Hi-Speed England

The route to English democracy may be via its transport system

The OurKingdom Friday essay we publish below is a tour de force by one of the stars of the Blair-Brown years, Andrew Adonis. It is a cogent message to England’s second city. In this it speaks for itself and is fascinating. But I asked if we could publish it for an addition reason.

On 5 May Scotland and Wales have elections for their parliaments. Slowly, national forces are reshaping the United Kingdom - to the discomfort of the British political classes marooned in Westminster. As everyone knows there is something missing. There is an elephant that is not in the room, England.

Is it gaining a substantial existence? When those Westminster politicians look out of their windows, aware that they are the inhabitants of a hated bubble, they see Londoners on Boris bikes, traffic that is paying Ken’s congestion charge, commuters with Oyster cards. These are the popular and effective products of another devolution: to a London executive headed by a Mayor. Because of the decline of Britain and the weakness of England, London thinks of itself as another country. But by developing a rhythm and a politics of its own it is showing England the way.

This was the thought that struck me when I read the Adonis lecture. He calls on Birmingham to back three things: a directly elected mayor, the plans for a high-speed rail network and academy schools. I’m not going to write about the schools. The need for a Mayor is clear. I want to focus on Adonis’s call for high-speed rail.

I support English democracy. If there was Council for England it would support radical decentralisation because this is a country of very distinct voices and self-awareness, from Cornwall to Yorkshire but especially in its cities. If all the great cities had Mayors and if those Mayors were to meet as a Council this alone would be a match for the House of Commons on domestic issues. But our cities need to be connected - and to feel themselves to be connected. This is where the proposed high-speed rail network comes in as you will see from Adonis’s argument. It will give the country a centre in the way that the Victorians failed to.

The main media coverage on High-Speed rail it is almost all completely negative. A recent example is the Financial Times report by Robert Wright on 11 march on why the government must re-think its plans. It reports the voice from the Chilterns and shows the countryside lobby at its most effective. The argument against was also set out with pungent, sweeping conviction in one of his classic columns by Peter Oborne, who called on Cameron to do the decent thing and change his mind.

Oborne writes from the point of view of a Londoner (“In order to reach central Birmingham in 49 minutes”). He seems unaware of the journey times into greater London that would be halved thanks to the connection to Crossrail which Adonis details. The England Oborne defends, as in the FT, is the England of the Chilterns, “The trains will whistle past some of the loveliest villages in England: homes are expected to be demolished in Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire and Lower Thorpe in Oxfordshire.” The whole project for high-speed rail is described as “a scar across the heart of England”.

The England being defended here is the village idyll in easy driving distance of London and Heathrow full of second homes owned by people in the financial services who earn their living dicing up the real assets of England into derivatives. So long as this version of ‘the country’ defines England politically and controls investment in its infrastructure there will never be democracy in England.

I have my disagreements with Adonis. But the case that he sets out for High-Speed rail does something profoundly important and welcome. It takes the voice and authority of power and centres it in Birmingham. It may be for bad reasons, but the English do not want what they see as 'yet another parliament'. Those who do want one for good reasons need to get some substance into the cause. Perhaps there will be no better way of achieving this than by successfully campaigning for a network of high-speed rail.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy