Henry Hill: ‘Great British Railways’ must be far more than an English franchise reorganisation

20 May

One hallmark of the Government’s approach to the constitutional struggle to hold the United Kingdom together has been a recognition that pro-Union policy is not simply a matter for a single department: it needs to run throughout the business of the State.

This includes transport, with the first ‘Union Connectivity Review’ being published earlier this year. It highlighted different ways in which Westminster could invest in Britain’s strategic transport network to better-integrate the nation.

And it that light it is intriguing that Ministers have decided to take a step back towards a national rail network with the launch of ‘Great British Railways’ (GBR).

On the face of it, this is primarily a reorganisation of the franchise system in England – control over passenger franchises in Scotland and Wales is, alas, devolved. Most of the coverage has focused on this.

But the move still opens up some possibilities which Michael Gove and the rest of the Government’s Union strategy team should consider.

For example, GBR will apparently inherit from Network Rail the duty to “run and plan the network, as well as providing online tickets, information and compensation for passengers nationwide.” This opens up the possibility of a national ticketing app, with the Great British Railways branding.

Then there’s the question of livery. At present, train operators get to decorate their rolling stock in their own colours. But there’s no particular reason this should be. It’s not as if they need the advertising, nor do their brands carry the historic and emotional heft that the famous schemes of the genuinely private railways did. And again, there may be scope to take back control of this. The FT reports:

“The reforms will still allow private companies to run services but they will instead work under a more prescriptive management contract, similar to the system in place on the London Overground.”

The Overground operates under its own livery. Why could GBR franchises not do the same? There is surely a case at least for putting the cross-border inter-city services in national colours (perhaps an updated take on Network SouthEast), to match the saltires splashed all over Scotrail trains. And if Northern are still running trains to Glasgow, a new paint job would be a great moment for the Government to stump up for good rolling stock.

Whatever its failings – and they were multitude – branding was one thing British Rail took seriously and was remarkably good at. We need more national institutions to give a British shape to life, and GBR should be one of them.

Beattie acknowledges how Ulster’s separate unionist parties weaken the Union

Last week Doug Beattie, the newly-installed leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, hit out at Boris Johnson. He branded the Prime Minister an ‘English nationalist’, who was prepared to ignore Northern Ireland as the Conservatives have no electoral stake in the Province.

Now the charge of ‘English nationalism’ is a tedious, largely Remainer trope that I have dealt with elsewhere. Suffice to say, an actual English nationalist would not be passing controversial legislation to enable Westminster to spend even more money on Northern Ireland, as this Government is.

But Beattie’s second charge is more interesting. Here are his exact words: “He’s concerned with the English vote. There’s no vote in Northern Ireland for him or his Conservative party so he doesn’t care, he’s hands off.”

It isn’t hard to believe that there may be some truth to the suggestion that Johnson would be less cavalier in his treatment of Ulster if it returned even a handful of Government MPs. (Something that ought to give die-hard advocates of splitting off the Scottish Conservatives pause for thought.) But it invites an obvious question: what is to be done about it?

Unfortunately, there is little sign that Beattie actually intends to do anything differently, in this regard at least, to the Democratic Unionists he hopes to supplant. Standing on the sidelines of national politics and shouting is just what capital-U Unionism does now. The wholly superior vision of the Campaign for Equal Citizenship is long abandoned.

Given the furious backlash over the Protocol, as well as the ill-managed disappointment that was the two parties’ 2010 link-up (under the awful acronym ‘UCUNF’), one can understand why Northern Irish politicians shy away from the Tories. But that’s the insidious appeal of nationalism: it will always be easier, in the short term, to spurn complicating national attachments in favour of tacking to local winds and making off with as much cash as you can lay your hands on. But such an approach offers a bleak long-term outlook for the UK.