By David Black
Pity poor John McTernan, a perfectly nice fellow – at least so he seemed when I met him some years ago at a social event. His role in life – ordained by a cruel deity, I don’t wonder – is apparently to redeem the terminally irredeemable. This is, of course, a wholly antithetical concept which can only result in failure. So how will he shape up in the great Edinburgh Tram Scam?
John has recently come waltzing back from Australia, where he was charged with rescuing beleaguered Premier Julia Gillard from oblivion. Had no-one told her that he’d once been hired to rescue Labour from immolation at an earlier Scottish Parliamentary Election, and the result had been a landslide for his SNP opponents? Possibly not. Ms Gillard had been cruelly described as a ‘childless atheist ex-communist’ – and that was by her own party colleague, Kevin Rudd! For Johnny boy, there was a mountain to climb. Unfortunately he fell off. Julia was wiped out.
The idea, it seems, was a Down under repeat the outcome of the great Blairite-Brownite war, in which McTernan had played a key role as Tony’s ruthless, scheming attack dog. He had become part of the magic circle during his time as a Southwark councillor, where he chaired the education committee, and was soon renowned for his character assassination proclivities, which ultimately contributed in spades to the annihilation of the Brown premiership. He famously tried, and failed, to save Henry McLeish as First Minister during the ‘Muddle, not a Fiddle’ expenses scandal. He also claims to ‘love Peter Mandelson this side of idolatry’, even though has pulled the master up up on his criticism of Ed Milliband’s pledge to freeze energy prices. He helpfully defended Mandy’s bitch-athon of a book, The Third Man, for telling the truth! Others aren’t so sure.
As a spinner, McTernan prefers stealth and innuendo to Alastair Campbell’s upfront Malcolm Tuckeresque invective, and he is noticeably absent from the pages of all the standard works on the Blair-Brown era, both hagiographic and heretical. It has since occurred to a few of his less dim colleagues that the man’s baleful success as an anti-Brown negative briefer was a bit of an own-goal for the people’s party, since it destroyed Labour’s chances of winning the 2010 election, and handed the keys of the Number Ten door to Dave and Nick. ‘God help the Australian Labour Party’ mused Bob Thomson, former chairman of the party in Scotland.
Having likewise left the smouldering ruins of the Australian Labour Party behind him, and moved on from his illustrious position as ‘Adelaide Thinker in Residence’ (in which role he followed another Blairite policy wonk, Geoff Mulgan) John has returned to Scotland to save the Union, which must be the best news Alex Salmond has had for months! On paper, the so-called ‘global expert on public service leadership,’ who has worked ‘with governments in the UK, Europe, South America, Australia and Iraq.’ should be a formidable foe. His wisdom frequently soars to the level of fluent Demos gibberish – for example he urges the government of South Australia to ‘build a suite of common tools for key government activity areas and mandate their use as the preferred approach’ though he has, to his credit, criticised the risk-averse tendency of Aussie penpushers who have done such daft things as place notices over toilet bowls bearing the words ‘not drinking water.’
It’s hard to imagine that too many of the feral cats in a bag which comprise the ‘ Bitter – sorry, better, Together Campaign’ will be deliriously happy at the thought of Jonah McTernan climbing aboard, given his recent record, so he is keeping his options open, and has returned to the craft he loves second best (after political plotting) namely journalism. He seems sadly out of touch with public sentiment, however, having elected to become that rarest of creatures, a supporter of the Edinburgh tram scheme. At a guess, this cack-handed infrastructure nightmare is probably about as popular as a proposal for a statue of Jimmy Saville OBE in a kiddie’s playpark. It should be recalled that the the public face of the tram disaster, Jenny Dawe, former leader of Edinburgh City Council, trailed in behind a joker in a penguin costume in her last election. John seems to be heading up another mountain here, and can only fall off again.
Mr McTernan seems to be blissfully unaware of the extent of rampant tramophobia in a city which has endured open heart surgery without an anaesthetic for half a decade, while businesses have gone to the wall as a direct result of the disruption, and the council budget is reaching the point of melt-down. Nothing daunted, he patronises us with his announcement that the tram is ‘social; democracy on slick steel rails – its stops and platforms carve out an oasis of civility in city centres.’ It also ‘improves’ (sic) the look of Princes Street ‘still the ugliest great street in the world’ He then launches off from his tram platform into an anthem of praise for the ruling elites of the modern city ‘Who speaks for Glasgow? The politicians transforming the nature of urban space.’ So that would be Gordon Matheson then, would it? The man who petulantly refused to accept the outcome of an architectural competition to upgrade George Square, and who wanted to clear it of its Victorian statues.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with this outburst of inanity in the tram debate, other than to say that John would seem to be off his trolley. First of all, it isn’t a matter of being anti-tram or pro-tram. Forty years ago Edinburgh had the opportunity to construct a light rail transit system which would have solved the city’s transport problems at a stroke. The proposal was to re-use existing abandoned rail track and link it to the South Suburban rail line – a mere two miles of new linking lines would have been required – in essence, the city already had a metro system; it just wasn’t using it. The response of our bovine council, which then masqueraded under the apolitical label ‘Progressive’, was to reject a scheme which would have involved no disruption of the city centre street network.
Quarter of a century later their Labour successors opted for a scheme which managed to do everything the 1970s proposals had avoided – basically, the city was to be transformed into a film set for Saving Private Ryan. The disruption was of biblical proportions. Even though the press was to be schmoozed with revenue for full page ads (paid for by the hapless citizen) the public disquiet could not be suppressed. One of the most beautiful cities anywhere became an international joke.
So how does John manage to reconcile the idea of the Edinburgh tram system with the notion of democracy? Doesn’t he realise that the disaster began when Forth Ports plc, the former Leith Docklands Authority which had been privatised by Mrs Thatcher, discerned a commercial benefit in foreshore gentrification and the ramping up of land values? Is he unaware of the scandal of the Scottish Office move to Victoria Quay on the back of a trumped-up, and hushed up, asbestos scare at New St Andrew’s House?
There was nothing democratic about any of this. Forth Ports needed a tram link to make its proposed waterfront developments stack up, and offered to pay around £28 million to its costs – equivalent to roughly £1500 per unit of housing, though enhancing anticipated property values by rather more than that. It was also something of a sop to those lower rank civil servants who had opposed the move away from a city centre site which was next door to the main train and bus stations, not to mention the Cafe Royal and the premier shopping street of Scotland.
And what is the result? In effect, nothing more than the replacement of the number 100 express bus to the airport – an excellent existing service – at a cost not far short of a billion pounds. The one bit of the network which made any sense – the link between the waterfront and Princes Street, was scrapped. The profitability of foreshore developers like Gregor Homes plummeted, and administrators were called in. There would be no £28 million contribution. The citizens of Edinburgh will be stumping up for much of this, since, understandably, the SNP government which opposed the scheme won’t be increasing its share of the cost. Siemens and Bilfinger Berger will be cleaning up, while the entire population of Edinburgh will be stumping up, and will have cuts in other council services. 95% of them will derive no benefit whatsoever from the single line between St Andrew’s Square and the airport, and they ain’t happy. One also notes with wry amusement that Bilfinger Berger Australia is now part of Lend Lease, a company not unattached to the catastrophic Holyrood project of not-so-fond memory! Be afraid, be very afraid!
If this is the sort of cause John McTernan is going to embrace, Alistair Darling and his friends in the No campaign might be well-advised to have a whip round and buy the man an airline ticket.
Back to Australia. One way.