Bus companies might end up teaching us something…

I am conscious that the live performing arts sector, which is a great export earner for Britain, has, with social distancing, a major difficulty in trying to survive, and that is a sadness for all of us. Government help will certainly be needed before live performances finally become possible.

But of course that is not what Conservatism is about. It favours the thrusting capitalism of what is regarded as proper work – and getting to work is essential…

Bus travel, like all public transport, is a problem for Coronavirus prevention, as this FT article cleverly entitled ‘Public transport struggles to cater for the few’ suggests.

If one discounts the ‘temporary’ renationalisation of the railways, Transport for London is the first big case for support that has been ‘helped’ with a government grant and conditional loan. The latter seems to me to be equally about Johnson’s distaste for a Labour mayor when he really wanted as his successor his friend and defeated former Conservative MP (and arguably racist) candidate Goldsmith, who is now ‘Lord’.

After Transport for London (TfL), other major cities have procured subsidies – always inadequate but temporarily survivable – as the FT article indicates – and there was even more money pledged only yesterday.

More interesting, philosophically, is how private bus companies will be treated. These are the swashbuckling capitalist companies released by Thatcher to improve our lives, increase efficiency and save us money! (Even if, in due course, they actually merged to create private monopolies, which, mostly shrank the bus passenger market).

But if the government wishes to ‘open up the economy’ then one of the most important aspects is to keep public transport going. At the moment these commercial companies are pleading with us not to use their services unless it is absolutely necessary…

So we have a very interesting scenario – do we subsidise commercial companies to provide a bus service which most are dissuaded from using or do we have no service at all?

When social distancing may well continue, by all accounts, for months at least, there are stark alternatives. Business open and public transport subsidised; business closed; or everyone travelling by car and gridlock and pollution.

This is a major problem for the government.

But they will have to decide if they have the money to enable subsidy of not just council run TfL, but actual overtly capitalist companies. And if so where does this money come from? Is it the ‘hardworking taxpayer’ when taxes may well have not actually increased? How is this money created – should the government even admit to that? And what conditions – if any – are attached? Is it a subsidy for ever? In which case is this free enterprise – or even capitalism? Or do we just let these big companies fail and rely on ‘the market’?

As more people (used to!) travel by bus than any other mode of public transport, this might well end up, I suggest, with a subsidy until social distancing ceases – and, as people are likely to have lost the habit, probably for some time after that. In short these capitalist companies may well be ‘addicted’ (as Sunak so kindly put it for furloughed workers) to government money. Their whole business will rely on ‘hand outs’ and the longer it goes on the more people will realise we could have had subsidised buses all along – there is no shortage of money.

And, in the difficult circumstances for most of us, this may be a sideshow that, if we are interested in the myths of money, and not having to distance ourselves from too many on the bus, could well be rather enjoyable to watch.

I rather doubt the monetary systems will get much publicity.

But if people start to understand at least the basics we should also be able simultaneously and without problem to save and relaunch the performing arts.

We might even have a bus on which to get there….