29 January 2020

Trident and HS2: a tale of two £100bn projects

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What kind of government does Boris Johnson wish to lead? The Prime Minister has a softness for grand infrastructure projects and likes to think of himself as a quasi-nineteenth century liberal. A builder, not just an entertainer. But he leads a government in which there are plenty of ministers – Priti Patel, Liz Truss, Dominic Raab – and so on who come from the slash-and-burn school of Conservatism. The battle over the future of Britain’s railways will tell us something about which of the Government’s duelling sensibilities currently has the upper hand.

One straw in the wind is the decision to spend £500m on feasibility studies into reversing some of the now infamous Beeching railway cuts a half century ago. This could – or perhaps should – be more than just a sop to the Tory shires and it is something that, though a trivial initial sum, should complement HS2.

Fast railways are expensive and they are made more expensive by the endless reviews to which they are suspect.  But HS2 is hardly the only £100bn project underway. There are others, not the least of which is the renewal of Britain’s nuclear weapons programme. I hazard that many of those Conservatives most sceptical about HS2 harbour no such doubts about Trident just as a good proportion of those enthusiastic about HS2 consider Trident a colossal waste of willy-wanging time and money.

Naturally, it is not either/or but the comparison should be enough to demonstrate that one person’s waste of money is another person’s statement of national intent. To put it simply, it is very difficult to argue that new railways are a waste of money but new nuclear missiles are not.

Equally, you might argue that each project comes with significant opportunity costs. The better arguments against HS2 are that this money could more usefully be spent on other railway projects. It is hard to banish the thought, however, that if HS2 were dumped, these replacement projects would themselves soon run into plenty of opposition.

And, viewed from outside London, it seems worth noting that Crossrail, which is years late and will eventually be shown to have chewy through the thick end of £20bn is – rightly! – considered a matter of inviolable importance but large-scale projects elsewhere must be subjected to endless reviews, delays, cost-benefit evaluations and sundry other concerns, all of which further delay the project, increase its cost, and thereby make it easier to cancel.

The argument for HS2 has been ill-made from the start. The question is not so much one of speed, though shorter journey times are a reward in themselves, but rather of capacity. Many of Britain’s railways are almost full. There is a limit to how many fast trains can be run on the same tracks as slower services that stop at more stations. Building new lines for express services allows vastly more trains to run on the existing lines. In some places capacity will all but double.

Put in those terms, even £100bn can begin to seem like something close to a bargain just as the best financial case for Trident is that it is, if viewed over a 50 year timescale, an insurance policy that costs a few billion a year. Like other insurance policies, it is one you hope never to have to use but it offers protection in extreme circumstances.

Now, of course, that is not how Trident is usually viewed. It is easily mixed in with ideas about Britain’s place in the world. To give up the nukes would, in some vague but compelling sense, be a kind of retreat. Britain would not be a Top Nation any longer and, this being so, how could other signifiers of that status such as a permanent place on the UN’s security council really be justified? Indeed, viewed dispassionately, such baubles are hard to justify as matters stand. This is an important but middle-ranking, middle-punching, country entering a new and uncertain era in which grandiose claims for an independent foreign policy – and, indeed, an independent security agenda – are likely to have a number of uncomfortable appointments with global political reality. Scale matters and a middle-ranking power has limited clout.

But, like HS2, the question of Trident is a matter of posture and capacity. The difference is that, unless the Government adopts a both/and approach to defence funding, Trident is more likely to limit defence capacity than expand it. This seems likely even if the Treasury allots funding from a dedicated pot, separate from regular MoD supply. As with the Royal Navy’s aircraft carriers, it is not immediately apparent that Trident renewal offers the kind of strategic and tactical flexibility the UK requires. And, like the carriers, it risks deploying too many eggs in the navy’s basket at the expense of the army’s.

Still, there are respectable arguments to be made on either side of both of these debates. It is entirely possible that the UK’s defence capacity would be enhanced, not diminished, by spending Trident’s money on other defence priorities. In that sense, the opportunity cost of Trident is significant even if the argument for that spending remains powerful regardless of Trident.

In like fashion, many of the upgrades to the railways network sometimes posited as an alternative to HS2 are good projects too. Many of them should be built anyway, not least in the north of England and to Scotland. I am not convinced of the good faith of those who argue for this spending at the expense of HS2, however. I fancy that having killed HS2 they would move on to the arguments for killing alternatives to HS2 as well. And in the meantime more time and more money would be wasted and nothing would be being built at all.

Hence the manner in which this really is a test for Boris Johnson. British governments excel at delaying decisions for as long as possible. In business, as the old saw has it, you can pick any two from “fast”, “good” and “cheap” whereas government too frequently gets the unholy trio of “slow”, “expensive” and “disappointing”. HS2 is not cheap and it will take a long time to build but those might better be considered the projects’ selling points, not the problems with it. As a Stella Artois advertising slogan argued, HS2 is – like Trident – “reassuringly expensive”.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator