Tavish Scott: In politics, it’s all a question of timing

THE taxi driver was blunt. “A white elephant,” he observed as we sped past the Gogarburn tram depot. But the next bit caught me by surprise. What the government should have done, he said, is build a railway station at Edinburgh Airport. That would have been good for the capital and Scotland.

Roll back to 2007. A Nationalist Scottish Government was against large capital transport projects. Glasgow Airport’s rail link went the same way as Edinburgh’s. Trams only happened because the other parties agreed. It was not the best project by any means. The Edinburgh Airport rail link was.

But the Tories and west coast Labour were against it for differing reasons, so the only consensus was for trams. I am in a minority in believing that one day trams will be seen as an asset not just to Edinburgh but Scotland, too. But I accept that will remain a minority view for some time. Possibly forever.

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But how does the UK get moving? Team GB is in a double dip recession. This week economists who had said austerity and more austerity was the only way forward in 2010 offered something of a volte face.

Economists are quite entitled to change their minds. When the facts change as they assuredly have in the past three years then a fresh economic course must be mapped.

There is much talk of “shovel 
ready” projects in London and Edinburgh. The principle is sound. Building roads, a new school or a railway employs people, puts salaries into bank accounts and rebuilds confidence that things are happening.

Government in Edinburgh and London would push the economy forward by putting the proverbial shovel into the ground.

A close family member has returned from overseas and, apart from pangs of jealousy about the exotic parts of the globe that he had visited, the former transport minister in me was interested in how people get to and from airports.

Most of the world’s great cities have train links to city centres. Scotland sadly does not and it may be decades before we move forward on this.

An Edinburgh Airport railway station would allow people from all over Scotland to catch a train to the check-in desk. That was why politicians from the west were not keen. But for Fife and the north it would have been good news.

The then airport operators who also owned Glasgow and Aberdeen were sceptical. They wanted a new access road, but were worried about the risk of tunnelling near the runway.

That was a fair argument, although engineers were clear that it was not insurmountable. The new Terminal 5 at Heathrow proved that. Politically the numbers did not add up, so the project was lost.

All politics is about timing and a degree of luck. Had the recession gripped in 2007 and capital projects were seen as a way of flying the country out of recession, perhaps the politics would have worked.

My taxi driver was right.