Political history, as is perhaps inevitable, tends to be written by the politicians rather than civil servants, so it was refreshing to hear an interview including both Alistair Darling, the former Chancellor, and Nick Macpherson, former permanent secretary, on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday night.
It was timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the run on the Northern Rock, but the most interesting revelation wasn’t about the financial crisis but about HS2. Macpherson spoke, needless to say, in impeccably Sir Humphrey-esque language but was no less deadly than that.’We’re far better at doing incremental stuff with the railways,’ he said, adding: ‘Frankly, doing stuff in Northern England is politically as well as economically imperative, rather than making it easier to come from Birmingham to London. HS2 was a political decision and I think it would be inappropriate for me to reveal the Treasury advice on the issue.’
For that, you can read: George Osborne wanted HS2 very much against the advice of his officials. Osborne saw a high-speed railway as a way of increasing the Tories’ appeal in the North, while his officials saw it as a vanity project which would bring far less benefit than smaller-scale improvements. Osborne pushed HS2 because he wanted to be able to boast that Britain had the fastest railway in the world (in spite of its geography not justifying that).
It is bizarre that the government has now cancelled electrification projects across the North of England, so that Trans-Pennine services will continue to be provided with dirty diesel trains (conflicting with its announcement of a ban on new diesel cars from 2040), while pushing ahead with a 225 mph railway between Manchester, Leeds and London.
It doesn’t make much economic sense, but, as Macpherson questioned, does it even make political sense? Build a fast railway from north to south while simultaneously ignoring commuter services in the North and you send a pretty powerful message to northerners: go south, young man. That’s where the big opportunities are. If it is all supposed to be about boosting the North why is so much of the budget allocated to rebuilding Euston station.
HS2 is really designed around ministers’ lifestyles: it enables them to travel to the North to make an announcement, cut a ribbon or close a factory, and still be back at Westminster in time to vote and have a subsidised dinner. Meanwhile, the public transport which Londoners take for granted continues to be denied to the North.