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Brexit and high-speed rail fails have made Britain a laughing stock

While the rest of Europe has an efficient rail service, the UK is only playing at it

Image: The New European

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
An foolish notion.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote those words in 1786, but they leapt into mind recently as an article from the Madras Courier arrived in my inbox. Its opening paragraph declared: “With the Brexit mandate, the UK has closed its doors on global trade and commerce, a sharp point of departure from the expansionary policies that created the British empire.” It went on: “The rationale for divorcing a free trade bloc is baffling in an age of globalisation, where global economies have increasingly become interdependent and integrated.”

The motives for the Madras Courier in carrying such a piece might not have been unconnected to the fact that the UK’s trade secretary, Kemi Badenoch, was about to touch down in Delhi with the clear aim of completing the long-negotiated trade deal with India. While he was prime minister, Boris Johnson had said that the deal would be concluded by October 2022 but the enthusiasm for finalising an agreement is far more on the UK side than India’s. Nonetheless, Badenoch has seemed confident about pulling off a great deal.

But the subtext of the Madras Courier article is that India is interested in trading with the world; why would it be particularly interested in forging trading links with a country that has turned its back on global trade? That attitude is almost certainly manifesting itself in the course of the latest round of negotiations and means that if there is, eventually, an agreement, it will be narrowly constructed and fall far short of what some companies had been led to expect.

None of these doubts, however, infected the Daily Express. As Badenoch was preparing to fly to Delhi, she told the paper that: “The UK is on the up and remains a country others want to deal with. Global Britain is here and it’s thriving.”

That was enough to inspire the Express, still a Brexit true believer, to splash its front page with the headline: “Landmark deal proves Brexit ‘voices of doom are wrong’.”

Since the UK government’s own figures show that the mooted India deal could boost the UK’s GDP by just 0.12%-0.22%, compared with the loss of around 5% that is widely accepted as the cost of Brexit, Badenoch’s definition of “thriving” seems somewhat unusual. It is probably not shared by many investors – fund managers M&G and Schroder Investment, for instance.

So they may be interested to know that these are two of the largest shareholders in Reach plc, the company that owns the purveyor of such ludicrous pro-Brexit propaganda. M&G holds more than a quarter of Reach shares and Schroder is close to 15%. That might be worth a thought as investors decide where they want their savings to be entrusted.

The contrast between the view of the Daily Express and that of the Madras Courier could not be more pronounced, but it is surely the latter view that is now prevailing internationally. Those of us who have enjoyed spending part of the summer abroad will, in many cases, have returned with the uneasy feeling that other countries, both in and out of the EU, do things better.

In France, the high-speed trains offer an efficient, reliable service across the country and linking into networks across the continent. At the last count in early 2023, there were 1,740 miles of track, but more is under construction.

In the UK, some existing lines have been upgraded to accommodate faster trains, but the purpose-built HS1 connecting London to the Channel Tunnel covers just 67 miles. The saga of HS2 is testimony to the UK’s problems. It was given parliamentary approval in 2012 and has, so far, cost £20bn. In July, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, a government body, reported that “successful delivery of the project appears to be unachievable”.

This should be a huge national embarrassment. Writing in the Times, the former Tory leader William, now Lord, Hague termed it “a national disgrace”. But those responsible for the fiasco are not held to account.

Ministers have avoided comment on the damning IPA report, taking advantage of the summer holidays to allow the issue to subside into the long grass where it will remain, alongside so many other grandiose infrastructure projects, all announced to great fanfare but never quite brought to fruition.

Tim Harford, the “Undercover Economist” for the Financial Times, returned from his summer break in Germany wowed by the trams, the public swimming pools and the well-kept streets. His conclusion? “This is what prosperity looks like – and the UK doesn’t have it.” The figures bear him out on that point. The UK’s persistent productivity problem has meant that the country has become relatively poorer as other nations really have thrived.

There are still some things that the UK does incredibly well: the creative industries continue to be hugely successful; we’re not bad at sport. Had the Lionesses triumphed in Australia, there is little doubt that the Daily Express would have seen it as evidence that Brexit was responsible. They put on a great performance.

Britain, however, is not thriving.

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