It is difficult to know whether to laugh or cry. At the same time as we are getting news about another round of funding from the restoring Beeching fund, we hear that air passenger duty is set to be reduced for domestic flights and the fuel tax rate has been frozen for the 11th year running. Meanwhile on the railways there is a constant stream of contradictory news stories with announcements about investments being made almost simultaneously as warnings about cutbacks.
All this is taking place at the same time as the biggest ever conference on climate change which is taking place on our very doorstep and which, on the face of it, should have been a vehicle for all sorts of Green announcements. Yet, that opportunity seems to have been missed and instead we had the mixed messages of a Budget that seemed to run entirely counter to what the politicians were promising in Glasgow.
Making sense of this is difficult. I will rephrase that, making sense of this is impossible. And that’s because none of it does, indeed, make sense unless you view things through a very narrow political framework. On the demos I used to go on in the last century, there was always a series of chants: ‘What do we want? When do we want it?’ And so on, you get the picture.
So to understand what the Government is up to, we have to ask – what does Boris want? I suppose the most likely answer is a quiet life. He famously dislikes confrontation, is very thin skinned and hates being challenged. One could even cast doubt on whether he really is interested in getting re-elected. Probably he does, but only because it will look bad in the history books if he lost.
So his decisions are geared towards having to endure the minimal possible amount of short term hassle. Viewed in this context, it is possible to understand the fundamental contradictions on transport policy. Therefore, in this strange world, it is perfectly possible to restore some railway lines while imposing quite dramatic cuts on other parts of the network. We have not yet had any announcement about the later, but all the evidence points to the fact that the 2019 timetable will not be fully restored and that there will be reductions in service levels in many parts of the country in response to the pandemic. Those complaining about these cuts will be pointed to the fantastic investment schemes in reopening lines and, indeed, building HS2.
For campaigners, this strange, almost Trumpian, world represents an opportunity. Make enough fuss about something, and quite possibly you might get heard. But there is a downside, too. If suddenly there is a change in policy which will not affect too many people and can be buried in some good news elsewhere, then beware. Your pet scheme may fall victim to a random axe attack. Understanding this context though is important. Don’t expect common sense, rationality or coherence and pray that your are lucky. That way you may well win.