East Coast Madness

The Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin recently announced that a new franchise for the East Coast Main Line, (that’s the classic route of the Flying Scotsman from London to Edinburgh) would be  awarded from 2016. The bidding race for this prestigious franchise has begun. What the Government is looking for is a franchisee that will invest in services, provide ‘innovative timetabling’ (whatever that means) and pay a load of dosh back to the Treasury (which most franschises to date haven’t).

The current franchisee has operated the route for four years. It has increased the frequency of services, introduced direct services between Lincoln and London, runs between Harrogate and London seven days a week, it has invested significantly and it expects to return a billion pounds to the Treasury over the first five years of the franchise. With such a track record (no pun intended) of success you might think that the franchisee would be a strong favourite to be awarded the new franchise. You would be wrong because it is not being allowed to bid. The reason for this is that  the franchisee is the publicly owned Directly Operated Railways who stepped in in 2009 after the withdrawal of both GNER and National Express. Where the private sector failed they have succeeded and not for the first time. They ran South East Trains  successfully after the abysmal failures of Connex.  They are, therefore, an embarrassment to politicians trapped in the dogma that the private sector is always better than the public. And private sector operators hate them. Stagecoach have issued a rather intemperate statement saying that a competitive bidding process will generate much better returns than simply handing a franchise to a public sector operator. Maybe but that is no reason why a successful incumbent should not be allowed to bid and, besides, previous competitions did not realise great benefits for the public purse as wildly optimistic private sector bids led to operators pulling out of contractual obligations when they found they couldn’t afford them. These episodes raise a significant question about the whole concept of franchising and certainly about the folly of not allowing BR to remain in existence as a train operator at privatisation. .

Coming from Stagecoach, a specialist in monopolistic and anti-competitive practices  and whose owners have amassed huge wealth from milking the taxpayer, talk of free markets and competition is frankly a bit rich (again no pun intended). They are but one example of the parasite capitalism that I will return to in a future post. It is the almost theological belief in the private sector that has helped this situation to come about. As we can see with the East Coast franchise ideology continues to hold sway over boring old facts.


Buzzing in the Hive

The first thing good  sign was that, silly UEFA regulations not withstanding, they were serving beer in the bar at The Hive, the sports complex in Edgware where Barnet FC now play their home games, and where Arsenal Ladies were staging their home Champions League tie against Glasgow City as their landlords Borehamwood had a home FA Cup tie against Carlisle. It was busy inside and a fair number had come down from Glasgow. A group of them acknowledged me as I passed them in my amber and black scarf. I went over to talk, explaining that I was really a Turbine Potsdam supporter and had acquired the scarf in a swap after the tie in Glasgow two years ago. One lady looked at the scarf closely, then announced.

‘It was me you swapped with!’

She beamed and gave me a hug. In that moment, I suppose, I became an honorary Glaswegian, at least for the day. I confirmed my impression of two years ago, that the Glasgow City supporters are a very friendly bunch,

Just before one o’clock we walked round to take our places in the ground. The Hive is yet another identikit modern football ground, tidy and modern but really without character. Without much atmosphere either except for the noisy support of the Scottish contingent.

The game was, from a Glasgow respective, a disappointment.  A 4-1-4-1 formation never really worked, City failed to press and played too narrow which allowed Rachel Yankey and ex City player Emma Mitchell  the space to cause lots of problems down Arsenal’s left. They were in front after 12 minutes with a header following a short corner and although City had a couple of half chances in the first half the pattern of the game was set.  After 34 minutes Ellen White turned and shot narrowly wide. Two people thought this was a goal. One was an elderly chap who quickly stifled a cheer. The other, to general amusement, was the stadium announcer;.who. as Glasgow moved the ball upfield informed us that it was now 2-0 to the Gunners. The Scottish mirth didn’t last long as within a couple of minutes it was 2-0 as poor defending allowed Danielle Carter to score following a high ball into the box.

In the half time tea bar queue, which was long enough for people to have to stand on the muddy bank and watch passing Jubilee Line trains, City fans were fearing the worst.

‘It’ll be 6-0’ one announced confidently. No-one contradicted him.

In the end it was 3-0. Ellen White finally did get a goal and as Arsenal  continued to dominate it could have been worse. The goalkeeper made a couple of good saves, the crossbar was hit twice and there were a couple of timely interceptions as Arsenal’s pace and movement always looked like opening Glasgow up.

The consolation for Glasgow, I suppose, is that Arsenal could have killed the tie off but didn’t. City will need to play much better than this on Wednesday though. They were too negative today. In the second half Glasgow’s midfield was playing just in front of the back four most of the time, allowing Arsenal too much tine on the ball as they built from deep positions and preventing them getting support to a very isolated Jess Fishlock when they were able to clear. Petershill is a cold uninviting place when the wind blows, there will be a sell-out partisan crowd, so who knows?

Back in the bar I caught up with former Lincoln Ladies Supporters Club chairman Tom Johnstone. He will, he says, not be following the club to Nottingham where they are playing as Notts County Ladies from next season. He’s going back to his roots and Glasgow City are now his team. He tried hard to hide his annoyance as an elderly Arsenal fan came over to tell us how rubbish City were.

‘It was tactics’ said Tom  ‘part of our game plan’ .

‘How can you be in the Champions’ League? You’re rubbish!’ persisted the charmless Arsenal fan..

‘Because we’re Champions’ I suggested, ‘in 2013 as well.’

He glared at me and shuffled off.

It was back at Marylebone, in the wonderful wood-panelled bar, that I began to think about the issue of Scottish independence. I have never actually asked a Scot how they will vote in next year’s referendum. I missed an opportunity today. I wondered whether I would vote for independence if I lived in Scotland? There was a film about Boris Johnson on BBC2 in which several participants expressed the view that the prospect of Boris becoming Prime Minister had to be taken very seriously. When I heard this I knew that I would.

Remembering Tadeusz Mazowiecki

I first visited Poland in September 1989 in what were interesting times. The place was in many ways bleak, the shops were empty and many people appeared worn down by the daily battle to put food on the table in an economy of endemic shortages and a currency that was practically worthless. The first signs of change, and hope, had however already appeared. The previous month Tadeusz Mazowiecki, whose funeral was held in Warsaw yesterday, had been sworn in as the country’s first non-Communist Prime Minister since 1948.  This followed what seemed at the time a bold experiment. Following round table discussions between the Communists and the Solidarity opposition in the spring of 1989, it had been agreed that partially free elections to the Parliament or Sejm would be held. A third of the seats would be contested with two thirds reserved for the Polish United Workers’ party (PZPR). The elections were held on Sunday 4th June 1989 and resulted in a Solidarity landslide. Two months of delicate negotiations later, Mazowiecki formed his Solidarity government.

He seemed an unlikely politician, with the air of a professor unwillingly dragged from his study, uninterested in power for its own sake but taking on this difficult and challenging job out of a sense of duty to his country. It was his government that set in train the reforms that have let Poland to where it is now, a country that is far from perfect but which is a stable parliamentary democracy, one with institutions strong enough to survive the decimation of the Polish elite in the Smolensk disaster.

What Mazowiecki had to do quickly made him unpopular. He appointed Leszek Balcerowicz as Finance Minister and, on January 1st 1990, the free market shock therapy that was intended to bring the country back from the brink of bankruptcy began.  Later that year, as more and more people felts the effects of the shock therapy, Mazowiecki stood against Lech Wałęsa for President. This proved a humiliation for him as he came third in the First round, behind a Polish-Canadian businessman of dubious background called Stan Tyminski. This marked the end of Mazowiecki’s career in Polish domestic politics and it was others who carried the reforms on.

A quarter of a century on then, Poland has institutions whose functioning was barely affected by Smolensk. Smolensk is in many ways a measure of the success of the last twenty for years yet it has become a rallying point for people who ultimately reject all that has happened in Poland since 1989. A section of the nationalist and integrist right is convinced that what happened in 10th April 2010 was no accident, but murder by the Russians, probably in a conspiracy with the current liberal right of centre Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Their views are unsupported by evidence and seemingly impervious to reasoned argument. In fact the groups that propagate these views have all the essential characteristics of cults. Not for nothing have Polish commentators coined the term ‘religia Smoleńska’. Many of these people also argue that the Third Polish Republic formally inaugurated in 1990 needs to be replaced by a Fourth Republic. They suggest that what happened in 1989 was at best a messy and unsatisfactory compromise, at worst a sell-out to the Communist and a betrayal of national interests. They argue that, in the wake of Solidarity’s overwhelming victory in the 1989 election, maximalist demands should have been pursued and the Communists swept from power.

This view is both unrealistic and anachronistic. In the summer of 1989 no-one foresaw the dramatic events of the Autumn when, in the space of two months, Communist regimes fell from Sofia to East Berlin. No-one knew how the Soviet Union would react and everyone was aware that there were several thousand Soviet troops stationed in the country. There were significant dangers in the Solidarity negotiators overplaying their hand. What they did was come up with a formula ‘Your President, Our Prime Minister’ which kept the Communist Wojciech Jaruzelski as head of state while deftly removing from him the levers of power. The reforms could begin and the Soviet Union was reassured. A difficult hand had been played with great skill.

With the exception of the nationalist fanatics whose electoral base is, one must hope, in long term  decline, Poland is actually quite a normal country these days. Large crowds came to say farewell to Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Perhaps they had finally learned to love a man who governed them out of a sense of duty and not through personal ambition, a man they could contrast with today’s politicians who many Poles see as venal and corrupt. Their low opinion of career politicians is something they share with people in many other countries and another sign of Poland’s normality. Maybe that too is part of Mazowiecki’s achievement.