Irresponsible strikes will hit London

Allister Heath
BARRING a last-minute reprieve, commuters will be subjected to much chaos from 5pm tonight as Underground workers go on strike. Tomorrow will be especially tough.

This strike is irresponsible. It is being caused by selfish militants who cannot face losing some of their privileges at a time when everybody else in Britain is being forced to tighten their belts. Oyster cards mean fewer staff are needed to process tickets. The claim that this would endanger passenger safety doesn’t stack up. The strikers responsible for subjecting passengers to chaos should be ashamed of themselves. The Mayor and Transport for London must resist any temptation to surrender; and the government needs urgently to reexamine the rules governing strikes on essential services.

Despite the unrest, we are not entirely returning to the 1970s. As Russell Roberts, an economist based at George Mason University in the US, reminds us, it was in 1979 that Sony launched the Walkman, the first portable music player and a product which transformed the way we listened to music.

The original Walkman weighed 14 ounces and cost (in those days) $200. It played cassettes (remember those?) that could hold 90 minutes of music, though the sound quality was far from perfect; the Walkman itself was a little larger than a cassette and quite boxy. Despite these limitations, it was an astonishing success, went on to sell 340m units worldwide in all of its incarnations and helped cement what was then Japan’s domination of the consumer electronics market.

Fast-forward 31 years: Apple’s latest Nano weighs under an ounce; the 8GB model retails at $149 in the US (at today’s prices) and £129 in the UK, holds 60 hours of music, includes features such as FM radio and a pedometer, is smaller than a matchbook and is exquisitely designed. As Roberts points out, it is much cheaper (even before adjusting for inflation), weighs 1/14th as much and holds 40 times more music of much higher quality.

Several lessons can be drawn from this; here are a few. Capitalism and globalisation has delivered astonishing improvements in terms of quality and price; private firms engaged in competitive rivalry lead the way. Even the poorest households today own numerous products that didn’t exist a few years ago. There have been real improvement in living standards across all income groups, many of which are not picked up in official statistics. As we get richer we care more about the way things look; design and visual characteristics are more important than ever before. Finally, Japan’s dominance in consumer electronics has been smashed; Apple, a US company that was written off 15 years ago, has revolutionized the music and mobile phone markets.

So what does this mean for Britain? Countries (and companies) that foster flexibility, incentivise hard work and effort, embrace technological and economic change, nurture an entrepreneurial, can-do culture, promote individual freedom and open societies that value creativity and new thinking, and provide quality education will do well – and those that won’t are condemned to decline. On most counts, Britain is falling behind. The attitude of the militant strikers is the exact opposite of what our great city needs if it is to prosper – but it is merely one of many ways in which we are shooting ourselves in the foot. It is time to get a grip, and fast.