Saturday, 22 July 2017

Reactions to electrification fudge

Railfuture is understandably disappointed:

Wales Online lists more responses here:

I found Alun Cairns' claims that the halt to electrification was actually a great leap forward quite specious. I fail to see what the bi-mode trains have in common with the Shinkansen apart from the country of origin and the vague physical likeness. If this was such an earth-shattering breakthrough, why was it not given full publicity together with an oral statement to the Commons or at least an answer to a planted question? It is almost certain that the decision was made some time ago but delayed until after the election in the hope of saving Conservative seats in south Wales and the Tory campaign in Bridgend. As it is, the attempt to dislodge Madeleine Moon was a dismal failure and they lost Gower. (Stephen Crabb managed to hang on in Preseli and I see he has been rewarded with the airy promise of an improved rail service to Carmarthen and Pembrokeshire.)

Adrian Masters clears the PR fog from what is undoubtedly a cynically broken promise.

Yesterday, it was confirmed that the Severn Bridge tolls will be removed next year. This will be a mixed blessing, and will add weight to the suspicion that the decision to curtail rail improvement is a concession to the road lobby.

Friday, 21 July 2017

When Israel Attacked USS Liberty

There was a fiftieth anniversary on the eighth of last month which I missed, having been occupied with an election at the time. On the 8th June 1967, an Israeli jet and torpedo boats attacked a US warship in the eastern Mediterranean. US naval survivors attested that the pilot could have been in no doubt of the nationality of their ship, as related in Anthony Pearson's 1979 book on the subject, Conspiracy of Silence. Pearson came to no firm conclusion as to the reason for the attack. A common theory was that the Liberty was believed to have picked up Israeli signal communications which indicated military action contrary to international law and in contradiction to Israeli government official statements.

publication in May this year promises to reopen the controversy, using documents released by the Israeli state archives since the Pearson book. The new thesis is that the US president himself was complicit in the attack, which stretches credulity to the limits. It seems to me that, beyond confirming that the Israeli pilot and his immediate operational commander knew that the target was a US ship, the new book adds nothing certain. We shall probably never know the reason.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

Rail electrification: Mrs May to reverse another coalition policy

Wales Online is reporting that the government is to stop funding for the Great Western rail electrification west of Cardiff. It seems that Wales is being made to pay for the engineering misjudgements which caused the cost of electrification in England to overrun. Note that neither has there been an announcement in the House of Commons, nor has there been any indication to the Swansea City council leaders who have been in discussion with government ministers over the Conservatives' city deal. The city deal itself must be under threat from withdrawal of business interest which would have been attracted by the electrification project.

Wales' economy minister Ken Skates has been on the radio protesting that running diesel-only from Cardiff to Swansea maintains a contribution to pollution. He could also have pointed out that electric trains are more reliable than diesel-powered sets. There must be some doubt about the extra complication of bimodal power units. Electrification would have enabled the ageing commuter sets to be replaced as well as improving the long-distance service.

In the wider context, the shortage of modern diesel units already noted at least three years ago is going to be aggravated. Great Western is not the only electrification to be curtailed it seems. Train operators will have run down orders for new diesel units in the expectation that the electrification programme launched by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and confirmed (admittedly at a slower pace) by the Conservatives when they returned with an absolute majority in 2015 would proceed.

The signals that this decision sends out are that Brexit is going to reduce industrial and commercial activity outside the London travel-to-work area, and that Wales is to be written off. A Liberal Democrat initiative which reversed years of Labour neglect in Westminster is to be set aside; Welsh Labour protests - what will Corbyn's Labour nationally say?

Private versus public service pay: let us have some evidence

Philip Hammond has said some silly things about public service workers. (By the way, I am surprised he referred to women train-drivers. I would have thought that driving a bus was a tougher job, and women bus-drivers are a familiar sight these days. But then, it is probably many years since the chancellor boarded a bus.) The Daily Telegraph has also asserted that public sector pay continues to outstrip private sector pay, citing a recent IFS report. Since the only recent IFS report on the subject clearly refers to Graduate Recruits on its title page, it seems dishonest to draw service-wide conclusions from it.

Others, notably Boris Johnson who in theory ought to be on the same side as the prime minister and chancellor, assert that public sector pay has fallen behind and that the gap should be addressed.

Crude arguments about relative pay levels need to be picked apart. Do the protagonists include BBC executives, insulated from austerity and even public scrutiny, among their public service workers? Does the private sector include the poorly-paid and sexually-discriminated-against employees of companies to which local and central government work is outsourced? What about zero-hours contracts?

We need to return to wage awards in the public sector based on fair comparisons, matching like-for-like in public and private sectors. My guess is that such research would find that senior civil servants would be poorly rewarded in comparison with chief executives of major companies, that people at the bottom end of civil and public service pay-scales do worse than equivalents outside (though with better pension guarantees) but that a wodge of middle-ranking executives do rather better. But my guess is no better than Hammond's, or Johnson's, or Corbyn's until a truly independent expert body is commissioned to the detailed work and update it at least biennially.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Brexit motives

The Observer was just the latest organ to report the malign effects of Brexit. The trouble is that none of its readers need to be converted by its editorial and reporting. They are clearly convinced Remainers already. I would be more encouraged if the Mail or the Sun cast doubt on the decision to trigger Article 50 (it is too much to hope that the Express would). Besides, too many reports miss the point. I do not know of any Leave voters who actually believed that £350m lie on the side of the German bus built in Poland (as Lord Roberts memorably put it). Nor did too many of them doubt that there would be some adverse effect on our most successful businesses, including finance. To them, it was a small price to pay for the ability to have full control over our laws and our territorial waters, and for the ability to treat all migrants on an equal footing. As Tom Watson points out in the current issue of Private Eye, there was a strong class element, too. He quoted a contribution from John Bird (the Big Issue man) to the Lords debate on the Queen's Speech:

I was a bit unhappy on the day after we had our referendum. I was unhappy because when I walked into my little Cambridgeshire village and met an incredibly educated, sophisticated and well-placed member of the community, I found that he was absolutely outraged that “these people”—who were described as “scum”, “rubbish”, “below life”—had taken him and his wife and family and other people out of something which for him was the most precious thing on earth other than the United Kingdom. I then went down the pub that evening and met people who had voted to leave. Many of them were cock-a-hoop, aggressive and rather vicious. 

In other words, "Brexit can't hurt because life can't get much worse for us, but it is going to hurt you smug b******s who are making money out of Europe while we're not."

Times change. Those people who dismissed warnings from the Remain camp about loss of international confidence in sterling are faced with the fourth or fifth month running when inflation is above the government's target of 2%. Prices are rising even in the very competitive UK supermarkets. The organisers of the various Leave groups may not be feeling the pinch, but surely those ordinary voters they convinced to vote for them last June are.  These people must be wondering whether giving up pooled sovereignty in the EU is a principle worth defending in the face of continuously falling living standards.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The forelock vote

For a society which has supposedly achieved equality of opportunity, there have surprisingly many instances where UK political parties have chosen "posh" leaders. The Conservatives have obvious historical examples - Churchill, related to the Dukes of Marlborough, and Lord Home - but even Labour has turned to privately-educated men, notably Tony Blair (Fettes), Gaitskell (Winchester) and Attlee (Haileybury), among the Callaghans and Wilsons. Even Jeremy Corbyn went to a prep. school.

Thatcher and Heath came from well-to-do families at least, so John Major was something of an aberration. It was no surprise that the smooth David Cameron, with connections to minor nobility, should win a contest for the Conservative leadership against David Davis, brought up by a single mother on a council estate. Davis again seems doomed to failure in the election which will follow Mrs May's inevitable fall from the top position, because Jacob Rees-Mogg, member for the 19th century, a rich man who married in to the aristocracy, has clearly signalled his intentions.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Sad end to an iconic boat

This is the Royal Iris as I remember her as I was growing up in Wallasey. Although deprecated in conversation as "the fish and chip boat" because of the nature of the excursions which were run regularly on her, we were quietly proud of her then distinctively modern lines.

Merseytravel, the agency which took over eventual responsibility for the Mersey ferries, sold her in 1991 and she has since been rusting away - in Woolwich, for some reason. The Liverpool Echo has more.

There are more depressing images here.