Thinking Big and Failing Hard

A couple of interesting pieces from Christopher Booker in the Telegraph. I know for a fact that Old Jeb is livid about the idea of a badger cull. He’s been living off badger roadkill as his only source of animal protein for years. Says the last thing he wants is some fool killing off his favourite food. Jeb says he learnt to prepare and cook squashed badgers from his dad, Old Zeb. Interesting character, Zeb. Last man to die of anthrax in the village.

But I was more interested in Booker’s views on HS2, and his comparison of it to  Edward Heath’s idiotic scheme to build an airport island in the Thames Estuary,

What is it about politicians that they have to go for the big and the stupid schemes, rather than the small effective ones?

HS2 is a ludicrous scheme. Apparently we will spend £20Bn (according to the Government) or £40Bn (according to the IoD) on this folly. And all to get to Birmingham 20 minutes faster, if you happen to live somewhere near the station in London. I do wonder whether they could just make it faster in one direction. And I will trust the IoD over the Government, as (a) Government estimates are always stupidly low, because they’re created by people who want to do the things involved and (b) the IoD is made up of people who can actually run things.

So I’d like to draw the parallel between HS2 and Syria. The things they have in common is that they are big, dramatic ways of approaching issues that should be dealt with in a small, sensible manner. I know little of international politics, but I do know that a few bombing raids on a Middle Eastern country gives the chance of action shots of people climbing into planes in East Anglia, visits to air bases by the PM and the Defence Secretary looking all encouraging, and in these online days, the chance for video-game-quality shots ready for the evening news, And if the PM is really lucky, it will only be foreigners that die. Quick, simple, dramatic and the chance to “stand alongside our partners”. And if it works you look a hero. Just like Tony Blair in… oh, yeah. So much more effective in the life of a busy PM than engaging in all that tedious diplomacy with that bloke who looks like Dobbie and runs Russia, or the Chinese, or – even worse – the Syrians.

And then there’s HS2. Let’s suppose – against everything that history teaches us – that it only costs £20Bn. We will rip up the fine rolling hills of the Chilterns and Banburyshire, and all to enable Brummies to come down to London 20 minutes quicker. And for what? Meanwhile the extra funding for cycling infrastructure that was announced will equal just under £100M – that’s one two-hundredth of HS2. For 20Bn we could make cycling safe across about the whole of the British Isles, make our towns and city centres quieter, less polluted, more pleasant and yet – at the same time – busier with people. We could have more space on the road for those that need to drive. We could have a healthier population. Mostly we could do this by creatively using existing road space and widening roads where required. It would require small-scale changes, but joined-up thinking. Again, that tedious combination that produces results without heroism. Instead, what was being proposed last year? 

Bikes in the sky, that’s what.  That’s right. A huge, grandiose plan of the sort that architects and big politicians like. So in years to come, people can point to the empty bike lanes up in the air (as the cyclists continue at ground level, where they don’t have to pay a bloody toll) – and wonder at what point the politicians will start banning cyclists from the city roads to get them up in the air and help the bike ways to pay for themselves.

People, it seems pretty clear to me. The simpler and bigger a scheme is, the more likely a politician will like it. The more it requires hard work and detailed thinking or negotiation – and without, at the end of it, the recognition of your heroic inspiration – the less likely it is to appeal. Who would want to be the politician who joined-up the cycle lanes and banned cars from carefully-chosen roads? Who would want to be the installer of 1,000 bike shelters? When you could be the man who put giant cycling tubes in the sky? The great ripper-up of Southern England so people could see Birmingham in under an hour? Who’d want to be the person who quietly let the diplomats haggle with the Russians, to nudge Syria to a better way, rather than the man who let slip the dogs of war?


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