We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Some sports news

Team 1: A Samar, Mudassar Muhammad, R Pillai, D Weston, Sajid Liaqat, Asad Mohammad, Khaled Khan, Kashif Hussain, ME Latif, D Kumar.

Team 2: Afzal Virk, B Zaigham, Sadat Sidiqi, Azam Khalil, Shahzeb Choudhry, Usman Arif, Muhammad Asif, Azam Mohammad, Mohammad Naveed, Sweed Ullah, W Jalali.

Team 1 is Germany. Team 2 is Sweden. These two teams have today been contesting a game of cricket, a game truncated by the weather. Keep track of all the other games in the ICC World Cricket League Europe Region Division Two Twenty20, here.

I know what you’re thinking. “D Weston” doesn’t sound like a very German sort of name.

Unilateral free trade in mainstream media

I have been banging on for weeks to anyone who will listen that all this talk about the importance of getting good trade deals is nonsense. All that is needed is unilateral free trade.

Just now I stumbled upon an article in the Guardian, of all places, discussing just that. Even talking about “the unilateral free trade option”.

A group called Economists for Brexit seem to have got it in the paper. Jolly good work!

A hundred billion here, a hundred billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money

Bloomberg reports:

EU Banks Need $166 Billion, Deutsche Bank Economist Tells Welt

Europe urgently needs a 150 billion-euro ($166 billion) bailout fund to recapitalize its beleaguered banks, particularly those in Italy, Deutsche Bank AG’s chief economist said in an interview with Welt am Sonntag.

“Europe is extremely sick and must start dealing with its problems extremely quickly, or else there may be an accident,” Deutsche Bank’s David Folkerts-Landau said, according to the newspaper.

Reflections on free trade

With the Brexit vote of last week continuing to send shockwaves through the corridors of power (does that mean those corridors are vibrating, door handles jiggling and lights flickering?), one argument I have seen break out is of how the UK will, without being in the mighty, efficient and effective mechanism of the EU, be able to work out a deal. (If you are detecting a touch of sarcasm, you are correct.) For example, on a social media exchange, a person earnestly exclaimed that the UK can’t possibly arrange a free trade agreement (FTA) with India because the Indians just won’t, just won’t agree on one with us, because, well, they won’t. A stock argument goes that if the UK leaves the EU, then depending on whether it does or does not retain Single Market access, like Switzerland, other countries will be reluctant to trade with the UK. Why? Because the only reason, it is said, that people want to engage with the UK is because it gives access to the rest of the EU. The UK is, on this argument, nothing more than a conduit, an entrepôt, for Europe. The fact that another country might want to deal with the world’s fifth-largest economy on its own right is scarcely entertained.

Funnily enough, last year I recall reporting on how Australia, which for some crazy nationalist reason isn’t in the EU, signed a trade deal with China, which much to its shame, isn’t in the EU either. China is the world’s second-largest economy; Australia is some way down the order but still relatively significant. These two nations signed a deal. It was done without all the structures of a transnational organisation. This is an event that, for quite a lot of people, is unthinkable, like a decent summer in England.

Another option for the UK is to simply declare unilateral free trade, rather than wait for some grand negotiation with the EU over access. There is a consideration of this approach at Econlog here:

But if the new British prime minister want to puzzle and indeed shock its European counterparts, this may well be the best option. Go ahead and zero tariffs on imports coming from the EU. It might well be one of those very few choices that could prove to be economically beneficially in the long run, not least because it will minimize the problem of capture by special interest groups when it comes to trade policy. But it may prove to be expedient from a political perspective too. As the government should run through the Houses its proposed “interpretation” of the vote (which was, after all, a consultative referendum), open support for free trade may help, in the short run, to restore peace and harmony among the Tories. On top of this, it might give the UK a strong card in negotiations with the EU, making retaliatory attempts hard to “sell” to the public.

And here is Tim Worstall on the same subject:

The entire point of trade is that we can get our hands on what they make: so why would we ever want to have anything other than unilateral free trade? Why would we impose tariffs on the very things we want and make them more expensive for ourselves?

Sure, other people might impose tariffs on our exports. But that means that they are making themselves poorer by not having tax free access to the lovely things that we can make cheaper or better than they can. As Joan Robinson was fond of pointing out, tariffs are like throwing rocks in the harbour to make imports more difficult. And just because you are throwing rocks in your harbour there’s no reason I should throw rocks in my own. To do so just makes me worse off and why should I do that?

As I have said recently, one of the excellent consequences of Brexit is that it rends apart many of the lazy assumptions that give rise to transnational organisations, as well as the assumptions of the sort of people who prosper in working for them. It makes us think again about what sort of rules and regulations, if any, are needed so that human beings can trade. And those of a classical liberal disposition need to take the lead in pointing out that ultimately, countries don’t trade, individuals do. Any attempt to interfere with such transactions is ultimately about Person A being prevented from transacting with Person B on terms to their liking.

Maybe it is also time to dust of the speeches and writings of Richard Cobden.

 

Brexit and class

Brendan O’Neill, the editor of the publication Spiked, and who is an ardent Leaver when it comes to the European Union, has been writing about how the exit vote last week can be largely explained in terms of class and attitudes of elites. (O’Neill is, or is recovering from being, a Marxist, so his economics still seems a bit suspect to me, even though I like the cut of his jib generally, especially on other issues around liberty and government).

I think the class analysis has some validity; it is worth noting that there is more to class-based interpretations of what is going on than the Marxian version. There are, in the classical liberal/conservative traditions of political philosophy and approach, uses of class as a way of seeing how the world works. One person’s essay that I am reminded of is the famous one by William Graham Sumner, The Forgotten Man. Or perhaps a riff on the same tune is Nixon’s “great silent majority”. These approaches aren’t really about proletarians versus “bosses”. They are, in my view, more about those who are broadly self-reliant, deriving the bulk of their earnings from their own efforts and who aspire to have, and retain, capital, and those who do not. The latter can be those who subsist on state benefits, or grander folk working in the public sector paid for largely by the first group. (There are fuzzy boundaries between all types.) And I think that sort of split maps better in explaining whether you are going to be liberal or protectionist, for a big State or a smaller one. But it doesn’t necessarily help on explaining all the voting on the Brexit debate. I wrote this in response to one of O’Neill’s posts on Facebook, and I reproduce it here with some light edits:

I am not sure how far the class-based analysis can be made to work in terms of having a causal effect (remember that old warning about correlation and causation). Whether used in a Marxian or other sense, class can explain some of the differences, but some of the arguments cut across. I am middle class, working in the media covering private banking and wealth management around the world. My job takes me to the continent a lot, as well as Asia, the US, and Middle East. Some of the people I work with are from continental Europe. I am relaxed – mostly – about free movement of labour. I went to a good state school, went into higher ed. in the 1980s, my late mother was posh, my old man was a grammar schoolboy who later became a farmer and is comfortably off. I like classical music, fine art, French wine and sailing. So from a lot of points of view I am “middle class”. And I voted Leave. To some extent I “voted my wallet”, not, as might be the case with someone from the old industrial north, because I was worried about “cheap labour”, or had some notion that this will “save the NHS” or suchlike, but because I want the UK to have the freedom to negotiate new economic links outside the EU to hedge this country’s economy against the weakness, and possible crisis, in the eurozone. I am on the free market, libertarian end of the political and philosophical spectrum. I therefore loathe the unaccountable, nanny tendencies of the EU, and think my values will flourish if we leave.

 

Some more Brexit thoughts

Brexit. How about that then. Well, well, well. Many other writers here have been thinking aloud about this, and so, now, will I.

The London weather was very wet yesterday, and violently so in the late afternoon. But, it then calmed down. Did the violent rain disrupt travel and permanently muck people up, so they didn’t vote? Or, did the abatement of the rain enable Londoners to get out and vote without too much discomfort? I have just got up and look forward to finding out. I took an umbrella to my (very) local polling station, around 7pm, but I didn’t use it. Someone said last night that it would be just typical if Britain left the EU because of the weather, but it looks like it wasn’t that close.

Re the Jo Cox murder. Many Remainers used this horror to imply that voting Leave was like voting in favour of MPs being murdered. (The Remainers who refrained from using this argument were not so audible.) I surmise that (a) some potential Leavers were persuaded, (b) some potential Leavers were angered and caused to vote Leave having only previously been thinking about it, and (c) quite a few continued to move towards Leave for reasons unrelated to the Jo Cox murder, but in silence. When the Cox murder happened, there was a shift towards Leave taking place. I surmise that this continued to flow, but underground, so to speak. Minds continued to move, but people stopped telling the pollsters. But, they’ve told them now.

The above two points were already made by me here last night, in comments on Natalie Solent postings. Here are a few more Brexit thoughts.

→ Continue reading: Some more Brexit thoughts

A Remainer says the EU isn’t democratic – and that’s a feature, not a bug

It is rare at the moment to see an advocate for Remain come out openly and state that the lack of democracy is precisely what is good about the European Union. Most Remainers I encounter will bluster that there is nothing undemocratic about it, that MEPs have lots of powers, or that powers wielded by bureaucrats are okay because they are holding delegated powers, and stop moaning, shut up, etc. But Sam Bowman, of the Adam Smith Institute (broadly pro-leave as far as I know although there isn’t an official stance) has this to say from a FB posting he made the other day and which, he stresses, isn’t the official ASI view:

I like and respect many Leavers, but I’ve never shared their enthusiasm for democracy – I want liberty and prosperity, and I don’t want to trade that in just to give my stupid next-door neighbours more power over my life. To the extent that the EU does restrict democracy it is often for the best, preventing governments from doing nasty, illiberal things (like restricting immigration or subsidising domestic firms). There’s a small chance that a Jeremy Corbyn could be elected – if he is, under the British political system he would have basically unlimited power to do whatever he wants. The EU limits that power, and in my view that’s a good thing.

Of course, there are perhaps several reasons why you won’t read such a bracing critique of democracy from most Remainers. For a start, it would produce condemnation from all sides, including those on the Remain side who would be embarrassed that one of their side had spilled the beans, as it were. It is also brave to state a key issue of political theory, which is that, if you love liberty, then democracy can be as much a bug as a feature. The greatness of the United States, at least in terms of how it was conceived by the Founding Fathers, is that it is a constitutional republic, first and foremost, not a democracy. Democracy is the least-worst way we have of getting rid of governments; it is not a sure guardian of liberty, and there are examples of how democratically elected governments have trampled on property rights and other rights. Even if the UK does quit the EU – I personally suspect the Remain side will win this week – there is a real need to address how some of the checks and balances of the UK political order have been weakened dangerously by a succession of Conservative and Labour governments. The Common Law has been badly weakened and often this cannot be blamed on the evils of Brussels. We did this to ourselves. There aren’t a lot of Edward Cokes, Thomas Jeffersons, John Lockes or James Madisons on the Leave side, but we are going to need to do some clear thinking on the kind of country we want.

I personally think that Sam is wrong about the beneficial constraints, as he sees it, of the EU. It may be that some oppressive and foolish measures have been struck down by the EU, but there are also cases – such as a recent horrific example of the EU Arrest Warrant – where the illiberality of the EU is all too clear. Some dumbass British laws may have been struck down, but this is outweighed by outrages that haven’t been. The Leveson restrictions on the free UK press do not, as far as I know, face a challenge from Europe; the EU arguably is in favour of such a move. Quite a lot of the restrictions on freedom of speech in order to outlaw “hate crimes” haven’t been restricted by our being in the EU and the EU is pushing for moves in this area, in fact. Not many checks or balances there, I am afraid. I cannot think of any major “nanny state” restrictions pushed for at a UK level that have been beaten back by Brussels (I invite readers to give any cases if they exist). The regulatory upswing in the UK after the financial crisis has been made worse, not restricted, by the EU. The EU is pushing for additional layers of regulation on the City, and hasn’t as far as I know pushed in the reverse direction. In areas such as health and safety, the record of any constraint is non-existent.

Some subsidies and so on have been restricted by the Single Market, but that seems to be the main area where the EU might have been a net plus from a classical liberal point of view in keeping national lawmakers in check.

Sam’s other points are well made, but too much of it seems like he is against Leave because of that “tone” issue I mentioned the other day here. I am afraid I have long gone beyond the point where this matters to me one iota.

Addendum: Here is a nice item on James C Bennett, whom is known by some of us here, about the EU and the case for Brexit. Here is a link to his book, Time For Audacity.

Brexit will make the UK like Guernsey – So says a French pol

Of all the dire threats, this from the French Economy Minister (there is one? an economy I mean) is the most chilling, since it reminds me of how far we have fallen.

Leaving the European Union would make the UK as significant as Guernsey, France’s economy minister has said

So the rate of income tax would be a standard 20% and there would be no VAT and no Capital Gains or Inheritance Tax? That’s some good deal for being insignificant.

Of course, this 20% tax rate is an anomaly in Guernsey, it was introduced as 4 shillings in the pound (20 shillings per pound/livre) in WW2. Let’s look at some of the measures the Nazis introduced in the occupied Channel Islands.

On arrival in the islands, the Germans issued proclamations imposing new laws on the resident islanders. As time progressed, additional laws restricting rights were posted and had to be obeyed. The restrictions included:

Confiscation of:

weapons (1940)
boats (1940)
radios (1940) then (1942)
motor vehicles (forced sale) (1940)
cameras (1942)
fuel
houses
furniture

Restrictions on:

fishing (1940)
drinking spirits (1940)
exporting goods (1940)
changing prices of goods (1940)
patriotic songs and signs (1940)
more than three people meeting together (1940)
access to beaches
fuel
freedom of speech
access to medicines
some clubs and associations.

Changes to:

drive on right of roads (1941)
rations (1943, 44 & 45)
clocks to German time (1940)

Forced to accept:

curfew (1940)
exchange rate to Reichsmarks (1940)
census (1940)
identity cards (1941)
growing vegetables
food rationing (1940)
increase in income tax to 4/- (1940)
lodgers billeted
German language in schools
Cycling in single file (1941)
work from Germans
censorship

Well we have a long way to fall before that state of affairs, and cycling in double file is by no means discouraged bar some circumstances by the Highway Code, presumably in the hope of causing more accidents.

So let freedom reign, even though the sky (and tax rates) may fall.

And today, I couldn’t help noticing the timing of these sequential adverts on a hoarding in Newcastle.
Remain

and next this:
Greece

It is the scolding I cannot stand

The tone of an argument should not matter, I like to think, as much as the quality of the argument itself. I have been reading Charles Moore’s multi-book biography of Margaret Thatcher (he is working on volume three) and I am reminded of just how much a segment of the “chattering class” loathed her as much for what she sounded and looked like as what she said. To some extent, we try to rise above all this and point out the irrationality of disliking a view about X because of who is saying it, and so forth. Maggie was not the kind of person to pour a lot of oil on troubled waters (she was, however, more willing to temporize and compromise in certain cases than the standard narrative suggests). The accent, the emphasis, the Methodist-inspired approach, that “tone”, set a certain kind of person off the deep end. (To some extent, having wankers such as playwright Harold Pinter as your enemy is something to be quite proud of.) But even those who broadly agreed with a lot of what Maggie did and said might have to admit that it did put some quite otherwise rational people off.

And this leads me, to, yes, the Brexit vote this week. I cannot help but think that the very fact of Remainers often being the likes of the IMF, or Very Grand Economists, etc, is like the sensation for many of chalk scratching down a blackboard (I am giving my age away). When a EU Commissioner like Juncker attacks Brexiters, you can imagine how well, or badly, this goes down. And on the some of the interactions I have had on Facebook, much the same effect applies. I have been told, for instance, that the UK electorate has no excuse for whining about the undemocratic nature of the EU because British voters, by and large, don’t vote for MEPs and that the EU Parliament is chosen via proportional representation and therefore a fine and worthy body, and stop whining. The fact that MEPs cannot initiate, or repeal, legislation of any serious nature is ignored (MEPs do have blocking powers). And there have been a few outpourings of rage from a few of my acquaintances that a referendum is happening at all. What such folk don’t seem to realise is that such attitudes only make those of a EUsceptic strain even more annoyed, and more likely to vote Leave out of a “that’ll show you arrogant bastards” tone. In much the same that however logical a position of Mrs Thatcher in her heyday might have been, people, given the cussedness of human nature, disagreed.

The tone does matter, in other words. And although some of the vibe coming out of the Leave side is unsavory and foolish, the Remain side’s collective impersonation of 18th Century French aristocrats (just before the Bastille fell) is, in my view, even worse. It should not always matter, but it does.

 

The one-world government logic of Remain

One of the arguments of those wishing the UK to stay in the European Union is that if the UK decides to leave, it will still need to accept most, if not all, EU laws if the UK wants to continue to trade and interact with this bloc. (This is the position, for example, of Norway and Switzerland, or so the Remainers say.) It is all about keeping British “influence”.

The Remainers often don’t appear to realise where the logic of their argument leads. Surely it leads to the case for World government. Let’s look Westward for a moment. Consider the recent example of how the US uses a “worldwide system” of tax. Any American living abroad has to file an annual return to the Internal Revenue Service. The US recently enacted a thumpingly controversial and intrusive piece of legislation called the Foreign Account Taxation Compliance Act, or FATCA. This means any foreign financial institution must take all necessary steps to establish whether a client is American or not or, if it interacts with the US. If no such steps are taken, the FFI must pay a 30 per cent withholding tax. It means that the IRS and other branches of US government have been able to enforce a massive piece of extra-territorial legislation on the rest of the world. Many Americans can’t get access to accounts when they live abroad. The situation is a shambles. Do I hear Remain-type people arguing that we should join the US in political union to try and sort this out and “influence” the US? Of course not. In another case, that of the football organisation FIFA, it was the use of dollar-based transactions by the alleged crooks at FIFA that led to the US Department of Justice, rather than the Swiss or others, sending in the investigators to Zurich. I haven’t heard of Swiss people arguing that Switzerland should become part of the US so that the Swiss can gain “influence” in Washington over such powers.

In other words, countries that have the economic muscle to create a situation where dealing with it entails certain extensions of judicial power can have influence way beyond their borders and aren’t likely to want to have that power diluted by sharing it with others. The US is, despite the best efforts of its political class, the world’s largest economy, and likely to remain so for a while. Ironically, the US hasn’t actually signed up to many of the very cross-border tax compliance moves that it insists upon when applied in other lands. Rank hypocrisy, you might say. But what this also reveals is that when you hear a lot of fine words about “gaining influence”, what it really boils down to is brute economic wealth and power. China, for example, owns a lot of US Treasury debt, as do a number of other Asian jurisdictions, and I suspect that explains why the US hasn’t launched many noisy campaigns about evil expat “tax evaders” in that region. This isn’t edifying, but that’s reality.

The “influence” that the UK may have in the corridors of Brussels comes, if it exists at all, from the relative prosperity and hence economic power of the UK, rather than on anything else.

In fact, to gain the “influence” that involves going along with the Brussels machine as the Remainers see it requires the UK to operate under the Qualified Majority Voting system of the EU. So, on key issues, such as a proposed EU transaction tax on banks, the UK is likely to be outvoted, suffering damage to a key industry (the City). The UK is most likely to object to EU directives where the UK sees a key interest at risk, and by definition, most likely to be in a minority when a QMV process occurs. The “influence” is diluted, often in ways that hurt real UK interests. QMV may seem to benefit the larger countries, but in certain respects it means that the UK can lose key votes on issues that really matter, such as to financial services.

Competition between jurisdictions, with freedom, crucially, of citizens to be able to migrate and with open capital flows, represents arguably the best check on power that we have. A looser Europe, enjoying free trade and free capital flows, but without such centralised political power, is arguably the best outcome from a liberal (in the right sense) use of the word. World government is a deluded dream, but I fear the Remain camp is not willing to face up to where the logic of its argument is leading.

Leaving the EU isn’t the end of the City as we know it

I have spent the last few days in Geneva – I travel to Switzerland regularly as part of my job – and needless to say, the prospect of the UK leaving the European Union comes up a lot in the Alpine state. For good reason. Switzerland is not in the European Union (that country has more sense), is unlikely ever to want to do so, and has a broadly amicable relationship with its neighbours, apart from when they aggressively seek to break down Swiss bank secrecy laws. (Such laws are, for cross-border purposes, no longer effective, although within Switzerland, the laws remain on the statute book and there are no plans as far as I know for lawmakers in Berne to repeal them.) By and large, Switzerland’s financial services industry is still in good health, although like many other centres, onshore as well as offshore, has had to contend with mass of regulation, some of it home-grown. (Swiss banks operate under unusually severe capital adequacy rules and the country now has negative interest rates, which hits banks’ margins.)

The Swiss trip got me thinking about London’s position in the EU referendum. One regular argument you might read about in the financial pages of pro-EU papers such as the Financial Times, for example, is of how if Britain quits, this will hurt London’s financial sector (aka “The City”), because we will no longer be able to “passport” financial services run from London across the whole of the EU. This seems to be a greatly exaggerated worry. For example, in many cases with the fund management industry, fund structures known as UCITS (the acronym is for a long set of French words), which can be bought and sold across the EU – and beyond – and issued in different currency share classes, are typically registered in Luxembourg and Dublin. There are now Chinese yuan share classes in UCITS funds, and China is not, bless its cotton socks, in the EU. Many of the portfolios held in these pan-European structures are managed by investment whizzes in London, and indeed, Zurich, and Geneva, or Hong Kong. So it seems unlikely, to pick this one example, that leaving the EU means disaster. If the UK leaves the EU, then some non-EU member state banks, wealth managers and insurers might have to set up onshore, representative offices in the EU, which is irksome, but hardly seismic. Similarly, the European Union directive affecting hedge funds and private equity, called AIFMD, applies to the European Union, but non-EU jurisdictions such as Jersey and Guernsey have acquired the ability to be treated as “equivalent” for the purpose of this directive.

And that leads to a broader point about rules, treaties and standards. To trade, transact and interact, one doesn’t need to have centralised, top-down legal rules and a single political entity, such as the EU, but to have – and the is the crucial bit – mutual recognition of another’s standards. If the the UK quits the EU, then German carmakers will need to recognise and honour UK motor manufacture rules (which would be sensible for Germany to do, given it is a net exporter to the UK) and the UK would have to return the favour. And so on and so on. Australia has to acknowledge our rules, and we theirs. We see this sort of mutual recognition in all fields of life. Over time, of course, a wider set of rules can be adopted, rather as languages and standards around computer software do.

To trade with people living and working in the EU, it is not necessary to be married to an undemocratic, clunky structure in Brussels. Ending that misconception will not just help win the case for UK exit, it might also encourage people to think more clearly about the very structures of power that we assume are necessary for economic activity to happen. So regardless of what happens next week, I hope it might galvanise thinking about proper authority, and the role of transnational organisations.

On some specific issues around trade, the City, and so forth, this article by Conservative MP and former Cabinet minister, Peter Lilley, is simply excellent. The Adam Smith Institute has a good piece on the classical liberal case for leave.

There may be some specific consequences that are adverse – but within certain limits. For example, take those strange creatures, “non-doms” – persons who live for a period in the UK and enjoy freedom from UK tax on their worldwide income but who have to pay a levy to enjoy this status. Some of these non-doms live in the UK because it also gives them the freedom to roam around the EU. And there are people buying “investment visas” (a sort of market for passports) who want to get a British visa not because of our marvellous weather, but to roam around the EU. They may choose to get a “golden visa” in Spain or Malta instead.

But in the broad scheme of things, losing money from rich overseas investors using the UK as an entrepot doesn’t seem such a massive blow, given the overall balance. If we leave the EU, the City will not have the impost of a pan-European transaction tax (aka “Tobin tax”) on financial transactions that hits London disproportionately hard and which was imposed by qualified majority rule in the EU. The UK financial services sector might be spared the horrors of a massive lump of “investor protection” (sarcasm alert!) regulation due to hit the market, called MiFID II, or at the very least we will be able to haggle around whether we need to respect all of it to sell financial services into the EU. Some of this regulatory crap will still be a part of our lives, but there will be a better chance of getting changes to how the UK is affected via the democratic process, however imperfect that is.

Given how many treaties and transnational pacts are decided at a global, rather than purely European, level, it also worth noting that in or out of the EU, a good deal of what goes on will not change all that much. But one big benefit for me is that however foolish UK politicians continue to be, and however onerous certain rules are, UK lawmakers will not be able to use EU membership as a handy excuse for something they want to do anyway, such as “Dear constituent, I agree this rule is mad but we cannot do anything because it is in EU law number xxxxxx.” Instead, our elected representatives will need to advocate new laws, or advocate repealing laws, by appealing to the merits of a case. It might also improve the calibre of people who choose to go into UK politics in the first place.

I am voting Leave.

 

Tunnel Vision – Switzerland vs the United Kingdom

If tunnel building were an Olympic support, I suspect that Switzerland would bestride the top step of the podium and its virtually unknown national anthem would blare out to the cheering crowd, thrilled by the culmination of a 20-year slog of building the Gotthard base tunnel, the world’s longest rail tunnel, which opens today, co-incidentally the anniversary of a British naval triumph against the French, the Glorious First of June (with those rebellious colonists being involved tangentially).

This twin-bore tunnel opened on time and within budget, and it runs level and almost straight through the varying geology of 35 miles of Swiss mountain, a fantastic achievement, but with sadly 9 deaths, but that seems very low over 20 years and 35 miles. If it can be traversed, per reports, in 17 minutes, that’s an average speed of over 120mph. The idea is to get lorries crossing the Alps through Switzerland off the Swiss roads. Switzerland is, of course, (along with Liechtenstein) surrounded by the European Union but outside it.

And meanwhile, as the Swiss literally give geology both barrels, in England, we have our glorious Channel Tunnel and the Channel Ports (as the Sage of Kettering relayed to me once ‘The problem with the Channel Tunnel is that it has a government at both ends.‘). Well, today a House of Commons committee has come up with a rather skeptical report about a new plan to cope with cross-Channel traffic. For those who do not drive in the South-East of England, there is a standing plan in place to cope with the vagaries of the joys of free movement of goods in the glorious European Union whenever the Channel Tunnel runs into a problem (e.g. when the French start horsing around, burning sheep etc.), called ‘Operation Stack’, where the Kent police close an entire motorway, the M20, and park lorries bound for the Continent on it pending the cessation of hostilities, typically a period of 5 days of so, when a major motorway becomes a lorry park, and to Hell with the locals.

part of the M20 was used 32 times last summer by queuing lorries – a process known as Operation Stack.

The British answer to this problem is, of course, to shell Calais and demand its return to English control (er, no), it is to build a 65 hectare lorry park at a cost of £250,000,000. This would be as big as Disneyland (the one in California) and bigger than the Vatican (a mere 44 hectares) and with the added bonus of no Pope. It will allow 4,000 lorries to be parked whilst the benighted lorry drivers await the restoration of normality. One might ask why each lorry space would cost £62,500 (c.$90,000 US)?

Do we see here cultural differences between the UK and Switzerland? The acceptance of failure and its normalisation, a tendency towards inflated cost and an attitude of weary resignation, against a positive can-do attitude that bulldozes through problems.

So why can’t we be like Switzerland?

Postscript: Eric’s comment indicates that the Swiss may not have been above a bit of creative accounting in completing the tunnel on time and in budget, for which I am grateful, I may have been misled by the BBC (which in Cyrillic was the acronym for the Soviet Army Airborne Forces, what a co-incidence).