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Government / Local politics

Infrastructure populism: on the politics of building big, or failing to

It is famously said of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that at least while he was dragging his country into a war in which over half a million of his citizens died, he was also making sure the trains ran on time. The murdering fascist wasn’t all bad: he did sort out Italy’s railways.

Now, shockingly, it turns out this is all complete claptrap and Mussolini actually did very little to improve the rail system. Popular beliefs to the contrary are all just part of the fascist myth that he built up around himself to validate his governance.

It’s fake news, but the widely believed claim strikes to the core of a bigger issue: politicians hijacking transport as an easy way to connect with voters. Because, despite Chris Grayling’s best efforts, getting from A to B is an aspect of modern life that can hardly be ignored; effective roads are required to keep the population fed and public transport needed to get people to work.

Like Mussolini before him, this is something Donald Trump has recognised. Among the cries of “lock her up” and “bad hombres”, a key part of his presidential election campaign was a promise to ramp up infrastructure investment. Trump was fed up that other countries “look at our infrastructure as being sad”. As someone who has tried to use Amtrak, the US domestic rail service, I’ve got to say I agree with him.

But it’s easy to complain; it’s following through with a solution that’s the real problem. Only 13 per cent of the $1.5trn Trump hopes to raise is going to come from federal purse, with the rest funded by… erm… something else. It’s in this delivery that this went from being a realistic promise of change to just saying what people want to hear.


On this side of the pond, we have a similar problem: Boris Johnson. A politician who regardless of the issue in question will suggest the answer is an absurd, massive infrastructure project in thinly veiled efforts to grab headlines and deflect from any helpful debate.

His stint as London mayor was dominated by such ill-thought out infrastructure projects. The new Routemaster buses and the Emirates Cable Car were a big waste of money. Aborted suggestions include the Garden Bridge Project, which managed to waste another £46m in public money without even being built, and the Thames Estuary Airport.

More recently, on the prospect of a hard Brexit and lorries queuing up the M20, Johnson proposed a road bridge between England and France. To solve the issue of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, he called for another sea-crossing bridge. You get the idea.

So for Johnson, big projects are a cure-all for difficult problems, which can catch the headlines and allow any reasoned criticism to be easily be framed as not “believing in Britain”. 

Unlike Johnson and Trump, the Hungarian President, Victor Orban, has managed to follow through with his big projects. Unfortunately, they have nothing to do with infrastructure. He has instead spent hundreds of millions of Euros on building football stadiums around the country all to the delight of football-mad Hungarians. This, in a country with one of the worst poverty rates in Europe.

In his 2006 study on the future of high-speed rail in the UK, the director of News Corporation and former CEO of British Airways, Sir Rod Eddington, warned against being “seduced by ‘grands projets’ with speculative returns.” His message was intended for politicians but, in a world of Trumps, Johnsons and Orbans, is surely a lesson that should be learnt by everyone.
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