Mr Osborne should travel first class and we should pay for him

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By Kenneth Roy

I am sorry to disappoint Alex Salmond, who quotes me occasionally in his speeches in a friendly way, but it seems I have become one of the Mr Snootys from whom he feels Scotland should escape. Sadly it is true – I am now a negative argument for independence.

My sin is to travel first class on the trains whenever possible and particularly on long journeys – by which I mean anything over 10 minutes. So I’m with George Osborne on this one, if not on much else.

By Kenneth Roy

I am sorry to disappoint Alex Salmond, who quotes me occasionally in his speeches in a friendly way, but it seems I have become one of the Mr Snootys from whom he feels Scotland should escape. Sadly it is true – I am now a negative argument for independence.

My sin is to travel first class on the trains whenever possible and particularly on long journeys – by which I mean anything over 10 minutes. So I’m with George Osborne on this one, if not on much else. The chancellor and I are among the Mr Snootys of the British rail network. We think we’re too good to mix with the rest of the human race, and because of our snobbery we are both out of touch with ‘ordinary’ people. I have never encountered an ordinary person; most people seem quite extraordinary and not always in a good way. But let that pass through the barrier.

Mr Osborne (as you will have heard) sat in a first class compartment with a standard class ticket; the act of doing so seems to be part of the indictment. I have done the same thing myself on many occasions. In fact, if you turn up at Queen Street station in Glasgow and ask for a first class single to the building site known as Edinburgh, you will be advised to buy a standard class ticket and pay the upgrade on the train. When I last had occasion to visit the building site I sat alone in first class for 20 minutes, enjoying the free coffee and buns, before a ticket collector arrived and charged me £3.40 for the pleasure. That seemed reasonable.

I suspect that the journalists who complain about the chancellor boarding a first class comparment without ‘valid travel documents’ (as the ‘customer services leader’ tends to call them) are people who go everywhere by car and know very little about the delicate etiquette of rail travel. I suspect also that their editors would not be seen dead in standard class and that their knowledge of the common people could be contained within the margins of the crossword alongside the clue ‘Hypocrites’ (Answer: newspaper editors).

Mr Osborne, or his aide, coughed up the difference: nearly £200 for two. He denies suggestions that he made a fuss about it, but if he or his aide did say a word in protest at this extortionate surcharge, the rail unions have a nice precedent for pursuing him mercilessly on the grounds that a man who challenges their hard-pressed staff is unfit to serve his country and ought to do the decent thing and fall on the sword they keep in the guard’s van for ministerial resignations. A journalist on the train got wind of the incident, tweeted it, and before he knew where he was – Euston Station, as it happened – the chancellor was faced with hatchet-faced hacks at every exit. But the ambush was so poorly organised that the guilty party somehow made his escape unobserved. Trust the meeja to mess it up.

Principal among the chancellor’s many crimes was his reluctance to move to standard class. Could I make a quick point about standard class? It’s awful. Public transport in general is a messy, threatening way to get from anywhere to anywhere else, but standard class on our ill-staffed trains is a nightmarish version of the experience. It is cramped. It is without privacy. It is anarchy on wheels. For want of an alternative, you may be forced to sit at a table littered with beer cans and discarded copies of the Daily Brute. Coarse singing may break out at any moment; if not, an overflow of noise from an ipod. Swearing is commonplace. Young women often find themselves the target of lecherous attention. Then there are the foodies who consume disgusting stuff from cartons. Not to mention – oh, let’s anyway – the fractious scholars on their latest extended hols. There are the decent, civilised others, but too many journeys are made unendurable by an offensive minority.

Listen to me. It is impossible to work in standard class. I tried for years in the interests of rough democracy, before giving up in despair. And, unlike most of you, I have no car. I depend upon the trains. I know them rather better than most.

First class is not wonderful. It’s full of sweaty executives in business suits at least a size too small for them, staring manically at laptop screens and asking to speak to Sharon on the mobile. ‘Did we really pay that guy 340 quid, Sharon?’, I heard one say recently. Many of them are trying desperately to keep businesses afloat despite Mr Osborne’s government. The chancellor would learn much of value by listening to the punters in the typical first class compartment. He would gain very little from an exposure to standard class apart from an insight into the crisis – and it is a crisis – in public behaviour.

If all that George Osborne wanted to do in first class was to write, read or sleep in conditions of relative peace and safety, or have a private chat with Merv on the phone, I wouldn’t grudge him any of these small privileges; and I would expect the rest of us to pay for them. Nor should senior civil servants in Scotland be ‘urged’ by Mr Salmond’s government to travel standard class when they signed a contract with their employer which included the right to first class rail travel. All public figures who do important work in our name should travel first class. If Britain’s seedy press wishes to bully them into a form of crude social levelling, it ought to be resisted, not pandered to.

Meanwhile, despite the bad name attached to the practice, I will go on travelling first class, living down to my new reputation as Mr Snooty. I’m reminded of a wonderful dinner in Copenhagen years ago and the Danish cabinet minister who, when it was suggested that Denmark’s economy was going off the rails, replied gloriously: ‘Yes, but what you must remember is that, in Denmark, we’re all travelling first-class’.

Here in the disunited kingdom, we are too consumed by populist envy and spite to think in such metaphors. We are irredeemably standard.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review