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Holyrood Hillbillies (July 2006)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Anti-Europeanism and blind faith in transatlantic snake oil mean Scotland, like England, will never know the wonders of decent public transport.


It could never have happened in Britain. Germany has just opened the Crystal Palace that is its great Berlin central station - and good luck to its rival at London St Pancras. It has also taken leave of someone who has always worked in the provinces but whose career bears comparison with Brunel or Stephenson: Dieter Ludwig, boss of the Karlsruhe Transport Confederation and inventor of the Supertram.

In only 14 years in the small Black Forest town, Ludwig has created the transport wonder of Europe. At modest cost, electric trains swish across the northern part of Europe's most prosperous region, about half the area of Wales, connecting Heilbronn with Freudenstadt, 80 miles away, as well as countless small towns and villages. By converting themselves into trams or providing simple same-stop connections with buses and town trams, the trains carry the people into town centres. This is the basis of a public transport grid that serves workers, school kids, students, executives, hikers and the elderly, offering high speed convenience and rock-bottom fares and winning about 30% of the traffic split.

Meanwhile, as I reflected on Ludwig's achievement, there came by cyber post a letter from Scottish Enterprise's Globalscot outfit urging me to rejoice that it had recruited Donald Trump to Scotland's cause. I joined Globalscot four years ago on the invitation of the then enterprise minister, Wendy Alexander, in the belief that it could in some way compensate for the absence of an external affairs department and our own commercial consular service. It has, however, had damn all effect: British commercial and cultural presence in Germany has now walled itself up in a square kilometre of central Berlin; the elite of Scottish Enterprise has never taken its eyes off America.

This is the same bunch who got the hypnotist Paul McKenna to do a motivational afternoon with Scottish business executives for 14,000 quid, so they don't have anything to learn about snake-oil salesmen. I've tried, God knows I've tried, to get it through to this £0.5bn-a-year body that it might benefit from the transport technology being developed here.

In 1999 we seemed to be getting somewhere when the new parliament's transport minister, Sarah Boyack, came over to our Freudenstadt colloqium on the first foreign visit of any Scottish minister. Since then, Freudenstadt has electrified its line to Karlsruhe. The last time I saw Ludwig, now slowed up by heart problems, he was driving the first train into town. Transport improvement in Scotland, however, remains glacially slow.

The first minister, Jack McConnell sacked Boyack in 2002. He has since been over to see Trump and got the T-shirt, and now the Donald may come over the pond as he fancies setting up a corporate golf watering hole for the rich in Aberdeenshire and Jack Mack has said he'll see him right. Remind you of anyone? Prezza, home on the Anschutz range, maybe?

This is what passes for Scotland's foreign policy, just as Alistair Darling's wrecking of every English tram scheme, under orders from Big Broon, is our transport policy.

Some of this may be down to the chancellor's gut anti-Europeanism, but I doubt it: sheer ignorance of technology and foreign languages, a dire succession of Scottish munchkins in the transport ministry and a naive, hick-like obsession with transatlantic geld lies at the bottom.

We will shortly have St Pancras to hand when we want to make our escape from cool Britannia but, in a way reminiscent of the prince's grand cynicism in Lampedusa's The Leopard, we will look like Europe's slobbering ancient being wheeled around its Crystal Palace. Never mind: Glasgow is in the queue for something super - second supercasino to the dome. Rejoice!

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