routes together do not go where a modern railway is needed in England, connecting all the major cities. (Neither route goes through Birmingham or Manchester for instance). Neither provide a top quality service from the NE to the SW – HS2 will provide the spine of this for future extension.

    (3) Both the WCML and ECML are now close to capacity just for passenger traffic. The potential for extra freight traffic is nil. All the time there are efforts to eke out incremental improvements by removing bottle-necks, better junctions and signalling etc, but it’s just that -incremental. What is needed is a once and for all significant increase in capacity. Only HS2 can provide that.

    (4) There is a real demand for better services to and from London (and other places on and via the ECML and WCML) from a lot of places – Blackpool and Shrewsbury have just been refused by the Office of Rail Regulation due to lack of capacity – other places are such as Lincoln, Cleethorpes, Middlesbrough, Bradford, Harrogate, many others. There is also a need for more trains on some fo the intermediate stations on both routes which at present cannot be catered for due to the delays that stops cause (and therefore less capacity on the route). These genuine and legitimate demands can only be catered for by removing some of the existing traffic from ECML and WCML on to HS2.

    (5) It is clear that the impetus of HS2 in the North and E and W MIdlands will be to stimulate significant improvements in services in those regions which will connect into HS2.

    (6) The shorter times on London-Birmingham journeys (which were foolishly trumpeted by HS2 promoters in the early days) are largely irrelevant. But when you get to Manchester or Leeds or Preston or Newcastle (via HS2 even if not all the way) they start to be significant. Already the railways have destroyed internal air traffic between London and Manchester. HS2 will do the same to traffic to and from Glasgow and Edinburgh in due course.

    One final point for the moment (I could go on but won’t!) How is it that almost every other country in Europe either has a HS network or is building at a furious rate . How is it that China is building high speed lines all over the place, and it’s even happening in California! Just because something is ambitious and exciting and costs money does not mean it is wrong. HS2 is one of the best things the Coalition is doing, and it’s been solid Liberal Democrat policy for over a decade.

    Tony Greaves

  • Clear Thinker 23rd Aug '13 - 10:53pm

    Hello, Tony Greaves, I see you are on fighting form again. It is just a little teansy weansy bit rude to call people moaning minnies. Moaning is fine, my wife does it all the time, but “minnies” ? I wonder if that reflects a characteristics of your good self more than of the people you target?

    Don’t get me wrong, I like HS2, I want HS2, maybe I’ll even buy a bit if it’s available, but I also like clarity – as indeed you might have guessed from my name. I see no clarity in your prediction of demand. On the contrary, I see a future in which much business will be done by the high speed broadband rather than the high speed train.

    Perhaps you could elucidate?

  • Tony Greaves 23rd Aug '13 - 11:28pm

    I see that a person who hides behind a pseudonym is calling for “Clear Thinking”. How about being clear about who you are and what position you hold in or around the Liberal Democrats.? If you are not prepared to debate here on the basis of personal honesty I have nothing to say to you.

    Tony Greaves

  • Clear Thinker 23rd Aug '13 - 11:42pm

    Tony, dearest, that would the response of someone who has nothing to say, preiod. Is there demand or isn’t there?

  • peter tyzack 24th Aug '13 - 12:50am

    Tony, I agree with all your points, and especially about critics hiding behind pseudonyms.
    But the debate about investments such HS2 always revolves around ‘ooh, isn’t it a lot of money’ and the humble reader thinks of their own monthly income and bills. We need to see it, not as ‘the pound in your pocket or purse’ but as the government using its powers to drive the economy, putting the numbers in to make commerce and industry turn. All that money goes into making components and equipment, paying for materials and, above all, the wages of the workers who then spend it on their homes and their families. It certainly isn’t wasted. ‘Money makes the world go around’ and it is part of the function of government to make its part of the world turn as it should.

  • Geoffrey Payne 24th Aug '13 - 7:01am

    This discussion has become split into what we think about HS2 and “boring government”. This post is about boring government. I think the best governments have brought in old age pensions, universal suffrage, the NHS and the welfare state. The worst governments have brought in war in Iraq,light touch regulation of the City and the bedroom tax. None of which can be described as boring. Boring is only best when the alternative is worse.

  • Congratulations Alastair Darling. HS2 is an inappropriate investment, with at best a very low rate of return. Sorry that your intervention came too late for me to nominate you for the best Labour MP award … anyhow I have nominated Margaret Hodge and Alam Johson (for the Tories David Davies and Sarah Wollaston).

  • Tony Greaves 24th Aug '13 - 1:08pm

    The purpose of building HS2 and developing a high speed rail network in the UK beyond HS2 is not primarily about the economy in a narrow sense. It’s about the kind of transport system we want this country to have, serving all parts of the country.

    It’s interesting that none of the critics of what I wrote above have challenged any of the substantive points I have made.

    As for “demand”, there is for instance a clear demand for through rail services between Blackpool and London which Virgin have recognised. There are problems in meeting their request to run such services due to congestion on the WCML. And that is now.

    The clear alternative to building HS2 is building more road capacity. This is far more intrusive than a new railway which takes up about a quarter of the width of a motorway and is vastly less polluting on site. But of course a lot of the people leading the anti-HS2 campaign want more big roads (and widening of existing ones).

    There is also a spate of silly oppositon to HS2 from people who want their pet local railway and transport schemes to go to the top of the queue (recently in the NW people wanting a railway service to Skelmersdale, and the Colne-Skipton link reinstated – the latter dear to my heart). It’s just too easy to say “don’t spend X billions on HS2 when a few millions will do the job here. Such arguments are self-evidently silly but there we are.

    Finally the figures . As Nigel Harris pointed out, most of the increase in the Treasury estimate from £30odd billion to £42 billion consisted of a change in rules that the Treasury applied to accounting for the project (notably a lot more contingency – which may not be stupid). It was not an actual increase in things that had already been measured.

    The IEA figure of £70 billion has been exposed as just bogus. But since lazy journalists don’t understand numbers or don’t make the effort to do so…

    Tony

  • John Carlisle 24th Aug '13 - 1:12pm

    Darling is right. Dull/boring government is good government. It does not mean they are not doing anything. Like Toyota or Marriotts or a good hospital things are running smoothly because there is continual assessment of whether what is important is working, systems improvement is a given – with the help of the users, and prevention is the operational policy. None of these is exciting, just as checking tyre pressures, oil and water are not; but they give you and safer, faster and more efficient ride.
    The trouble is we have these kids running the country, who get all enthusiastic about high profile “projects” like HS2 or slashing costs or setting targets or PFI or appointing Police Commisioners. They are imitating many of the Third World governments where schemes are constantly being set up at great expense while the roads, railways, water systems, schools and hospitals all fall into disrepair. (That seems to ring a bell.)
    The third leg of the stool of democracy is efficient public services which affect people’s lives every hour. It is largely this that caused the discontent in Egypt, also South Africa and Brazil. We can expect the same reaction here when the NHS finally falls over.
    Maintenance is probably the most cost -effective area of spend, for any government, as boring as it sounds. Right now the global infrastructure investment needs between 2013 and 2030 will cost over £60 trillion; yes TRILLION. Just maintaining the infrastructure is a big slice of these, e.g. the cost of road congestion in the USA alone is £101 billion, due to poorly maintained roads. Intelligent planned maintenance can save up to £400 billion a year, and double the use of the assets. (McKinsey: Infrastructure Practice report, 2013).This is a huge opportunity for our construction industries, which are people intensive and require a range of skills from manual unskilled to doctoral levels.
    So, yes, let’s have some really boring government, Nick and Dave.

  • Clear Thinker 24th Aug '13 - 1:14pm

    I do like HS2, and experience in France at least suggests that high speed can be very successful and popular (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TGV). Spain seems to use the same tracks for high-speed as for slower trains – can we learn from this? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AVE)

    Creating jobs that results in the creation of useless things doesn’t seem to me like something that helps an economy much – although yes, it re-distributes. But jobs really only help long-term if they add value.

    Some kind of justification for estimated demand really is needed for any project, whether it’s HS2 or Trident – it would be irresponsible to just pick numbers out of the air, or to just think about one’s own demands and ignore those of others. So it would certainly be helpful if Tony or someone else could apply their undoubted intellects to clarifying this issue.

  • Clear Thinker 24th Aug '13 - 1:15pm

    Thanks for your response Tony, which seems to have been even faster than your trains!

  • Clear Thinker 24th Aug '13 - 1:18pm

    … although on reading it I don’t see much hard fact. Just the single assertion about Virgin? Hopefully the government will have commissioned a study somewhere that actually does do a proper assessment, and hopefully this will have been open to debate and challenge somewhere?

  • Tony Dawson 24th Aug '13 - 8:32pm

    It is an unfortunate truism that predictions for large scale infrastructure projects, be they for costs or for demand, are rarely accurate and usually inspired guesswork. That has never stopped sensible governments over the years (local and national) from proceeding with them. Why? Because sensible governments recognise that leaving one’s citizens utilising dark age technology generally puts them at a disadvantage, and tends to do the same to the economy. Banging on about getting people out of cars and onto public transport is not much use when the public transport is slow, and doesn’t go where the potential passengers want to go. So, potentially, there is an element of faith about this.

    However much the internet grows, demand for human movement continues to grow. People like meeting people in the flesh. This is an ‘unfortunate'(sic) consequence of being human, maybe. It is unlikely to change, however. So it is government’s job to deal with this. This project is also dealing with the economic marginalisation of much of the North of England at present due to transport difficulties/delays making the land prices in the South unnecessarily-highly priced (and pressuring the green belt) while encouraging dereliction in the North.

  • Apologies, I made a rather intemperate remark earlier which hasn’t survived moderation. It wasn’t especially rude but it wasn’t particularly appropriate either.

    In short, I am again unimpressed by the contributions from the anonymity police. A shame, as I largely agree with the thrust of their arguments; I just wish they would treat other contributors with more respect – something I can learn too, it seems!

    (But really, is it appropriate to refer to ‘moaning minnies’ who happen to disagree with you, or cast aspersions on Clear Thinker’s intelligence for his/her chosen moniker?)

  • Clear Thinker 25th Aug '13 - 1:29pm

    I agree that the idea of having a fast system can have value, as well as the fact of having the system. The idea can give a person pleasure, even if a person never actually uses the system. And, since the idea can have value, there can a component of demand which is demand for the pleasure that the idea gives. This component increases the magnitude of the demand over and above any demand for actual travel.

    But there’s a problem. How do we measure the value of the idea? How do we compare that aspect of demand with the “cost” in terms of the displeasure of people who have to move their homes and change their ways of life as a result of the fact of a new railway line passing through their back yard? There is value in their way of life too, and so there is demand for that way of life.

    I like the idea that HS2 will “deal with the economic marginalisation of much of the North of England “. But I’d like to understand how this might happen in more detail. A line from A to B might bring riches from A to B, but it could also bring riches from B to A. And in both cases might it also suck riches out of the places between A and B?

    I empathize with the idea that human beings like to meet in the flesh. But can anyone demonstrate that this part of projected future demand will actually materialize. Many of the in-the-flesh business meetings that I attend could be just as easily done via an improved internet, and there’d be a lot less time used up on travel.

    I also like to see on TV the nice restored old railways – the seeing of it gives me pleasure – and those old things can also be pleasurable and educational to visit as a family. I gain pleasure from areas of outstanding natural beauty, even if I never visit them in person. How should we evaluate this? How do we compare this kind of value and demand with the value and demand for a way of life undisturbed by trains hurtling through, and with a way of life that likes to travel fast from A to B, and not bother with what’s in between?

    Why is the idea of having a modern system so much more important than all of the other ideas and pleasures, and indeed facts?

  • I utterly despair of Alistair Darling and anyone who supports him, particularly those in our own party.

    We have fought successfully tooth and nail to get money for a whole host of public transport investment projects, ranging from the Northern Hub to rail electrification and investment in cycling. It is not either/or, and anyone who says it is is creating a false conflict that does not exist.

    Abandoning HS2 now is the kind of short termist, opportunistic politics that is Labour’s worst vice. The fact that there are members of our own party who are prepared to follow Alistair Darling’s route of backing out of long term investment because it might seem a bit difficult or expensive or in some way controversial is quite saddening.

  • Cllr David Becket 27th Aug '13 - 3:02pm

    As there the blog is becoming mixed between boring government and HS2 I will not start a long blog on the issues with HS2. Please consider the following;
    The Cost benefit Ratio
    The weakness of the economic case
    The environmental destruction
    The adverse effect on the many places bypassed (e.g North Staffordshire)
    The sure certainty that London well benefit more than the regions
    The need for economic stimulus now not in 2026/32
    The alternative ways of meeting capacity
    The sense of going for a speed not achieved in Europe, without the long pan Europe distances

    If (big if) an additional line is needed for capacity lets consider a sub 200MPH line, less capital and operational costs, and save some money for improving east west routes and routes between regional centres.

  • Darling is totally right about government being at it’s best when it is being boring – I’m surprised how few LibDem’s remember the Lib-Lab pact of 77-78 when we had 18 months of boring government, but the country and economy did rather well…

    Obviously, the challenge for politicians with being boring, is that they have to focus on delivery rather than just sounding off…

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