It seems that a political head of steam is building up around the issue of a proposed third runway at Heathrow. Many business leaders are telling us what a good idea it is (draw your own conclusions from that) and it does seem like the government is coming around to the idea. Politicians of all stripes do like big, shiny, state-backed infrastructure projects and this governed of supposedly dyed-in-the-wool Thatcherites is no different.
The big imperative for the government though seems to be the act of looking like they are “doing something”. With the economy predictably flatlining, “doing something”, whatever that might be becomes a priority. “Doing nothing” isn’t an option. Even though that is precisely what this government thinks it should be doing if it was being intellectually honest. Isn’t that the whole point of rolling back the frontiers of the state and leaving the market to its own devices?
The “do something tendency” is represented most ludicrously by Jackie Ashley in the Guardian, who manages to completely sit on the fence for an entire article and yet still implore the government to act:
I go back to where I started. There is no “right”, self-evident, politically safe answer – Boris Island is vastly expensive and would take for ever; neither Gatwick nor Stansted are easy to expand; and Heathrow would be a big political U-turn, probably causing resignations. Yet something needs to be done. And we are now at the point when it’s more important to take a decision – any decision – than to carry on mumbling. So, ministers, be open with us. Spell out the problems with all the options. Then, for God’s sake, choose one. That’s what the cabinet is there for – and if it can’t take big, strategic decisions, it’s barely a government.
I may not agree with Jo Valentine, the chief executive of business group London First, who argued on Sunday that expansion at Heathrow was the right answer. But she is certainly right when she says: “The time for ministers to prevaricate is long past.”
I’m still unclear why doing nothing isn’t an option to be honest. It hasn’t brought the world crashing in around us, won’t do so if it carries on for a while, and even if a decision was made (which would presumably involve expanding capacity somewhere) it wouldn’t actually change anything in the short term. The economy has many problems but resolving this question one way or another won’t make any difference. Expanding Heathrow or building a new airport isn’t the magic bullet that its proponents argue it is.
The subtext of Ashley’s argument is that choosing one of the expansion options is more important than the environmental concerns that she quite deliberately doesn’t spell out in very great detail. Flying less or even just not increasing the amount of flights isn’t on the agenda, sadly.
There is a ‘right’ answer. Stop the obsession with growth at the expense of the environment and have policy focus more on the way that our wealth is distributed rather than just trying to increase the GDP figure. It means nothing when most of it is concentrated in the hands of a small section of the population.
More and more flights aren’t sustainable and yet the liberal commentariat seem to have a problem getting their hands around that concept, as I have argued previously. The poverty of ambition intellectually is rather sad to behold and the devotion to the nostrums of the status quo, although perfectly explicable, is still a bit depressing.
In the category of the intellectually unambitious I would certainly include the painfully dreary Alastair Darling, whose intervention in support of a third runway was as predictable as it was stupid. Sunny Hundal takes Darling’s ‘arguments’, such as they are, apart over at Liberal Conspiracy. The idea that the absence of a third runway is causing economic hardship to the nation is frankly delusional. That doesn’t stop Darling suggesting it though. I suppose he needed to say something to get back in the headlines……..
All this posturing reinforces a simple point. The political class haven’t really got any answers right now and are flailing about to look for something, anything, to look like they know what they are doing and have answers to the economic malaise. A third runway is the big shiny thing that is currently the flavour of the month, just like a few months ago it was HS2. What next? A new space programme? Less bank holidays? Pay cuts for the proles? Oh, wait a minute……….