Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Gordon Brown's speech

Most of the comment has been on the style of the speech. Would it reveal the private man, the warm jester, who we were assured by people close to Number 10, lurked behind the dour, vindictive, public face?

Would it be a tour de force which would put an end to the speculation in the media about his future? Well, we now have much opinion - most of it surprisingly favourable - to draw on.

Few have commented on the substance of the speech. For instance, who contrasted Brown's understanding of the word fairness, with that of Nick Clegg? What sense was there of Brown addressing the widening gap between the richest and poorest in Britain? (See an economist's analysis of negative wages here.)

Or how about his misunderstanding of the metaphor of mending the roof when the sun was shining? The point was not about spending on public services, necessary though that may have been, but about building up reserves.

Finally (for now - I'm sure we'll come back to this), one of his trumpeted initiatives seems to be flawed. I refer to the provision of broadband.

He said:
Jim Knight is announcing that we will fund over a million extra families to get online, on the way to our ambition of Britain leading the world with more of our people than any other major economy able to actively participate in our broadband and internet future.

Most of us know that the major factor limiting broadband take-up in the UK is the provision of high-capacity cable. Wales suffers more than England in this respect.

It has been estimated that it will cost almost £30bn to optically-cable every home. There is a cheaper option, of carrying the optical fibre just to the street cabinets, leaving a short length of existing metal to complete the connection. That would cost just over £5bn. BT has committed to a £1.5bn upgrade which will bring the total of homes with access to high band-width to ten million, but there is no indication that they will provide universal access from their own resources.

Look at the official briefing which followed Gordon Brown's speech, and you will see that only £300m is to be allocated to the government initiative (and what's the betting it has been pared from some other programme?). This is enough only to favour a few, unless there has been a surprising change of heart on the part of the telecomms companies.

Frank Little
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