They should wear masks
- Stagecoach: A Classic Rags-to-Riches Tale from the Frontiers of Capitalism by Christian Wolmar
Orion, 227 pp, £18.99, November 1998, ISBN 0 7528 1025 1
When I heard that Christian Wolmar was to write a book about the transport company Stagecoach I rejoiced that one of the great privatisation scandals of our time would at last be fully exposed. My hopes faded with the first sentence. ‘This book was written with the active co-operation of Stagecoach’s senior executives.’ After ‘initial doubts’, Stagecoach’s founder and driving force Brian Souter ‘gave his time for a series of lengthy interviews’. Souter no doubt worried that the hours he spent talking to Wolmar might prove a poor investment. He must be utterly delighted with the result. A billion pounds’ worth of advertising would not buy Stagecoach so extended and glittering a puff. The praise for Souter himself starts in the first chapter and goes on and on and on. He has an ‘exceptional business brain’, he is (passim) a ‘genius’, he is also ‘an ideas man’, a ‘pacifist’ and even from time to time has ‘socialist instincts’ and ‘does believe in public transport’ (provided, presumably, it is privately owned). ‘Hardly anyone dislikes him’; he is at the same time ‘an old trade-union hand’ and ‘a frontiersman who conquered the West’. ‘The secret of his success is built on relationships with people’ and ‘he is head and shoulders above most businessmen of his generation.’ The book ends with an excited little orgasm of flattery and gratitude. ‘His certainty, his confidence and his encyclopedic knowledge, combined with the fact that he is an affable, pleasant, charming and very agreeable man, made him into an extremely engaging fellow ... he lifted my sights quite substantially.’ Wolmar imagines that Souter ‘will hate to see this in print’, so we can obviously add modesty to his talents. The genius of Brian Souter carries all before it in this ‘classic rags-to-riches tale from the frontiers of capitalism’. Each decision, each acquisition, is reported as part of the ascent to the peaks of capitalism made by Souter and his sister Ann Gloag. The reader is left with the unmistakable impression that anyone can end up, as Gloag has done, in a Scottish castle, if they have charm, genius, an exceptional business brain and a few socialist and pacifist instincts.
Vol. 21 No. 2 · 21 January 1999
Paul Foot writes (LRB, 7 January) that the thinking behind the privatisation of the National Bus Company ‘came from organisations like the Centre for Policy Studies’. This is the opposite of the truth. The CPS’s transport study-group co-operated closely with the NBC (which accounted for a third of public passenger mileage) before its privatisation-fragmentation, in developing new initiatives to increase the competitiveness of public passenger road transport, including the conversion of uneconomic railways lines to restricted public transport roads in London and the conurbations, in order to increase the accessibility of inter urban coach transport. The NBC’s size was an important consideration. Nationalisation of the NBC under Barbara Castle had adversely affected efficiency; privatisation as a single unit would have restored it and paved the way for innovation. When the CPS was de-Shermanised in 1983, I moved over to the NBC as a consultant, and continued to defend the company’s integrity as best I could. Foot should ascertain facts rather than invent them. Unfortunately, the NBC, which had been separated from its parent company, British Electric Traction, at nationalisation, was not best placed to campaign for self-preservation. It was the diseconomies of fragmentation which rendered the NBC vulnerable to takeover. Had Stagecoach not done this, some other body would have.
Comparing the fate of London buses with those outside London and drawing conclusions regarding the effect of ownership on mileage doesn’t work. In London, 85 per cent of passenger mileage is accounted for by (highly subsidised) public transport as against only 15 per cent in the country as a whole. It follows that increased travel overall in London will produce more bus journeys, whereas outside London and the major conurbations the decline in bus and coach travel contingent on the growth of car-ownership is still continuing. Our plans to reverse this trend in the early Eighties by converting rail into special bus-coach routes were nullified by fragmentation, not by privatisation per se.
Vol. 21 No. 3 · 4 February 1999
If Paul Foot finds my book on Stagecoach so politically unacceptable (LRB, 7 January), how come his comrades at Socialist Worker reprinted large chunks of it (without permission, of course)?