Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Supreme Court Ruling Makes Me Proud to Be British, and the Rise and Fall of Thomas Cook

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Supreme Court Ruling Makes Me Proud to Be British, and the Rise and Fall of Thomas Cook

Article excerpt

The United Kingdom, as is commonly observed, does not have a written constitution. It has something better, described by the Supreme Court justices who ruled that Boris Johnson's prorogation of parliament was null and void: "A constitution, established over the course of our history by common law, statutes, conventions and practice ... It has developed pragmatically, and remains sufficiently flexible to be capable of further development." It has brought an abrupt halt--at least for the time being--to Boris Johnson's Donald Trump tribute act and proved more reliable in curbing an overmighty and untrustworthy executive than its rigid and politicised American equivalent.

With or without a deal, Brexit may still go ahead. Our leaders may continue to make fools of themselves and us in Paris, Brussels and Berlin. The country may remain divided, perhaps more bitterly than ever. But just for a moment, we should all be proud to be British.

Summer holidays, Seventies-style

Nationalisation of the collapsed travel firm Thomas Cook isn't quite as unthinkable as you may imagine. Founded in 1841, the company was sold in 1928 by the grandsons of its founder to Belgium-based Wagon-Lits, operator of the Orient Express. After WagonLits's continental assets were seized by German occupiers during the Second World War, the government transferred Thomas Cook to the British railway companies. It was nationalised in 1948 by Clement Attlee's government, along with the railways.

Under public ownership, Thomas Cook remained the world's largest travel agent, popularised the idea of foreign travel, pioneered package holidays--which it called "inclusive tours"--and made a record profit of more than 1m [pounds sterling] (equivalent to more than 18m [pounds sterling] today) in 1965. It lost market share, however, to younger rivals that promoted their holidays on price rather than quality and service. The Tories sold it in 1972 to a consortium headed by the Midland Bank, which paid the unexpectedly high price of 22.5m [pounds sterling]. It was in sufficiently robust health to survive a subsequent recession that saw off dozens of other travel firms.

You may think that only elderly lefties, frozen in the 1970s, would contemplate taking it back into public ownership. But a poll commissioned in 2017 by the Legatum Institute, a think tank that leans well to the right, found nearly a quarter of Britons favour nationalisation of travel agents. After Thomas Cook's collapse, ruining tens of thousands of holidays, that proportion seems likely to rise sharply.

The private school problem

Something else that sounds as if it has strayed out of the 1970s is Labour's new policy on getting rid of fee-charging schools. There are four different ways of tackling what even some Tories call "our public school problem". One is to prohibit charging fees for full-time schooling as Finland does. Another is in effect to nationalise them by expropriating the schools' assets (as proposed by Labour activists). …

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