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27 November 2013

HS2 is more than transport, it’s a lifestyle choice

High–speed rail makes England both smaller and bigger – smaller journeys, leading to a wider range of lifestyle choices. That is progress.

By Ed Smith

The invitation “Let me take you on a journey” is overused to the point of exhaustion. But bear with me, just this once. For this journey is both literal and metaphorical: a single journey from one place to another, a wider journey within this columnist’s life, and also a fork in the road for the country as a whole.

This past week, I travelled by train from east Kent to Manchester, where I was visiting the BBC studios in Salford. The two legs of the trip – from Ashford International to London St Pancras, then from Euston to Manchester – told a stark tale of two rail systems. I recommend the journey to anyone who doubts the value and potential of high-speed rail.

The experience of the first leg is easily measured; I arrived in London, just 34 minutes after leaving Kent, in improved spirits. I’d not wasted a moment of time or an ounce of energy worrying about the train being late. The “Javelin” is almost never delayed, running 99.7 per cent on time. The experience matches the punctuality. It is clean and neither cold nor (much the more common problem) grossly overheated. And because it provides a civilised atmosphere, most people on it behave in a civilised way. The first rule of sociology is that people generally rise to the level expected of them.

It is also fast. By the time I had finished one article in my newspaper, we were halfway to London. Travelling next to the motorway, I glanced at drivers on the M20 and felt deep sympathy for such an inferior mode of transport. It would take them three or four times as long to arrive in London. Them: hunched over a driving wheel, forced to concentrate; me: reading and daydreaming while staring out of the window.

HS1 has also changed my attitude towards the landscape of north Kent. Although I grew up only a few miles away, I never felt any affection for the marshy flatlands of the Medway. Now, watching the morning light fall on the wet grasslands, I can see a kind of beauty, though not prettiness. Far from vulgarising the land, rail has enhanced my respect for it.

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Arriving at St Pancras, I felt part of a crowd yet not harassed, sharing the satisfying feeling of collective urgency without the manic anxiety that accompanies overcrowding and lateness. Treacly espresso from an independent coffee company reminded me how much King’s Cross has changed. Fifteen years ago, when I used to catch the train to Cambridge, the area was home to prostitutes and cheap nightclubs. Now it boasts Google, piccolo coffees and my favourite hotel in London. None would have come to King’s Cross without HS1.

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The feeling of efficient movement across the country did not last long. The train from Euston to Manchester was filthy, late and depressing in every respect. The sweltering airconditioning lightly baked the layers of compacted Burger King wrappers on the carriage floor. I longed to be in my car. We crawled northwards with unconvincing decelerations and pauses, like a drunk staggering towards the bar for one drink too many. It is, after all, well past closing time for this ancient piece of railway. A 21st-century network has been superimposed on Victorian infrastructure. Eventually, as every engineer knows, replastering walls no longer makes any difference; you have to sort out the foundations.

That was one unscientific anecdote. Let me add another. This time a life, and not just a single day, is transformed by high-speed rail. Six months ago – with a first child about to arrive and longing for space to think and write – my wife and I moved from west London to east Kent. The Schlegel in me wanted a house we could fall in love with, something as different as possible from our London life; the Mr Wilcox in me knew we had to be within about an hour of central London. Before HS1, it was almost impossible to find that combination in the south-east.

Not now. We live in a tiny hamlet overlooking the North Downs between Canterbury and Folkestone. In mood and atmosphere, it is as remote a place as I’ve ever visited in the south-east. And yet I can travel from my writing desk to King’s Cross in under an hour. That makes England both smaller and bigger – smaller journeys, leading to a wider range of lifestyle choices. That is progress.

The row about HS2 usually descends into a disagreement about “profitability”, as though a profit-loss spreadsheet can completely capture the debate. I don’t think it can. Will the accountants’ projections register every newspaper bought, every petrol station visited, every tradesman paid, every lunch bought? The essential goods and services I used to buy in west London, I now buy in east Kent. That’s good for Kent; I don’t think Notting Hill is feeling the pinch.

Will the profit-loss spreadsheet capture the urban regeneration at both ends of the train line? When I played cricket for Kent ten years ago, Canterbury was a sleepy backwater. Now it is marrying old-world charm with a sense of young vibrancy. Whitstable, Deal and Folkestone are unrecognisable from the towns where I played junior cricket as a teenager.

Here my journey ceases to be personal and becomes national. If high-speed rail can do this to east Kent, what can it do for Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds? Everyone agrees that Britain is too focused on London. That will never change if London remains the only tolerably connected city. Above all, proper public transport has a long-term social function. It is something that everyone shares, a mode of collective experience. The car cuts the other way. Driving up and down the country in hermetically sealed, solitary comfort reinforces the victory of gated suburbia over urban regeneration.

HS2 is about money only up to a point. It also asks a simpler question: what kind of country do we want to be?

  1. Politics
7 November 2013

John Major’s late popularity shows that it’s better to be underrated than overrated

Just as guilt inspires the upward reassessment of Major’s reputation, so embarrassment drives the downward revision of Blair’s – the embarrassment of the sucker.

By Ed Smith

Reputational overshoot cuts both ways. Giddily inflated reputations are revised downwards with vengeful enthusiasm; public lives shredded by contemporary judgments benefit from history’s guilty reassessment. It is riskier to be overrated than underrated just ask John Major and Tony Blair.

Last month Major delighted the media with a bravura performance at a press lunch in parliament. Did he regret describing Eurosceptic ministers as bastards? “It was absolutely unforgivable. My only excuse is that it was true.” He had an elegant slap for Norman Tebbit: “There’s no point in telling people to get on their bike if there’s nowhere to live when they get there.” And for the Tory right in general – “All the core vote delivers is the wooden spoon.” The substance of his speech, proposing a profits tax on energy firms, was scarcely the point. The lunch was the culmination of the restoration of his reputation.

In truth, Major’s measured and affable public appearances since leaving office are a small part of this story; it probably would have happened anyway. Major could have turned up last month and read out the cricket scores (which he doubtless had at his fingertips) and the gallery would have rushed to praise him. For the cause of the current boom in his standing is not the present but the past. Guilt – surely that is what many pundits (and voters) feel about their treatment of Major when he was prime minister.

He was a victim of the way the market for news and opinion operates. Once a public figure is judged to be inept, the easiest way for a journalist to carve out a space in his professional marketplace is to exaggerate that negative assessment. No one wants to read about “an effectual prime minister” when another piece describes him as “disastrous” and another still as “the worst in living memory”. Before long the term “hapless” is attached to everything he does, a magnet that attracts any scrap of floating negative gossip. Criticism, like praise, is self-radicalising.

The morning after losing the 1997 election, on 2 May, Major visited the Oval cricket ground to watch a county match. I was playing. Despite his humiliation at the polls, he visited both dressing rooms, chatting courteously with all of us. He looked shattered but also relieved, even oddly assured.

At that exact moment, Tony Blair was en route to Buckingham Palace amid crazed enthusiasm. This was a following breeze that could propel almost anyone. Perhaps that was the problem. Consider Blair’s position today. Just as every voguish cliché was once greeted with credulous enthusiasm, even the mention of Blair’s name inspired boos and hisses at the 2011 Labour party conference. His lucrative speech deals are mocked, the propriety of his business consultancies questioned. Blair’s few remaining allies are now mostly on the interventionist right, which is ironic, given that Blair dedicated a whole conference speech in his heyday to the idea that conservatism was inherently and irredeemably immoral.

Once again, whatever the rights and wrongs of Blair’s choices since leaving office, the real animus is deeper-seated. How did we fall for it? How did we allow ourselves to be duped, charmed and flattered? Just as guilt inspires the upward reassessment of Major’s reputation, so embarrassment drives the downward revision of Blair’s – the embarrassment of the sucker. Maybe the present revision has already gone far enough and there will soon come a time when even those who never fell for Blair will feel compelled to say, “Hang on, surely even Blair doesn’t quite deserve this treatment?”

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The wider point, however, is that any public figure should guard against being too highly regarded. For once, humility and shrewd strategy are aligned: try to keep your reputation just below where it might ascend if left unchecked.

Andrew Strauss, the former England cricket captain, scored ten Test hundreds in his first 30 matches, a strike rate that placed him among the game’s highest class. Yet at his peak in 2005, I remember Strauss telling me that the praise being heaped on him was “ridiculous”. By carefully undercutting the initial reputational overshoot, he avoided the subsequent criticism that he “underachieved” as a Test batsman when his stellar early form inevitably levelled off.

The same balanced self-awareness explains why the Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who wrote acclaimed books on Afghanistan and Iraq, is now spending much of his time talking about deeply unglamorous issues such as rural broadband. Realising he was singled out as a “rising star” as soon as he entered the House – a highly risky label – he is now trying to avoid an overexcitable rise and fall. The less I hear Stewart quoted unnecessarily, the more seriously I rate his long-term prospects.

Bob Dylan was called a prophet, a revolutionary, a hero to the oppressed and the voice of generation. His response? “I’m just a song and dance man.” Graham Greene drew a distinction between his fully fledged novels and mere “entertainments”, which he did not want to be judged by literary standards. In downgrading them himself, Greene removed the opportunity for critics to do so.

You will have spotted the central difference between politicians and other public figures. Where athletes and entertainers achieve popularity by default, as a by-product of being good at something else, popularity is hard-wired into the structure of professional politics.

How, then, can a politician avoid reputational overshoot while remaining good at his job? Perhaps the answer is to distinguish between two kinds of popularity: the necessary and the self-indulgent. A politician who wants to be rated over the long term should seek just enough popularity to provide power and a mandate – but no more than that.

Ed Smith’s latest book is “Luck: a Fresh Look at Fortune “(Bloomsbury, £8.99)