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Political Commentary

22nd August 1952, Page 53
22nd August 1952
Page 53
Page 53, 22nd August 1952 — Political Commentary
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Which of the following most accurately describes the problem?

Liberal View

AT a first reading, the Liberal Party's statement on transport appears to have been prepared in the frame of mind appropriate to the salesman lightheartedly giving away samples. They are not worth much, his attitude implies, but as they are free nobody can complain that he is being sold a pig in a poke. Still less can anybody ask for his money, back. This interpretation of the Party's intentions is strengthened by the fact that it need not fear having to redeem its pledges for some time to come.

There is some excuse; therefore, for suspecting that the purpose of the statement -is to win the support of certain sections of the community by making encouraging promises. In fact, nearly everybody stands to gain something from the plan. The railways are to have power to fix and adjust charges

within "fairly wide limits." Road users generally are to benefit from a reduction in the "present heavy taxation on vehicles." Trade and industry will applaud the sentiment that the levy is "completely indefensible."

There are special promises for some parts of the road transport industry. The haulier is to have immediate abolition of the 25-mile limit—and to judge from . the .protests on this concession alone this should be worth every one of 40,000 votes to the Liberals. Nothing so spectacular is done for the passengervehicle operator, although the statement approves the Government's inquiry into the passenger licensing system and proposes that the London Transport Executive should become a separate statutory body. Neither is much promised for the workers that they *do not have already. They are offered a "fair wage clause" and regulations as to maximum hours of continuous driving, but this probably means merely that the Road Traffic Act and the Road Haulage Wages Act will not be repealed.

Bleak Prospect

For Transport Man the Liberal prospect is bleak, as his role is to make whatever payments may be required. "If an uneconomic service is required for strategic or development purposes, any loss incurred should be specifically covered by a sum granted in the appropriate Department's vote "—and, of course, collected from Transport Man. The levy proposed in the Transport Bill is at best "ransom money." "If the Bill is to do what, presumably, its authors desire, then the community as a whole will benefit and, as such, if there is to be a loss, the community should stand it."

So unpalatable a provision promotes second thoughts on the part of the reader. Perhaps, after all, the Liberal Party is not merely providing bait for selected groups of voters. The feeling that one has judged the statement too harshly grows stronger when one examines the item which it can -only be assumed is included to meet the wishes of the Liberals themselves. At least, nobody else seems much taken with the suggestion that, two years after "the appointed day "—what is meant by the appointed day is not clear—the A, B and C licensing system should be abandoned, and thereafter anybody can set up as. a carrier of goods by road, provided he observes regulations concerning road safety, wages and working conditions.

There can be few operators in favour of this pro

posal. The haulier and his business have been conditioned by the licensing system. To accept its abolition would mean a change of nature even more drastic than that demanded by the Transport Act

In fact, the statement is not so much a distribution of gifts by a phantom Santa Claus as an attempt to give body to the Liberal theory, which is to encourage as much freedom and competition as possible. Serious difficulties stand in the way, of applying this doctrine to the whole of trade and industry. In an attempt to overcome them, the Liberal Party has to stipulate that there exist certain "natural monopolies" which require a large measure of public control. The railways come into this category, and the Liberals are willing for them to remain in the hands of the Commission—which might be re-named the British Railways Commission —although there should be decentralization and the regions should have greater financial scope.

"Natural Monopoly"

On the other hand, road haulage, according to the Liberals, is not a "natural monopoly," and the theory demands that it be swept clean of all controls and restrictions. In so far as the Transport Bill tends in this direction, it has the support of the Liberals, who reject the principle underlying the Transport Act "that further public advantage is to be gained by combining into one huge public monopoly large numbers of like commercial activities which possess virtually no measure of 'natural' monopoly."

The assumption that the railways can be run better by the Commission than under free enterprise is not necessarily correct, although for various reasons denationalization of the railways is never likely to be practicable. It is possible to return road haulage to free enterprise, and this is being done. There is no reason to put the clock back for 20 years. Complete and sudden abolition of the licensing system would lead to chaos. It is surprising that the Liberals do not at the very least guard against this by stipulating that the process should be gradual. It is equally surprising that they do not realize that any plan involving denationalization and de-licensing would make the sale of transport units almost impossible except at derisory prices.

Now, the Transport Act itself was the product of a theory. The Socialists undoubtedly believed that, once they had twisted the transport industry into the shape they wanted and had pronounced the magic there would automatically come into being an "efficient, adequate, econoinical and properly integrated system."

The Transport Bill is not free from blemishes, but at least it keeps clear of theories, and the Government's White Paper took a reassuringly pragmatical view of the transport problem. Trade and industry are not ,so well served since the Transport Act than before, and integration is a sham. Therefore, it is proposed to make certain changes. The Liberals appear to endorse the criticism, but it is nowhere explicit in their statement, which leaves, be it ever so faintly, the impression that they would support denationalization on principle, even if the Commission had more than lived up to the expectations of its creators..

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