Man scratching head - CC / Flickr
Man scratching head – CC / Flickr

The upgrade of the West Coast Main Line cost between £8 and £10 billion and trains have a maximum speed of 200km/h, and it’s a fiendishly complex mixed traffic railway. France’s LGV Est cost €4 billion and the service speed is 320km/h. Why did the UK not go for a High Speed Line instead? Belgium knows the Jonction Nord-Sud will be at capacity by 2020 and is making plans now for what to do about the problem, while east-west journeys in London have been a nightmare for at least a decade and building still has not properly started for Crossrail, due to open in 2017 – if the horribly complex finances hold. Or the PPP system for the London Underground…

But it’s not just transport. What do you do about anti-social behaviour? Getting to grips with the heart of the problem – inequality – would be too tough, so ASBOs are thought up. An unenlightened population wants to see bobbies on the beat (even though they don’t actually stop much crime), so the government dreams up Police Community Support Officers that look like Police but are cheaper, rather than having a proper discourse about crime and society. On environment the UK government is waking up to the need to take some practical steps – a pay as you save scheme – while Danish and German firms have at least a decade head start on proper development of renewables technologies and have leading firms in the renewables sector. The UK has a witty word for opposition to windfarms – NIMBY – but still has far too few windfarms.

It even applies to government – where else would anyone dream up a messy fudge where the parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have different powers devolved in different ways, and live with an anomaly like the West Lothian Question? That’s even before dealing with unitary authorities, London and directly elected mayors.

Yet the one thing that does function are the UK’s unversities – with between 2 and 4 of the world’s top universities in the UK (depends how you calculate), and no other European universities in sight.

So in short the UK should have plenty of fine minds to help it solve any sort of problem but, at a governmental level at least, lots of the problems – from ASBOs to the West Coast Main Line – are issues that other countries just don’t have. Why?


  1. french derek

    Further thoughts after yesterday’s response.

    Maybe one of the UK’s problems is the tendency to take the lead in actions dealing with a specific issue. Other countries look on, wait to see how these actions work out, then adopt or adapt, accordingly.

    eg rail operation franchising: the UK approach was to franchise “lines”; France and Germany (amongst others) have chosen a simpler competitive model – which allows companies to operate competitive services over the same routes.
    rail maintenance: kept mainly in-house in France (based on UK experience, I am informed).

    eg Neighborhood Watch (is that still going?) has been taken up in France by some towns and villages.

    eg Video-surveillance of streets/venues: France is selecting according to known crime statistics (work in progress).

  2. french derek

    One of the problems with the UK is that the dogma of “less government, more private” has become rooted. Other EU members expect government to fund infrastructure. In Adam Smith’s words to undertake the building and maintenance of structures that pirate individuals (alone or together) would not freely undertake. For sure, such infrastructure schemes are carried out by government licencees but the infrastructure itself eventually becomes the property of the state.

    All I have heard of ASBO’s is that they were opposed by most professional groups working with juvenile delinquents – and that the existence of ASBOs has made their jobs increasingly difficult (ie the affected youth are now more hostile towards help). But, as you note, it would have been better to have a proper discourse about crime and society.

    Not living in the UK I can’t add more.

  3. To be fair to the UK, there are problems other European states have that we don’t. Political corruption in the UK means an MP uses public money to build a duckhouse. Political corruption in Italy means the governer of the province of Rome was being blackmailed by police after they photographed him taking cocaine with two Brazilian transvestites – one of whom was recently murdered in a basement.

    We can also be thankful that the Prime Minister of the UK doesn’t own half the countries’ TV channels and newspapers. Having Berlusconi in office is like having Rupert Murdoch for PM. Italian scandals like the one above (a true scandal, by the way) don’t always make the papers here if the politician happens to be allied with Berlusconi.

    Low levels of corruption, a relatively independent press, no serious problem with organised crime. Could be worse! 🙂

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