Friday, January 09, 2009


Boris and the Tories – Nationalism or Nationalisation?

I’ve not been too well (for a change), but a story from the last week or so’s caught my eye. With all the attention on Mr Cameron’s switch from his early “Let sunshine win the day” to his old-fashioned Daily Mail-friendly ‘Modern life is horrible’ social attitudes, people haven’t been saying much about that older Tory tension between hard-faced British nationalism and starry-eyed worship of their version of the free market – perhaps they’re fighting shy of the economy, with Mr Osborne so clueless. So what’s London Mayor Boris Johnson’s answer? Britain’s most powerful elected Tory has gone for nationalisation.

You might find this a surprise from a party that embraces full-blooded capitalism, except on alternate days when Mr Cameron’s calling for the imprisonment of bankers, or that so excoriated the Labour Government’s nationalisation of banks, except on alternate days when Mr Osborne acquiesced in said it should have been done sooner supported said it should have been done later didn’t know whether he was coming or going over the policy. But there we go.

So, what’s Boris decided to nationalise? A bank? The Tube? A housing corporation? Something really important to the well-being of Londoners, no doubt.

Well… Not exactly. He’s nationalised a brand.

Still, with all the fuss the Tories are making over how much all the Labour Government’s nationalisations and other economic interventions are costing, both now, and in borrowing, and in deferred tax rises, and in money shovelled off onto council tax payers, Mr Johnson must have got a really good deal and not hidden it away in stealth taxes like Labour do, eh?

Well… Not exactly. He’s refusing to say how much of our money he’s spent.

You see, at his regular question session at the London Assembly the other week, Liberal Democrat Assembly Member Caroline Pidgeon asked
“What has been the cost to the taxpayer of TfL [Transport for London] buying ownership of the Oyster brand?”
That’s the brand, you understand. Not the Tube itself, but the brand for the card you can use to travel on it. Personally, I’d like to ask former Mayor Ken Livingstone just what he was doing letting a natural monopoly be private in the first place, but that train’s left the platform. Anyway, apparently we’ve all clubbed together and bought it now, so how much did we spend, Mr Johnson?
“Under the terms of the recent agreement between TfL, Electronic Data Systems and Cubic Transportation Systems TfL agreed to treat this information as being commercially confidential.”
Riiiigght. So, those eight million or so of us who live in London have just had a big – or a medium – almost certainly not a small outlay on something important, but we’re not allowed to know how much it cost. We just sign a blank cheque with our council tax precepts. As Mark Pack wrote about the story:
“Spending 50p on it would be a bargain. Spending £500 million would be a rip-off. The problem is, we don’t know whether or not a good deal was negotiated in our name. The figure is secret because TfL (proprietor: one Boris Johnson) agreed to keep it so - and Boris Johnson is happy with this state of affairs.

“In other words - terribly sorry old bean, I know you might wondering whether we’re spending your shillings properly, but it’s all a jolly big secret.”
I wonder how many people who voted for ‘Boris’ expected this? From a man who promised to be open and transparent when he ran for office, unlike the secret deals and cronies that he attacked ‘Ken’ for? And how many expected secret council tax-paid nationalisations from a Tory? At least he’s kept up with my expectations of his economic competence.

In other news, the privately-owned, natural monopoly Tube, the bit which actually does things and hasn’t been nationalised by Mr Johnson, saw its fares rise last week by an average of 6%. London Buses, too. Passengers will continue to pay through the nose and above inflation, as we’ve done year after year. I moved in with Richard fifteen years ago; I don’t dare look up what prices I was paying on public transport then. Still, it’s not like Mr Johnson’s short of a few bob and his own very personal public transport with chauffeurs, eh? Or share a taxi with Brian Coleman. And if he runs short, he can always take a bit more from us.

After all, he doesn’t have to tell us.

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