Where are Transportation and Housing Politics Going?

It’s hard to escape the conversation about the decline of the center-left. Whether it’s about non-populist US Democrats, the Israeli Labor Party, Nordic social democrats, German SPD, or French PS, there’s a pan-first world conversation about the crisis of social democracy. People give any number of reasons for it, some suggesting it can be reversed in some ways, but some more skeptical. Branko Milanovic brings up the change in the nature of work from manufacturing with interchangeable workers within one plant to services with fractionalized workers often working remotely as an economic cause of the decline of unions.

Public transportation is sufficiently close to social democracy that it’s important to ask where it’s going politically, if SPD is slipping to third in the polls, PS is irrelevant, the most exciting Democrats are left-populists, etc. YIMBYism can go anywhere politically, but in practice it’s an anti-populist neoliberal policy, affected by the same trends that hollow out social democracy. Fortunately, both issues have a strong likelihood of surviving the decline of the traditional party system with its bosses vs. workers divisions. My goal is to explain why I believe so, and where support for urbanism and public transit will end up politically in the remainder of the century in developed countries.

Patterns of Democracy

In college I read Patterns of Democracy, a study by comparativist Arend Lijphart classifying the world’s stable democracies (including some third-world ones like India and Botswana) along two dimensions: majoritarian (i.e. two-party) vs. consensus-based (i.e. multiparty), and federal vs. unitary. It’s a book-length overview of the elements that go into each dimension, culminating in some regressions showing that majoritarian democracies are not more politically stable and do not economically overperform multiparty ones.

For the purposes of this post, the interesting part of the book is how it treats the various dimensions of partisan political debate within each country. The most popular analysis is one-dimensional left vs. right, followed by two-dimensional schemes separating economic and liberal vs. authoritarian issues (on the Internet, this is Political Compass). But Lijphart uses a seven-dimensional analysis (pp. 76-78), with each country only having at most three or four active at a time:

  1. Socioeconomic issues, by far the most common point of controversy within each democracy, including the usual left-right issues like tax rates, health, education, etc.
  2. Religious vs. secular issues, such as the role of religion in education, abortion rights in the US, or sectarian conflict in multisectarian states like Israel, India, and the Netherlands.
  3. Cultural-ethnic issues, which in most countries pit majority-group hegemony against multiculturalism, but can also include Belgian language politics or Ashkenazi-Mizrahi tensions in Israel.
  4. Urban vs. rural issues, such as farm aid.
  5. Regime support, historically the main cleave between social democratic and communist parties, and today the cleave between extreme right parties like the National Front and AfD (or individuals like Donald Trump) and hard right mainstream parties like Sarkozy and Wauquiez’s Republicans and CSU (or individuals like Ted Cruz and Scott Walker).
  6. Foreign policy, for examples decolonization in postwar France and Britain and the conflict with the Palestinians in Israel.
  7. Post-materialist issues, including the environmental issues that underlie the New Left, representing the cleave between social democratic and green parties.

The decline of class-based politics

The crisis of social democracy that Milanovic and others observe is about the decline of class-based politics, pitting workers versus bosses, or the working class versus the middle class. Economic differences between mainstream parties are decreasing, to the point that grand coalitions (as in Germany) or de facto grand coalitions (such as the cordon sanitaire agreement in Sweden excluding the far right) are normalized, joined by an elite consensus that’s for the most part neoliberal. In their stead, the growing issue in salience in Lijphart’s classification is cultural-ethnic, incorporating the sectarian aspects of the religious-secular dimension, including immigration, multiculturalism, and various forms of racism.

However, it’s better to divide socioeconomic issues into issues that are class-based and issues that are not. The most familiar issues across the developed world today pit the rich against the poor: tax rates, health care, education, welfare, unions, labor regulations.

But a large number of issues divide people in different industries, with a fair degree of agreement between labor and capital within each industry. One such issue is the environment, on which oil executives and oil rig workers tend to vote the same way while executives at green tech or low-energy intensity companies and their workers tend to vote the other way. Another issue is free trade, where the battle lines today separate import-competing industries from exporters and industries that rely on a global supply chain (including finance). Historically, the Populist movement in turn-of-the-century America was rooted in farmers’ grievances, demanding free silver, which had little appeal to either the bourgeoisie or the urban working class, which channeled its disaffection into socialism instead. Thus the set of non-class-based economic issues should take over Lijphart’s urban-rural and postmodern dimensions.

Transportation as a politically contentious issue has always had one leg in rich vs. poor politics and one leg outside it. On the one hand, the poor generally use public transit more than the rich, and historically suburbanization in the US as well as the UK was fueled by middle-class flight from the city. On the other hand, the issue intersects with environmentalism and with urban-rural politics. Within cities, the differences often revolve around one’s job descriptions: people who need to drive for a living, such as plumbers and generally people who work outside the CBD, are more hostile to road diets than people who do not, who include both professional downtown workers and downtown service workers.

Non-class-based economic issues are not in any decline. On the contrary, the parties designed around them, including green parties and left-liberal parties (such as D66 or the Danish Social Liberal Party), are for the most part doing fine, taking refugees from declining social democratic parties. In the Schröder cabinet, it was the Greens who pushed for an increase in fuel taxes; support for transit over cars will survive whatever happens to the center-left.

The new class divide

While labor vs. capital is increasingly not a big political cleave in the developed world, other class cleaves are rising to take its place. Non-class-based economic issues pit different industries against one another, and often there’s no consistent pattern to who is on what side, and the same is true on non-economic issues. However, in a large number of cases, there is a consistent pattern, which can be approximated as liberal versus conservative, in the 19th century British sense.

In the case of YIMBYism, the debate over housing is really a fight between two elite classes. The YIMBY side is represented by the professional middle class; the other side is represented by homeowners. Moreover, the professional middle class tends to specifically come from globalized industries, drawing workers from all over, most famously tech in the Bay Area. This class has high labor income and low capital income as well as local social capital, which explains both YIMBYs’ indifference to preserving property values and preference for preemption laws disempowering local notables. Homeowners are the exact opposite: they tend to have high local property values and local social capital relative to their labor income, which means they favor restrictions on housing construction economically and a hyperlocal process in which they’re privileged participants politically.

For the most part, other non-economic issues correlate with the same cleave between the two elites. Middle-class newcomers are overwhelmingly attracted to production amenities of specific global industries (again, Bay Area tech, but also New York and London finance, Paris conglomerates, etc.), which benefit from free trade and have such diverse worker bases that they fall on the liberal side of most debates over immigration. They also tend to cluster in specific job centers, which are at least in principle serviceable by public transportation, leading to high transit ridership relative to income. The urban jobs that are most likely to require driving are local services, which are overwhelmingly owned by people who either were born in the city or immigrated so long ago that they are politically and socially equivalent to natives.

I bring up 19th-century Britain and not the US because Britain had an alignment between free trade, urban over rural interests, and internationalism in the Liberal Party, whereas in the US the Democrats were also the white supremacist party and (outside the Northeast) the agrarian party. But 19th century Europe fits the situation in the first world today between than the 19th century United States, which had free land (courtesy of the Indian Wars) and no real landed gentry apart from the antebellum Southern planter class.

So where are the poor?

If both sides of the debate over zoning and urban housing production are middle-class elites, then where is the working class? The answer is, nowhere. There are working-class organizations on the NIMBY side, such as tenant unions and community groups that try to extract maximum value from developers. There are also poor people on the YIMBY side: in the Houston zoning referendum the poor voted against zoning and the middle class voted for, with poor blacks voting the most strongly against zoning, and at a recent hearing in Brooklyn for a mixed high-rise project most whites spoke against the project and most nonwhites spoke in favor.

To the extent there’s a pattern, organized local groups of poor people and/or minorities are NIMBY and generally unreliable about public transit, but when it goes to ballot there is not much difference between how the poor and middle class vote. Organized local groups of the middle class aren’t any less NIMBY than organized low-income groups, but the middle class more readily dismisses local activists as crackpots and nincompoops. It matters that political activists with more talent and ambition than the typical king of a hill can advance to higher levels of government if they come from favored socioeconomic strata.

The situation with public transit remains profoundly different, because it really does maintain some class-based content. But in general transit cities, even flawed ones like New York, tend to have alignment between working- and middle-class organizations in favor of more investment, and then questions like congestion pricing, bus lanes, bike lanes, and pedestrian plazas cut across class lines and cleave people based on where they work and how they get there. In my Brooklyn bus redesign project, I expect allies to include the bus drivers’ union (the drivers are strong supporters of reforms speeding up buses, since they’d make their work safer and more comfortable) and middle-class reformers and opponents to include working- as well as middle-class drivers (since we’re going to propose stronger bus lane enforcement and street redesigns that prioritize buses). Overall drivers outearn transit riders, but the difference tends to be smaller in cities with even semi-decent public transportation than in places like Los Angeles, where transit is so bad that most riders are people too poor to afford a car.

The result is that it’s very easy on both sides to dismiss the other side as an elite fighting the working class, even in public transit (since a substantial segment of the working class really does drive, even though it’s a smaller segment than in the middle class). In reality, on non-class-based issues it’s hard for the poor to truly be relevant as political actors. In the bus redesign project the union has a voice, but the premise of this post is that the political power of unions is in decline; public transit just happens to be an industry that, owing to its Fordist layout, is unusually friendly to unionization, at least until driverless buses are deployed at scale.

In this context, people should avoid dismissing their opponents as rich. Both sides have vanguards that are mostly middle-class, with some rich people sprinkled around. It’s a fight between two elites, and the YIMBY elite has grounds to portray itself as superior to the NIMBY elite, as it’s defined by skilled professions rather than passive property income, but it’s still a privileged elite and not the poor.

Whither transit and urbanism?

I already see some evidence that support for mass transit and urban growth (which mostly, but not exclusively, means YIMBY) is concentrated in the segments that are underlying where left-liberalism is going. New Left parties, including center-left ones (i.e. D66 and the Danish Social Liberals), are fans of transit. Greens tend to have a small-is-beautiful mentality toward cities, but I believe that this will change soon as green parties become vehicles for more internationalist voters, just as these parties flipped last decade from euroskeptical to europhilic.

What this means is that transit and urbanism as politics are likely to remain important political issues and if anything grow in salience, as they play well to growing cleaves between urban and rural, or between international and local. Whatever happens to specific political parties, these issues will survive.


  1. Eric

    “The YIMBY side is represented by the professional middle class; the other side is represented by homeowners.”

    YIMBYs may be most vocally *represented* by professional middle class, but their preferred policies are most beneficial to the lower classes. The recent increase in inequality in the US (and I would guess European countries too) is entirely a function of unaffordable real estate prices. The professional middle classes, for their part, may be renters as young adults, but are generally buyers a few years later. So they are not reliable YIMBYs in the long term.

    • Untangled

      There’s really no good substitute to the government actually building housing or government encouraging developers to build housing on sustained basis and the transport that needs to come with it.

      As you said, you could get encourage the government to building housing and in turn encourage developers to building housing by holding a temporary campaign and maybe small rail expansion to support the development but chances are the momentum still stop once the YIMBYs can afford housing but that leaves out a good chunk of people.

      • Eric

        I’m not sure exactly what you mean, but I wouldn’t say there is any need for the *government* to build housing. Loosen zoning regulations, and the market will build housing, until housing prices decline to the level of housing construction costs.

        In most parts of the US there is no need to provide extra transit (or utilities etc.) up front. Existing transit can increase frequency to absorb the new passengers as they come. A good example of this is Seattle, which has massively densified north of downtown without building any real transit there (just a toy streetcar which nobody takes). Obviously real transit would be desirable there and it’s now in the planning stages, but in the meantime the sky hasn’t fallen.

        • crazytrainmatt

          I’m not sure the example of Seattle supports the argument that existing capacity could absorb its growth. Seattle runs a bus-heavy system and has bucked the trend over the last decade by adding substantial service, partly funded through dedicated initiatives and partly due to service hours freed up as their rail line opens. Unusually for the US, most of the new construction in South Lake Union was permitted to require specific remediation to reduce SOV dependency, including transit passes for employees, facilitating carpooling, and requiring onsite parking not undercut the neighborhood rate. Finally, despite all this, car traffic in the neighborhood has become pretty unpleasant at rush hours. The city rebuilt Mercer, which runs along the northern border of the neighborhood and leads to the main freeway onramp, as a massive 7-lane stroad with long cycle times to funnel SOV traffic in and out. Had Seattle not waited decades to start its rail network, there might be fewer people compelled to drive in.

          • Eric

            The situation, as you describe it, is exactly why dense development works. A massive amount of development has occurred, and it has been more or less absorbed just by increasing the volume of bus service. The remediation measures you describe are pretty cosmetic – transit passes have minimal value to commuters compared to the time lost on bad transit, employers can themselves arrange carpools, and market-rate parking fees are a simple and good idea everywhere. So really it is just bus service which has absorbed the demand – and while neighborhood traffic is unpleasant at rush hours, that is a normal situation for business districts, and better than some larger coastal cities where traffic is unpleasant all day long. I agree that light rail should have been built already, but the fact is, even without light rail the district is certainly functioning. With liberalized zoning, few parts of the US are likely to grow as much as has South Lake Union – the headquarters of the world’s second biggest tech company, in a geographically-constrained coastal metro which also contains the world’s fourth biggest tech company. South Lake Union has survived, and so will other places which take the same strategy.

  2. HaverstrawLife.com

    Hi Alon,

    I see an intersection between the far left and right in the US, where organizations like Americans for Prosperity have adopted anti-gentrification/social justice language in order to co-opt conversation on the far left and among urban minority populations. The far left in the US is very anti-development and is becoming anti-transit given its ability to accelerate neighborhood change. I’m very concerned about this trend.

    Regards, Jared

    On Tue, Jul 10, 2018, 12:59 AM Pedestrian Observations wrote:

    > Alon Levy posted: “It’s hard to escape the conversation about the decline > of the center-left. Whether it’s about non-populist US Democrats, the > Israeli Labor Party, Nordic social democrats, German SPD, or French PS, > there’s a pan-first world conversation about the crisis of” >

  3. David Keddie

    When I first started a YIMBY group, Walkable Princeton, in Princeton, NJ five years ago it seemed a bit of a quixotic quest with basically no one attuned to the arguments. In just the last year the idea of density being good and that zoning is the problem has really caught on and is now at least paid some lip service by local politicians. In our town that takes the form of progressive arguments for equality and inclusion. In a more conservative place it might focus on economic growth and property rights. I think it’s finally caught on because even the upper echelon of the professional classes are finding the cost of housing in their preferred locations, sometimes for themselves but definitely for friends and relatives, to stand in the way of the life they want to lead.

  4. kingledion

    The Economist had a cover story after Trump and Brexit about the primary divide becoming “Open vs. Closed.” Regarding the news stories I am watching, this is biggest cleavage, as far as I can tell. The ‘Closed’ side is accruing anti-immigration, socially conservative, anti-trade views, while the ‘Open’ side is socially liberal and pro-immigration and trade. The ‘Open’ side is, of course, closely associated with the biggest global cities; as you can see easily in the Trump and Brexit voting maps.

    What I forsee is that the social safety net seems to be something that would be more favorable to the ‘Closed’ than the ‘Open’ side of this debate. Despite being traditionally a leftist policy idea, the union labor of Wisconsin that elected Trump, or the Birmingham working class Little Englanders who voted for Brexit, seem like they would have more invested in a Social Security or NIH than wealthy computer programmers and lawyers in New York and London.

    For now, the urban poor seem to vote ‘Open’ along with the wealthy whose meals they serve and whose houses they clean. Of course, many of those urban poor are only here because of open policies in the first place. How long will they remain attached to the ‘Open’ side?

    • johndmuller

      I think that many people are on their way to discovering that there are some really strange bedfellows in politics today and that the party supporting their primary issue may be really difficult to stomach on some of their other important issues.

      Maybe we are heading for an increasing number of less all encompassing parties. This may require more complicated inter-party negotiations on issues other than their primary foci. In other words, the Transit Party would have both Open and Closed border members and/or the OpenBorder Party would have both Pro and Anti Transit members; perhaps legislators could represent more than one party at a time.

      The point is that if there are more than a few important issues in play parties which do not attract members with the same slate of preferences will not be happy campers and can lead to instabilities and vacillations.

    • Alon Levy

      Historically, the pro-labor side of politics evolved out of the liberals, not the conservatives. The British Liberals proposed the People’s Budget, and only collapsed and were replaced by Labour due to political intrigue during and after the WW1 coalition. And in the US, social democracy as we understand it, i.e. FDR’s program, evolved out of the Northern wing of the Democrats, which was consistently the open party (urban, reliant on ethnic voters, pro-free trade, more internationalist than the GOP).

      At least in Europe today, we don’t see much far right support of the welfare state. Nigel Farage was talking about privatizing the NHS before the Brexit campaign, and most far right parties support austerity (with the notable exceptions of F-Haine and PVV, both of which are pro-deficit but anti-welfare). The far right talks a good game about poverty and Deep England and what not but it’s no more capable of giving poor whites actual financial support than Syriza was capable of reversing austerity.

  5. Michael James

    I think it is a bit simpler. And that all talk using labels such as Left or Right and Conservative have lost most of their meaning, possibly by deliberate obfuscation or by the complexity of the modern world.
    It comes down to believing in (or understanding) evidence-based rationale for transit and urban planning. Today’s so-called conservatives and even some on the so-called Centre-Left (which given how far the scales have tilted in the Anglosphere in the last 40 years really means the Centre-Right, while the old Centre-Right is now the Far-Right) simply choose to ignore it all in favour of ideology. Add climate change and healthcare to the list of things on which they prefer to ignore all the evidence.

    After all, in the example I gave in the previous article, you had Michael Heseltine a true-blue conservative in Maggie’s cabinet but the one who worked long and hard (and against Thatcherite fwit policy and accolytes) to get HS1 built. Even Michael Portillo, one of those ideological Thatcherites and annointed “likely future PM”, turns out to be a trainspotter–well, avid train traveller and supporter of HSR etc. Just that in power and under the thrall of Thatcher he either hid it (when Transport Minister no less!), or was ideologically blind because it suited his ambitions. Decades later he hosts the BBC tv series on train travel and the very first ep on Continental Trains opened with him catching Eurostar at the magnificently rebuilt St Pancras terminus, both projects vehemently impeded by Thatcher!
    Likewise, the 60 years of transit policy in Germany and France that built superb public rail networks and metros that spanned governments of so-called Left and Right. Partly because they had confidence in their highly-trained elites in their public services (people actually trained in transport rather than some narrow economic ideology). Today’s so-called conservatives (in the Anglosphere) don’t listen to true experts and they actively pervert public service with ideological appointments, outsourcing advice from paid consultants etc.

    It really is Evidence versus Ideology.

    Progressives (a term that so far retains its meaning) listen to evidence. Sometimes they come to the wrong conclusion or the evidence itself is incomplete or somehow biased, but they are evidence-driven not ideology-driven. Of course there are “so-called” progressives too; those who have an ideology of “helping the poor” or whatever and who believe simplistic handouts are the way forward. Instead a true progressive wants to see the basics created (good planning in health, education, transit, urban planning to ensure equal-access).

    • Eric

      A lot of people, not just you, say “my side is smart and everyone else is stupid”. That is an argument that is generally better off being ignored.

      • Michael James

        Eric, 2018/07/11 – 02:20

        “my side is smart and everyone else is stupid”.

        No. Clearly you didn’t understand. It’s about evidence.
        However … you know what they say about conservatives (well, paleo-conservatives): they don’t have to be stupid, but it helps.
        I like the comparison to sea squirts: “Conservatives fix themselves to an ideology then eat their own brains so they can never change in their own lifetimes.”

        • rational plan

          Well he was actually instrumental in saving the Settle to Carlisle line. In fact Nicholas Ridley was the only true anti train transport minister in the Thatcher government. I’ve been to a few London Reconnection meetings and heard a few tales from some old lags from the time in the DFT in the 70’s through 90’s there are a few younger ones there who are still intimately involved in the rail industry today. The biggest enemies of Rail have often been certain senior civil servants at DFT. Institutional memory of the failed 1950’s Rail Modernisation plan has meant that the railways are not to be trusted with money in the UK. There were certain only fairly recently retired mandarins who used all their effort to crush any rail or metro scheme.

          One guy from Leeds in charge of London commuters in the 80’s hated rail commuters and London commuters in particular. It was certainly going on recently. When crossrail was about to start in the depths of recession I remember unatributed comments from senior sources how it was going to be cancelled in the Coalitions spending review and another article about a senior civil servant going round boasting that it would be built over his dead body. Certainly in the 80’s the most defeatist people were in charge of the railways. Long after the mood had changed they were still trying to push further railways closures. Such as Settle and Carlisle and most infamously the Chiltern mainline with a busway built over the trackbed to a new central coach station built on the site of Marylebone station.

          And before anyone mentions the SERPELL report, lets just step back and look at one of the problems governing the UK railway system. This is the idea there is a profitable core network which the system could be cut back to and therefore not require operating subsidies. of course the more they cut the branch lines the more traffic fell on the main lines and as rail freight collapsed it all seemed to be a path to spiral down. So when Thatcher came to power a review was commision was set up to look for that profitable core. The Serpell report said that there would have to be radical cuts to the network to do this and four or five different options were set out. Of course it was the most severe option that was leaked to the press. This option would slashed the network with for example only one main line to Scotland etc even the rail network in the South East would be blown to bits. Well when this was presented at Cabinet there was a profound silence over the very empty looking map and all those constituencies without a rail service. The idea was never discussed again and British Rail was pretty much left to it’s own devices as long as it did not cost too much. Pretty much a steady state railway, but all sorts of things were done by BR, under fear of not being seen tobe value to money they final swept away the old four railway groupings organisation and sectorisation came in, and a steady programme of electrification. Though every scheme had to be fought for on the cheap. BR was a very well run railway compared to bloated government run mess of network rail and the explosion in construction costs since privatisation.

    • Michael James

      rational plan, 2018/07/11 – 14:31

      Well in the UK up until the 1970’s there was wholesale planned ‘depopulation’ of the congested and polluted cities. There was mass public house building in the suburbs and planned new towns. This ended in the 80’s.

      Well yes, but there was a lot happening. It is true that the congestion and pollution of cities since the industrial revolution partly drove development away from them, but OTOH what else was there? Some of the housing stock was truly decrepit and its restoration/gentrification didn’t seriously begin until the 70s. But coincidental was also the cleaning up of cities especially the outlawing of coal-burning in domestic fireplaces and regulation of car fuels and exhausts.

      However just as in the previous century the sequelae of the industrial revolution drove the City Beautiful movement amongst architects and town planners, so did the slow reassessment of density begin to assert itself. That is, evidence. I just refreshed my memory of Milton Keynes which was designated a New Town in 1967. Alas I have never visited this poster-child for Garden Cities, but its statistics are startling: 248,800 residents (2011) on 89km2 at 2,800/km2. As it turns out, that 89km2 is exactly the area of (inner) Paris (excluding the two bois) and MK is roughly one tenth the density. This might be better than modern (Anglosphere) suburbia and ex-urbia but it surely became apparent to planners that accommodating more than a nominal amount of those city-bound dwellers or immigrants the same way, especially in cramped England, was not on. And to try to retain the same access to London (MK is 80km away on mainline rail; really its a stockbroker town) they would have had to urbanise all of South-East England. Which in turn invokes transit horrors.

      Of course, as discussed on this blog, the Brits didn’t go as far as to learn from their neighbours (or even their colonies, Singapore and Hong Kong). They overwhelmingly stuck with their medium density of endless terrace housing (row houses) which cannot provide density to support really good transit. (The laissez-faire in east London is merely a concession to the financial industry and those hi-rises not only don’t solve London’s or the south-East’s housing affordability problems, they directly add to it.) In Australia, just in today’s paper I read of a conflict in how to build a RER-style Metro from Sydney to Parramatta (a second city about 25km west). The transit and town planners know (via plenty of evidence) that it has to have only a half-dozen widely-spaced stations en route if it is going to do its job, but the “developer lobby want dozens of stations”. Because they (developers who essentially control governments in Australia) are right in the process of building a canyon of hi-rise apartments along the abominable Parramatta Road and of course wish to advertise the convenience to the future Metro (road congestion is worse than ever after two decades of allowing the road lobby to build expensive toll road tunnels). This will be a kind of hi-rise strip-mall and every bit as ugly and dysfunctional. In the Anglosphere we seem to veer from one extreme (exurban very low density) to the other (super-hi-rise without proper transit planning not to mention considerations of urbanity).

  6. rational plan

    Well in the UK up until the 1970’s there was wholesale planned ‘depopulation’ of the congested and polluted cities. There was mass public house building in the suburbs and planned new towns. This ended in the 80’s. Not so coincidentley London bagn to grow again at this point and other British cites declines began to slow until at some point most began to grow again in population.

  7. Michael James

    rational plan, 2018/07/12 – 14:56

    British Rail was pretty much left to it’s own devices as long as it did not cost too much. Pretty much a steady state railway, but all sorts of things were done by BR, under fear of not being seen tobe value to money they final swept away the old four railway groupings organisation and sectorisation came in, and a steady programme of electrification. Though every scheme had to be fought for on the cheap. BR was a very well run railway compared to bloated government run mess of network rail and the explosion in construction costs since privatisation.

    Agree with all of your post. The only thing I would change is the emphasis. All of the dysfunction or timidity in keeping a top-class rail network was political in origin, and neo-liberal even before that term was created. It was a fantastical narrow-view of national development by the political class. And simply by virtue of having persisted since the war spanning 70 years we have to conclude–even in the absence of any study of its history–that it is bipartisan, neither “Left” nor “Right”.

    Although I often imply otherwise (and on this blog) I don’t believe BR management is any worse than SNCF etc. It is as you wrote above, an organisation running on empty and no long-term plan in place or allowed to be developed. In the book on the history of how HS1 was (finally) built, (Nicholas Faith’s “The Right Line: The Politics, Planning and Against-the-odds Gamble Behind Britain’s First High-Speed Railway” ), BR insiders lament at how their counterparts across the channel had long-term goals and consistent political support that they brought them to despair when they looked at their own situation. And incidentally, as well as the arch tory Heseltine, HS2 was largely driven thru its political minefields by a Conservative Kent County Council (whose leaders were often directly from a “old time” career in The City), proving again my point that it is brain-dead ideology not so-called “Right” or fake-conservative (paleo-conservative) politics that we are stricken with in the Anglosphere.

    You gave 1980 as a turning point, and of course that coincides with Thatcher’ evisceration of BR and any kind of national ambition (on almost all fronts except fighting pointless wars and financialisation of … life). Despite that, I see it as more a culmination of a trajectory long set since the war, a kind of self-destructive austerity mindset manifest in all kinds of public policy. However it was a period of dramatic contrasts across the channel, with RER, TGVs, tramways and the drive to finally build that century-old dream of the trans-manche tunnel (that’s just transport; elsewhere it was creation of a nuclear power industry and revitalisation of its cities and provincial towns etc). (The desecration of British towns is a utterly depressing disgrace; I lived in Oxford and its main street Cornmarket is an abomination for a UNESCO listed town, dominated by the same old hideous chains and overwhelmed by traffic even though it is nominally pedestrianised! No wonder this street is never ever shown in any tv footage, eg. Morse or Endeavour etc, but they focus on the backstreets. Cornmarket is as tatty and depressing as every high street in the UK, worse by being framed by those thousand year old dreaming spires!)

    The irony is that the creation of paleo-conservatism is at least partly driven by, or given the space to grow, by the relentless converging of econo- and politico-philosophies of the two major parties (itself a fundamental fault of Anglosphere politics). When this happens it only leaves extremes for those wishing to distinguish themselves, and you end up with throwbacks like William Rees-Mogg (the member for the 19th century), Tony Abbott (his favoured period is the 50s) or opportunists like Trump, Boris Johnson and a plethora of lesser lights like Chris Christie. Caught in the middle appear to be most of the remaining “leaders” usually in that position by default (May, Turnbull, and Merkel who should never gone into a 3rd let alone a 4th term!). Macron is the only current world leader to have broken thru this horrible stasis (and the jury is still out, but also France still retains its integrity and continuity of its civil service).

    The other compounding factor, that you also mention, is the failure of those who knew better, to stand up. Michael Portillo and many others in Thatcher’s inner circle. The “profound silence over the very empty looking map and all those constituencies without a rail service. The idea was never discussed again …”

  8. Michael James

    It’s late at night and I’ve got the tv on, half watching filler before Wimbledon Live comes on later.
    I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this doco before: How Ronnie Reagan and Maggie Thatcher Saved The World. And no, it has nothing to do with the cold war and Gorbachev, but is the ozone layer story that rolled out in their era. Reagan was hardly an environmentalist and his appointment to the EPA (created by Nixon) was Anne Gorsuch (yes, the mother of Neil, Trump’s pick for SCOTUS). She is mostly remembered for a scandal involving misuse by her of billions in clean-up funds intended for SuperFund toxic dump sites, during which she refused Congressional requests for information for which she became the first Departmental Secretary in history to be cited for Contempt of Congress.
    But the other thing she did, was close down all Federal funding for research into CFCs that were implicated in ozone depletion. Remember this was something scientists were coming to realize meant the literal end of the world as we know it (not the end of the world but still huge changes and probably chaos as it impacted crop yields in 30+ years). DuPont which dominated the multi-billion CFC industry, fought the attempt to regulate it all the way (right up to the point their own chemists came up with an alternative, HFCs, another story).

    The title derives from the fact that Reagan, to his credit, was persuaded it was serious after one-on-one discussions with a prominent scientist (whom I can’t remember but I presume he was a Republican). As the attempt to bring change rolled around the world, Thatcher also played a role. This too is not a surprise. Thatcher was one of the first leading politicians to accept anthropomorphic climate-change. Because she was a trained chemist and it only takes maybe 5 minutes of explanation to any scientist before you realise the problem. So, she got the chemical link between CFCs and their UV-activation high in the atmosphere releasing chlorine that destroyed ozone, removing a basic mechanism of protecting the earth’s surface from UV radiation.

    So Eric, was Anne Gorsuch smart or stupid, or perhaps simply corrupt (I’m sure we all know where most of DuPont’s campaign contributions went)? In fact she was ideologically blind (which is still a version of stupid but can afflict otherwise clever people; she had a law degree and was a Fullbright scholar …). Wiki says: “She was voted Outstanding Freshman Legislator [in Colorado], but was considered by some to be a member of the “House Crazies,” a group of “conservative lawmakers intent on permanently changing government.” Alas, fast forward almost 40 years and we have another political appointee(s) to run the EPA who also don’t like the evidence (climate-change, take your pick) and so think nothing of directly suppressing it, trying the Kafkaesque act of deleting all mention of climate change from EPA documents, websites, mission statements etc!

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