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A 'National Project'?
by David Ball
Throughout history, nations have either consciously or unconsciously
embarked upon major national projects that have captured the imaginations of
their citizenry, or at least those whose views from a practical perspective
matter. The Egyptian pyramids can be seen as the kind of national project from
ancient times, as can similarly the Parthenon, the Coliseum, and in Mediaeval
times all the great temples, churches and cathedrals built around the world.
At the time when religion was fundamental to daily life, it was perhaps
natural that such creative energy should be in praise of a people's
As we approached a more secular age during the last two hundred years,
great projects still seized people's minds, but they have become more
practical in their use. The rise of the railways, the conquest of Africa, The
NHS, Man on the Moon, Concorde, building motorways, The Millennium Dome, the
Aswan High Dam, all of these can be looked upon as 'national
In addition, there are the obvious national projects that involve military action or military build-
ups that have similar characteristics in that they unite the population, such
as the naval race at the turn of the century, WWI, WWII, the Falklands War, or
even, more controversially, the Vietnam War. Of course not all wars can be
classified as national projects. The 1905 Russo-Japanese war was very
unpopular in Russia and was seen as the Tsar's folly and merely served
to exacerbate the divisions within Russian society.
Some of those listed above are examples of national
projects which went badly wrong; Concorde, The Millennium Dome and the
Vietnam War for example. These three serve to illustrate what can go wrong
with secular projects.
Concorde. A brilliant piece of technology, but at the wrong place at
the wrong time, with the result it needed a huge investment but achieved no
payback. It still generates pride however, or at least it did until the recent
accident, but it is emotional rather than practical. The money put into
Concorde would have been more wisely spent on the Airbus project at an earlier time
for instance, or perhaps a stretched VC10 from a purely British perspective.
Strangely enough people still see Concorde as a success, primarily because
they do not realise what could have been instead.
The Millennium Dome. This was to be the national project that gave
everyone the New Labour experience. Perhaps it did! A national project should
be something that is designed to be there for the long term; it should be seen
as something worth investing in. People do not mind spending large amounts of
money on national projects, but there must remain something tangible to see.
Concorde at least was a visible and breathtaking reminder of all that was
spent, and remained a world beating piece of technology. The Dome was just a
huge party that went very badly wrong, primarily caused by a hopelessly over
optimistic business plan. If people had been realistic about how many visitors
they would actually get then perhaps it may never have been built.
Actually, the Eiffel Tower was meant to be a short-term project, but it
succeeded by staying there. Odd that no-one spotted the parallels!
The Vietnam War. This was meant to stop the spread of communism, and
as such was very popular at home in the USA, and contrary to popular myth,
large numbers of US citizens supported it to the end, especially the blue
collar workers. After Saigon fell, however, a huge disillusionment set in and
suddenly it was virtually impossible to find anyone who had ever really
The reason it failed is, of course, obvious; never start a war unless you are
prepared to win it. The soldiers and airmen were amongst the first to become
disillusioned because they realised that their necks were being put on the
block, and there was no intention to actually fight the war in a way in which a
meaningful victory could be achieved. Some unique black humour resulted from
this war. The F105 Thunderchief fighter-bomber was given the nickname
'Thud' - which is the sound it allegedly made as it hit the ground
after being shot down! Not exactly good for military morale, and in the mid
1970s the US forces had terrible issues resulting from this war, something the
Soviet Union also learnt in Afghanistan. It is in fact possible to lose a war
and still come out of it with good morale; in 1973 the Arabs
lost the Yom Kippur war, but they did well enough to hold their
heads up high and feel as if it had been worth it.
What then makes a good national project? For commercial (non military)
projects the following make good criteria.
1.It should raise the prestige of the country, both internally and
externally. This is especially true if the project is to be a
commercial venture as it would aid export sales.
2.It must be a capital Investment that has some form of payback. This
can either be a direct payback or again can result in export success. The
payback can, however, be intangible in that if large numbers of people think
they have in some way benefited from it.
3.It must in some way be innovative and new.
4.People must be willing to pay for it
Let us consider some examples:-
Building Britain's railways scored on all four points; afterwards many
railways around the world were built by British engineers and used British
rolling stock. Note that point four holds very true as the railways were on the
whole built with commercial capital. Unfortunately things got out of hand and
gradually capital was put into branch lines that were never viable from the start. Lesson: never continue with a good idea beyond its true bounds.
The NHS. When it was established it passed on all four. However, today it fails
on point three, which is why, however deserving the NHS is, it will never be
accepted now as being a true national project. It is now seen as a right and
not an innovative new idea.
Concorde. Failed on point two. Wrong analysis of the market - people wanted to
get around cheaper and not faster. Mass transport was what was wanted.
The Millenium Dome. Failed on all points!
Building the motorways. Passed on all four points, but again the point has been
reached where building and extending them adds no value because people now
realise that the point has been reached where no extra benefit is being gained
The Freedom Party could adopt some form of 'national project' as part of its policies.
This would make us unique in British politics in that we would be proposing a
major investment in something, which we would actively market as being
building for the future. Furthermore, parties to the right of the Conservative
Party are generally seen as primarily having two main policy issues; race and
relations with Europe. By having a prestige policy such as a national project
the Freedom Party would be seen as proposing a major innovative way forward
which both puts it into the mainstream whilst at the same time differentiating
it from the other main political parties.
We must produce full provisional costings for our proposal. When we produce
the original plan it can be in the form of a grand idea with generalisations
on how capital would be raised, but as we grow in strength and credibility so
we must start to produce detailed costings. If we propose some form of major
public investment then it will completely wrong foot the other parties as they
will all have their hands tied by the Brussels regime both from the
perspective of the management of public finances and from their current rules
on competition. We can revert to more creative methods of finance once we
start to ignore Brussels and it is in fact returning to the more traditional
role of government where investment in major public works or infrastructure
was seen as one of the prime roles of government, both local and national.
What form should the national project take?
It needs to be something that will potentially have a major impact on national life that
future generations will want to keep and maintain. If you examine history then
it is in fact transport projects that have the biggest impact in the everyday
lives of people. In ancient times the Roman roads were, and still are,
legendary. In Britain the building of the first proper roads started to open
up the concept of travel by ordinary people, or at least middle class people.
Then came the canals that enabled bulk shipment of goods to take place into
the centre of Britain. Then of course we had the arrival of railways, whose
impact was immense. This century we have seen the arrival of both air and car
transport. The impact of being able to travel immense distances relatively
cheaply has had a profound impact on all of our lives.
There is an emerging transport technology that could cause a similar
revolution, that of magnetic levitation vehicles (Maglev) that can be seen as
both a train and internal airline replacement. There are several major
advantages for these vehicles:-
.No moving wheels thus making them far more energy efficient, reliable
and faster. Speeds in excess of 300mph should be achievable for long distance
services. They can be linked to computer control systems that make them far
safer. The track is powered in sections as a vehicle passes over it making
collisions virtually impossible. As each vehicle is its own power car high frequency services can be
provided. Having to wait half an hour or more for a journey is no longer
acceptable for many in the day of the car. A service frequency of 5 minutes on
major routes would be desirable. The track can be built levitated as it is virtually impossible for
them to come off it. This again makes it safer as it substantially reduces the
chance of collision with other forms of travel.
So why Maglev? Well, other counties, including Germany and Japan, have started
to invest in this system. It will happen, but in this country no party
is willing to consider making the public financial investment. There is the
potential for a huge impact on everyday life. However, the cost of producing
the system will be immense. In all major cities routes into them and stations
will have to be built. Research into tunnel technology will have to be
undertaken; it might not be feasible to run very high speed Maglev vehicles in
tunnels, but the cost of building over ground may be prohibitive, thus in
cities a compromise between speed and price may be necessary. Of course in the
long term current railway land will be recovered but no private company would
be able to bear the time delay. Tickets will have to be relatively cheap; they
should cover running costs and maintenance costs but to make it affordable
initial construction costs should be written off.
In cities the new stations will have to have properly integrated public
transport interchanges and have facilities for long term parking of private
vehicles. Building fast local services into these stations should be an
integral part of the plan. These could be local Maglev lines or more
conventional tram or light rail lines. People will be willing to undertake
long journeys in Maglev vehicles if they can get to stations quickly and
conveniently, so outside all cities stations should be
built so that people on the outskirts do not have to go into city centres to board
the vehicles. Luggage space should be substantially greater than on current
trains as people wish to carry much around with them than current trains allow
for. The service should be a 24 hour per day service, which means building
large amounts of duplicate track with most routes having at least three tracks
so that one can be closed for maintenance with two being left for use. Bulk
freight should largely be shipped at night when the demand for passenger
services will be low and at lower speeds to make them more energy efficient.
Safety must be of prime consideration. That means crime must be
controlled and anyone convicted of threatening or abusive behaviour to other
passengers receive long custodial sentences as a matter of course, and
video surveillance on the vehicles must be a matter of routine.
If we build a successful system then the export potential will be huge. As we
did with the railways, we could use the project to build a huge industrial
manufacturing base in Britain, which is something we now desperately need
So a question is where should the first line be? This will have to be
considered carefully, but one option might be London to Glasgow/Edinburgh via
Birmingham with the London to Birmingham section done first. This has
political and practical advantages; binding the UK together, replacing the
awful Birmingham New Street station at an early date, initially linking the
two largest cities together and building a major central interchange in
Birmingham for future cross country routes.
These are obviously the bare bones of any plan. If we adopt it, or find
another policy proposal that fulfils the criteria as a national project, then
we can be seen as presenting a future to the public that no other party
currently presents. Our policies will be visionary rather than simply reactionary.
One of the comments that is often made about Britain today is that there is no
national plan; people are looking for life to have a meaning, and handing
something immense down to future generations would satisfy this.
Let us dare
to offer a visionary future to the British people and I am sure they will both
take up the challenge and accept the leadership of those who propose it.
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