Grant Shapps is Transport Secretary, and is MP for Welwyn Hatfield.
When the Union with England Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 1707, creating “One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain”, it could take ten days to travel the 400 miles from Edinburgh to London in the summertime, and a dozen in the muddy winter. Coaches lurched their way along the rutted track that was the Great North Road for hour upon unforgiving hour, their less prosperous passengers sitting up top, exposed to the merciless elements.
By the end of the eighteenth century, macadamized roads and more refined vehicle design had more than halved the journey time. Royal Mail coaches, introduced in 1784 and representing the high technology land transport of the day, were capable of nine miles per hour.
Things have improved somewhat in the ensuing centuries, but there are still hurdles to overcome. The A1, descendant of the Great North Road and the longest numbered carriageway in the United Kingdom, is still single lane in stretches, an enduring reproach to our national transport infrastructure.
There are other bottlenecks impeding travel between the four nations of our Union, such as the A75 which runs through the south west of Scotland, carrying traffic to and from Northern Ireland via the port of Cairnryan. A strategic route, heavily used by HGVs, it is single lane for most of its length. Congested roads impede access to north and south Wales, too. And trains between Scotland and the rest of Great Britain are slower than they could or should be.
This is not good enough if we are to remain in the top ten, the premier league, of economic powers in the twenty-first century. Faced with competitors counting their populations in hundreds of millions, the United Kingdom must work hard to maintain its place at the top table, maximising resources, human and physical, in all its constituent nations. We are 68 million facing competition from China (1.44 billion), India (1.38 billion) the United States (330 million) and Indonesia (270 million).
So we cannot afford to waste the talents and productivity of anyone, be they in Coleraine or Kirkcaldy, Caernarfon or Carlisle. Placing all our economic eggs in one basket – South East England – is not an option if we are to continue punching above our weight. A risk-averse infrastructure investment model that simply reinforces success, pumping money into projects serving London and her hinterland, will consign us to mediocrity. We must take a leap of faith, investing in transport links and new industries across the Union to mobilise our full national potential.
That is why the preliminary Union Connectivity Review, published by the Prime Minister last week, is so important. Its key recommendation is the establishment of a strategic transport network binding the UK into one closely integrated whole. Routes that serve this aim – be they the A75, the A55 in north Wales or the air corridors to Northern Ireland – will be accorded favoured status.
That means widening roads, extending high-speed rail and reducing Air Passenger Duty on domestic flights. It could – could – also mean a fixed link from Scotland to Northern Ireland, and a feasibility study into a tunnel or bridge is being carried out. Madness, say some. The most natural thing in the world for an ingenious and enterprising people to consider, say I.
If this Government has a motif then it is surely an open-minded pragmatism, a willingness to experiment with varying mixtures of private and public investment to produce the desired outcome. As Conservatives, we don’t believe in governments trying to pick winners – we leave that to business.
But we can help build the racetrack, providing the transport, telecommunications and green energy infrastructure firms need to compete successfully. Government in this country should never again seek to dominate the commanding heights of the economy through traditional nationalisation – that way lies failure – but it can incentivise, incubate and facilitate business.
Willingness to experiment requires self-confidence. We British have lost some of ours over the past decades, maybe due to our psychological dependence on the European Union. In our post-imperial malaise, we sub-contracted our destiny to a supranational entity for almost half a century, and it is scary for some of us to be going it alone once again. Britain is not capable of independent greatness, argue the naysayers.
I beg to differ. Stand-alone countries like South Korea (population 51 million) and Israel (nine million) do not fear to chart their own course, and we are a much bigger player than either. They nurture native industries, cultivate partnerships across the globe and trust their own judgement in terms of national self-interest. This despite chaotic or threatening neighbours.
A true Tory should never learn his or her place. We believe in the individual’s power to mould their own destiny, to realise their ambition. So it should be with our country. Let’s stop agonising about our place in the world or fixating on the past and head towards the future with a spring in our step.
Following the long dark winter of Covid, the shoots of future success are appearing. The tremendous success of the vaccine programme shows what this United Kingdom can do when it abandons self-doubt, rolls up its sleeve – literally – and gets on with it. We succeeded precisely because we were prepared to act swiftly and unilaterally – and were legally free to do so. How would an independent Scotland be faring now with vaccination if it were hitched to the EU, as the SNP desires?
Those who believe Brexit will condemn the UK to stagnation and decline should look at the latest survey of 5000 company chief executives by accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers. These hard-headed businessmen, not given to flights of unjustified optimism, now rate the UK fourth in the world – behind only the USA, China and Germany – as a preferred destination for investment. This is up one place on last year, the UK having overtaken India. American and German companies look favourably on investing here. So let’s stop doubting ourselves.
I’ll stick my neck out. I believe the UK will be the largest economy in Europe by 2050. What was once the workshop of the world can be its laboratory – a scientific superpower, as the Prime Minister puts it.
Certainly, we can retain our position among the top 10 economies, even as rising living standards in populous emerging economies like Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico propel them into this club. Free of euro-sclerosis, we among the current four G7 economies in Europe have the best chance of remaining in this top tier.
So long, that is, as we stick together as one United Kingdom. Our four nations, the most successful joint venture in history, are so much stronger together, sharing our talents, supporting and protecting each other. We know this to be true because we have been through so much together in our long island story, and not only survived but triumphed.
Tradition is a wonderful thing and we Brits do it so well. But here’s one tradition I suggest we ditch as we trade the status of stately old nation for disruptive economic streetfighter. Let’s stop making a virtue out of losing gracefully. And win.