It’s two decades since rail privatisation …

…first appeared on the political radar screen. There’d been talk of it earlier, of course, but nothing serious. Previous Tory cabinets had looked at the idea and rejected it as impractical.

I remember Sir Robert Reid the First (two men of the same name chaired British Rail) raising eyebrows at the Oxford & Cambridge Club by using his napkin to illustrate that the network fell naturally into five divisions, and that none could be profitable.

He opposed rail privatisation, as did every other BR board member. And when it subsequently became clear that the politicians really were determined to take a giant leap backwards into the 1930s, the professionals all agreed on one thing: it should be vertical integration with those running the trains responsible also for tracks, signals, maintenance and stations. In the event the Government went for an aviation-style horizontal split as they had with airlines and BAA. They divided rail franchises into penny-packets, awarded short-term contracts and created Railtrack to run the infrastructure. Does anyone think what we’ve got now is better than British Rail?

The lesson of policy decisions based on back-of-the-conference-agenda ideas that haven’t been thought through is that it’s difficult for ministers to admit they’ve got things wrong. We learned that the hard way over rail privatisation, and we’re about to learn it again in what’s happening to the NHS.

Any detached observer looking at the list of professional bodies now publicly opposing the Health Bill knows they can’t all be mistaken. Surely we should expect ministers to ensure that any changes are far more gradual, are thoroughly tested regionally and above all are reversible? The trouble is that right now detached observers seem to be in pretty short supply in Westminster.

It’s a pity Michael Portillo’s idea on parliamentary reform can’t be tried out. When I last saw him he said that if he could make just one change it would be to appoint all cabinet ministers from outside parliament, and make them answerable to powerful all-party Select Committees.

It’s arguable that if we had such a system in place now the current Health Bill would already have been scrapped and patients could sleep more soundly in their hospital beds.

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