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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 gods.

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 projects'.

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 supported it!

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 from them.

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 again.

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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