A million jobs to be gone by Christmas. That was one of the chirpier headlines in the weekend papers, and oh boy, I don’t think I can take much more of this doomstering.
Spending an hour with the FT is like being trapped in a room with assorted members of a millennialist suicide cult. If their pundits are to be believed, the skies of the City will shortly be dark with falling bankers, and then for the rest of us it’s back to the 1930s, with barrels for trousers, soup kitchens and buddy can you spare a dime.
By this time next year, if the pessimists are right, Gordon Brown will have nationalised most of the British economy and a representative of the Treasury will be attending the editorial conference of The Daily Telegraph.
Well, I am not sure how accurate these forecasts are, but let us assume, for the sake of argument, that we are indeed on the verge of a slump, a depression, and that the challenges ahead can be truly compared to those of the 1930s. Let us ransack our memory of O-level history. How did they do last time? There were some big things they got wrong, and some big things they got right.
If I remember correctly, the Americans responded to the Wall Street Crash by trying to protect US industry, and the catastrophic 1930 Smoot-Hawley tariffs served only to spread the recession to Europe and deepen the worldwide gloom.
So lesson number one is don’t go isolationist, don’t go protectionist; and one of the only reasons to be worried about a victory for Barack Obama is that he does sometimes seem to favour new barriers to trade – just when those barriers are completely counter-indicated by history. We need free trade to help lift us out of a slump; we need the Doha round to be completed; and the British Government should be demanding action from Brussels and Washington.
Then there are the big things they got right, the things that most economic historians agree were useful in ending the Depression. We had the thrill of driving over one of those big things last year in our 30ft mobile home. It really is very big indeed. It is the Hoover dam, a colossal concrete cathedral to Keynesian economics, still braced against the Colorado river, still delivering electricity, and built from 1931 to 1935, at the height (or in the depths) of the Depression.
As I looked at the foaming torrent emerging from its turbines, I remembered another trip we had taken two years previously, in another people-mover, along the famously beautiful Skyline drive of the Shenandoah valley – another Depression-era project, built in 1932, that continues to provide benefits to travellers today.
It is no wonder, frankly, that the average tourist to America still spends a lot of time looking at 1930s infrastructure, because Roosevelt’s New Deal created 122,000 public buildings, 77,000 bridges, 664,000 miles of road and 285 airports, as well as jobs for 8.5 million people. Like the German autobahns – built at roughly the same time – these investments were indispensable to the country’s future growth and economic might.
Now I am not, repeat not, prophesying that we are on the verge of a depression or that things will run as they did in the 1930s. But when we look at our options, and you think of the lasting benefits of infrastructure investment, you can see that even in little old Britain we have some stunning opportunities, of a scale not seen for a generation.
There is Crossrail, 75 miles of track, finally providing a link between Heathrow and the City and a staggering 10 per cent increase in London’s transport capacity. There are the upgrades of the Tube, massive investments in track, signalling and air conditioning, vital to the future liveability of Europe’s greatest city.
There is the Thames Tideway tunnel, a truly colossal enterprise, with a diameter wider even than Crossrail, which will run all the way under the bed of the Thames, through London to the sea, and finally help clean up the river by dealing with the unmentionable problem of what happens when the Bazalgette interceptors overflow.
There is the completion of the North London line, and its joining with the East London line, to create, for the first time, the equivalent of an M25 in the overland rail network.
These projects will produce employment on a vast scale: by 2013, it is estimated that Crossrail will need 28,000 workers, and these will be skilled, high-end, engineering jobs. We calculate that London alone needs a further 20,000 engineers to cope with the projects to which the Government is already committed.
That is why Crossrail plans to set up an academy for tunnelling and, for the first time in decades, we can tell our sons and daughters that they have a future in engineering. But even more important than the employment benefits of these projects – and I haven’t even mentioned the suggestion of an estuary airport – there is the long-term value and revenue they will deliver for this country.
The doomsters may or may not be right in saying that we are on the verge of a recession or a depression or a slump. But I know I am right in thinking that we will come out of it, and the only question is in what state we come out of it. We will beat this recession more speedily, and emerge in far better shape, if we make sure we put people to work in projects that boost the long-term competitiveness of the country.
That means investing in the things that can radically improve the transport, attractiveness and general liveability of the capital city, the motor of the British economy. We may be in a hole, but the lesson of history is that tunnels and bridges and dams can bring jobs and growth.
This is one of those rare moments when the sound advice to someone in a hole – especially a hole as big as Crossrail – is that they should keep digging. It would be madness not to.
[This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph on 14 October, 2008 under the heading “Financial crisis: In times as dire as these, the only thing to do is dig for victory”]