In 1992, J K Galbraith published the ‘Culture of Contentment’ in which he argues that the nature of US politics would be increasingly defined by the division between those who are relatively affluent, pay taxes and vote and those who are relatively poor, on welfare and don’t. I’m not a great one for grand political theory, but I’ve held this argument somewhere in my brain ever since. Like all generalisation, it may suffer from detailed analysis and the passage of time, but I think JK was on to something and the debate around ‘High Speed 2’ has reminded me of it again.
As a non-car driving supporter of public transport, I find it difficult to oppose more trains, but some of the justifications for HS2 are farcical. Sheffield will be ‘reconnected’ by a station located not in the city centre, but at a shopping centre, the out-of-town Meadowhall complex which is not only a symbol of bloated car-centric consumerism, but like its kind in other cities, has been partly responsible for the city centre’s disconnection and decline. There is a further irony that Sheffield has been denied government funding to extend its tram system that would make a more immediate impact on the area’s public transport, without needing to wait two decades. HS2 will bring Birmingham within commuting time of London. When I discussed this with the Chair of the planning committee in 2009, he was relaxed about the second city becoming a suburb of the capital, creating a move towards ‘Brumdon’ (please let me be the first person to say that) and an east-coast USA style ‘city region’. This might dissolve the ‘North-South Divide’, but it wont heal it. Yet again, the regional regeneration arguments rely on the ‘spin off’, ‘trickle down’, ‘knock on’ myth – welded to the even more spurious suggestion that economic prosperity depends on the ability of a relatively small number of self-important people being able to travel (probably in a half empty first class carriage) from A to B a little bit quicker. When Marx talked about the annihilation of space by time, I don’t think this is exactly what he had in mind, although throwing money at HS2 instead of first comprehensively upgrading our existing rail network does suggest the contradictions of capitalism and blow a big hole in HS2’s environmental credentials.
Of course, HS2 is a huge dollop of jam tomorrow and while the fancy graphics encourage us to temporarily see the light at the end of the austerity tunnel, there can’t be much certainty that it will actually get built, particularly with legal challenges already being prepared. Even so, the fact that HS2 is being presented as the answer to so many problems illustrates, once again, the ever-widening chasm between the things our politicians want and what we actually need. With referendums in the air, what would happen if we were given a choice between spending £32 billion over twenty years on HS2, or spending 10% of that amount now on council housing? We wont get asked because of the increasingly polarised and dislocated character of our politics which is moving relentlessly towards an imitation of America’s Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum system that as Galbraith argues, speaks to an ever-dwindling audience. To avoid this requires an urgent reconfiguration of political alternatives, but as I write this, the left, which should be offering it, is too busy forming a circular firing squad. My fear is that, by the time the bodies are counted, like its US counterpart, the British left will have rendered itself irrelevant.