Danny Boyle could have zeroed in on any phase of British history when he curated the opening ceremony of the London Olympics in 2012. The director chose the industrial revolution, reimagining the stadium as an open-air smithy inspected by Sir Kenneth Branagh in the role of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.
Boyle intuited that, in the last years of the second Elizabethan age, Britons still aspire to Victorian ideals of making and doing. We even have a Victorian chancellor of the exchequer.
Born in 1971, George Osborne’s governing ethos of market liberalism and statist grands projets is purest 1871. He cast his Conservatives as “builders” at their party conference in Manchester last week, itemising the railways and housing estates he is restless to plant on verdant England. One of his first executive decisions in 2010 was to save various construction works from his own fiscal squeeze, including London’s Francis Crick Institute for medical research.
Our regard for 19th century derring-do comes with remorse at having turned away from it. We have a financialised economy now, a diminished manufacturing sector and house prices that reflect decades of under-construction. When we contrast the epic Gothic architecture of St Pancras station and Manchester town hall with the post-war utilitarianism of our high streets, we could be describing our shrunken status in the world. Osborne himself has maddened economists who think Britain should exploit its low borrowing costs to splurge on infrastructure.
So there is atonement in the Tories’ impatience to build: they are making up for half a century of British complacency. Whether their natural supporters will go with them all the way is less obvious. To list the opponents of major building projects is to map the Tory universe. The prosperous Home Counties are suspicious of any concrete encroachment on the Greenbelt that surrounds the capital, which is the logical place to build homes. Boris Johnson, the Conservative mayor of London, and Zac Goldsmith, his putative successor, both promise to raise hell if a third runway is laid at Heathrow airport.
Osborne is open about the hostility to high-speed rail in Tatton, the moneyed patch of Cheshire he represents in parliament. Eco-zealots and anti-growth leftists hate all these proposals too, but they are few in number and puny in electoral clout.
The real resistance to neo-Victorianism is sleepy Tory England, which stirs only to visit the polling station every five years.
The coming years will test the Conservative soul. The party is simultaneously a force for market-led growth and a lobby group for the already comfortable.
It believes in creative destruction even as it cherishes order, hierarchy and the eternal countryside. It is Milton Friedman and it is Michael Oakeshott. Sometimes the two impulses burn in the same breast; David Cameron is the most eminent case in point. So much hinges on which way he goes in the final years of his premiership.
The status quo is precision engineered for middle-class homeowners in the south-east of England. London is open enough to draw in wealth from around the world, but the planning laws are closed enough to stymie its physical growth. So properties appreciate in value and accidental millionaires proliferate, for whom any change — noisy new air traffic, unsightly building projects — can only be bad.
Getting around this will require a different kind of construction work. A political coalition has to be forged between the young, many of whom are priced out of home ownership, and business, whose grievances with Britain’s planning and land use laws go back decades. Opponents cannot be wished away but the state can be more creative in giving them material incentives to tolerate development, as already happens in communities affected by fracking.
And with his talent for calculation, Osborne might decide that England’s nimbies do not have anywhere to go. The populist UK Independence party is no great force in the richer parts of the south. The opposition Labour party is the Other for these voters, and ever more so under Jeremy Corbyn’s leftist leadership. The Liberal Democrats survive only as scattered remnants. Tory MPs have super-majorities in counties such as Surrey and Berkshire.
Local disaffection at development work might reduce these margins to merely comfortable levels, but that makes no difference to the party’s parliamentary clout.
In the north of England, where Osborne envisages a ‘Powerhouse’ of new city mayors and transport connections, the electoral downside is similarly small. Where the Tories have seats, such as Tatton, there is no serious competition. Elsewhere, they can only go up, and a show of commitment to cities such as Manchester in hard concrete and steel might help the party do that.
Showing some stomach
Osborne might see his construction crusade as a test of liberal democracy as well as his own party. From his excursions he knows that authoritarian regimes can conjure whole cities — and airports, and mega-highways, and nuclear plants — without having to square the politics first.
Britain should not aspire to such governmental caprice. But nor can it deny that the hassle of building strategic infrastructure here blunts our competitive edge. Crossrail, the underground rail link that will span London, may turn out to be a wondrous thing, but it should have happened a generation ago. The third runway has been ducked for so long that Heathrow could by now do with a fourth, too.
“Be not afeard,” Sir Kenneth read from The Tempest during the Olympic opener, telling a nation about to go through the upheaval of industrialisation to show some stomach. The message should carry to Downing Street and the Treasury as they talk up another age of building.
Intellectually, it is obvious that Britain needs infrastructure and housing in particular. Technically, it is no great feat to achieve. The problem is political fear. The Tories’ real terror should be the prospect of governing for so long and leaving behind so little.
— Financial Times