No, the UK shouldn’t accept it is London-centred

Intelligent, though unimaginative, piece today in the FT by its regular political columnist Janan Ganesh.

UK should accept it is London-centred‘, he says. (Oxford readers, by the way, can register on the FT and receive a premium subscription for free).

His argument, essentially, is that governments have wasted public money attempting to alleviate the North-South divide with little, if any, success. That’s money that should be spent, well, on London-stuff. Moreover the mission of injecting prosperity up the M6 “slander[s] London”. If Northerners don’t like the (widening) gulf, they should just move.

Like Ganesh, I don’t think the North is poor because London is affluent. If someone dropped a big bomb on the City tomorrow, we’d all be worse off.

As John Micklethwait, editor of The Economist, said to me in an interview last year, “every country in the world would kill to have a London”. He’s surely right.

That quote appears in a piece I wrote for Isis, the long-running Oxford student magazine, entitled ‘Is London Leaving The Country Behind?

But as I wrote then there’s a problem when one city – albeit one that is a cash cow for the nation – becomes, to use Ganesh’s phrase, a “domineering metropolis”.

Reading it back now I still agree with why the North-South divide is a problem, but now, unlike then, I have a better idea about what I’d do to try and amend it.

I’m not at all convinced by High Speed 2, the £43 billion (assuming no cost over-runs) project to cut 40 minutes off the Manchester-London journey time. It will take decades to complete, the benefit calculations assume journeys are dead economic time (not true now; even less true in 2033) and it seems just as likely to funnel jobs southwards rather than northwards.

The argument for HS2 has always been somewhat patronising, namely that the only way to help the regions is to move them closer to London. I’m not against this in principle, of course, but it explains why (mostly Southern) politicians neglect HS2’s huge opportunity costs.

The money would be much better spent on infrastructure both within  Northern cities and between them. Travelling from one suburb of Manchester to another on the other side via public transport can take an hour and a half, at least. The equivalent journey in London, in my experience, would take less than an hour because the network is more extensive and services are faster and more frequent.

Similarly transport between Northern cities is onerous. I was amused by this stat today: it apparently takes longer to go from Manchester to Liverpool today, in 2013, than it did in 1883.

The distance from Manchester to Newcastle is 10 miles less than that between Manchester and London, but the fastest trains take more than half an hour longer to get there.

The logic of HS2 treats Northern urbanities as islands which can only be salvaged by plugging them into the South-East, but instead government policy should be focused at connected them to one another.

I also think that cities across the North would benefit enormously from more Borises, that is, more directly elected mayors with large mandates and large public profiles.

There’s no question that London’s big dollops of public investment – Crossrail most notably – are the result of a powerful City Hall lobby, especially when that lobby belongs to the same political party as the sitting Westminster government.

Most cities voted against directly elected mayoralties in recent referenda in May last year. That’s a real shame: the effect of having a charismatic, vocal Mancunian mayor on the television each night, writing newspaper columns and lobbying Westminster 24/7 would really benefit those voters who, sadly I think, succumbed to the short-sighted view that the last thing we need is more politicians on the public payroll.

So whilst accepting the failures – well documented by Ganesh – of previous and present attempts to redress regional economic inequalities, we shouldn’t give up. A combination of North-North infrastructure investment and direct democratic localism can, in time, really make a difference.

Understanding Navalny

I was enjoying a quiet day at home until news of the royal baby’s imminent arrival started taking off on twitter, which is my usual vehicle for serial procrastination during profoundly unproductive days.

I’ve found an interesting refuge from the baby chat, though: the trial, conviction, and (temporary) release of opposition activist Alexey Navalny in Russia.

Navalny, succinctly profiled here by the BBC, made a name for himself exposing state and corporate corruption. He has provocatively called United Russia, the ruling regime, “the party of crooks and thieves” and has political aspirations; he hopes to run in the Moscow mayoral election in September.

The Putin-era judicial system metes out justice selectively to the Russian president’s political opponents, “using the courts against political opponents“, as Mikhail Gorbachev describes it. Navalny has farcically been convicted of embezzlement by a judge who has not delivered a single acquittal in his past 130 cases, displaying a “remarkable faith” in Russian state prosecutors, as the Sunday Times’ Mark Franchetti put it.

Alexey Navalny

Alexey Navalny

However Western politicians and journalists should be careful to avoid a lazy understanding of the Russian opposition. The temptation is to assume that our own concerns with the Putin regime – its thuggishness and intolerance towards opponents, at home and abroad – are the same as those of the domestic opposition.

But they are not. Navalny excites the West because he is a genuinely popular figure, with rising name recognition and sympathy, powered by capturing the social media generation. But this isn’t Obama ’08: Navalny’s politics are complicated and don’t fit easily into the liberal dissident stereotype assigned to him by the British press, notably the Guardian.

Of the three high-profile Putin-era victims – Khodorkovsky, Magnitsky and Navalny – only one  (Magnitsky) can in any sense be described as liberal. And he’s dead.

Khodorkovsky, as a friend from a Russian family points out, belonged to a tiny oligarchical elite that privatised the profits and the power of the nascent Russian state whilst society crumbled around them. His politics were, and remain, obscure: to read his recent Guardian op-ed you’d think he was a dissident liberal, a position that sits uncomfortably with the role of the oligarchs in marshalling the mass media to promote Yeltsin’s fledgling re-election bid in 1996.

Navalny is not wealthy, nor does he pursue wealth. But he represents the third wave of post-Soviet Russian nationalism (the first and second embodied by Yeltsin and Putin respectively). He has spoken at far-right rallies and has adopted a hostile attitude to immigrants who aren’t “native inhabitants” of Russia. As Miriam Elder, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent, put it, “Navalny is far from perfect politically, very far” – that is, from a Western point of view.

But the truth is that other opposition figures such as Kasparov, who through my Dad’s chess connections I was fortunate enough to meet last year, stand little chance in Russian politics, hobbled by their cosmopolitan, Western lifestyle and outlook.

Navalny will not avoid prison. As the retrial of Khodorkovsky demonstrates, he may not even emerge from it when the 5 year sentence ends in 2013. But when Navalny becomes a free man again he will have a choice to make: draw on the support of wealthy, but unpopular, backers such as Khodorkovsky and Prokhorov, or unite an opposition that is distinctly Russian and excludes the big money.

In any case I suspect he won’t be in a position to make that choice for some time.

Oxford Union invites EDL leader Tommy Robinson

I was quite pleased with this story, both because it’s a great scoop and because it came so easily. I was checking my twitter feed late one evening and saw an invite to Robinson made by an Oxford fresher – later confirmed to be a member of Secretary’s Committee – that had been retweeted by someone I follow.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with invites to nasties like Griffin and Robinson for well-rehearsed reasons of defending the principle of free speech. I suspect that a silent, but large, majority of Oxford Union members agree, even if a vocal minority of Oxford students (disproportionally represented at OUSU, the student union) vociferously don’t.

As an interesting aside, this story was evidently shared widely on social media – including on EDL forums. Several of the comments underneath the article, odious as they are, are worth reading in full.

Why is Generation Y more right-wing?

There’s been a lot of chatter about the so-called ‘Generation Y’ recently.

The term describes the 18-33 demographic (those born in the 1980s onwards) that is allegedly more liberal, in the classical sense, than previous generations. The change is reflected in the increase in Tory affiliation, from 10% of those Gen Y folk polled in 1997 to 20% today.

Ipsos Mori pollster Bobby Duffy, who led the research, suggests “They believe people need to take greater personal responsibility rather than looking to the state – perhaps reflecting the fact that they have had less support themselves than other recent generations.”

I think that’s right. A welfare state depends on a spirit of trust and reciprocity existing between its recipients. ‘I owe it to pay him a pension because he subsidised my university tuition’ etc.

But what if your university tuition, or housing, or childcare costs, are no longer billed, in part, to someone else. You become less prepared to foot other people’s bills, right, especially groups like the unemployed who are unlikely to have been able to return the favour in the past, present or future.

It’s important to remember that the welfare state grew out of and was designed on a system of social insurance. You pay in, and you get out. That’s long since stopped being the reality, but what the polling represents, I think, is that the public’s understanding of welfare remains largely informed by the principle of insurance, not redistribution.