Boris Blog

The journalist and occasional Tory politician Boris Johnson yesterday posted the following on his blog:

January 19, 2005
Calling /attention all bloggers

It’s quarter to four and I’ve got to write a column.

which shall I do? Any ideas

1. euthanasia in Clint Eastwood’s latest movie

2. Grammar in schools

3. the Airbus 380?

4. The coming elections in Iraq

Posted by boris at January 19, 2005 03:42 PM

What’s this? Interactive journalism? Boris had plenty of suggestions, looking at the comments.

In the end he plumped for the Airbus idea. I’ll reproduce the article in full here, because the Telegraph site is tricky to link to:

European dream and American reality
By Boris Johnson
(Filed: 20/01/2005)

Incroyable! Unglaublich! What a triumph for the European dream. What a stunning rebuke to all of us Euro-sceptics, with our acned teenage insistence on the dogma of the free market.

In less than two months, the first of our runways will rumble to the thunder of the new plane’s payload, 40 per cent heavier than that of a 747. In a couple of years, they will be circling in midge-like cones over Heathrow, except that they won’t be midges so much as aerial whales, Moby Dicks of the sky, each capable of taking 555 passengers, rising to 800 or even 1,000 as new models come on stream. In a decade, they say, the Earth will be cats-cradled with their vapour, as air travel passenger numbers triple in response to the inflated capacity of their bellies, holding 30 per cent more seats than a jumbo.

For a generation, the technocratic elites of France and Germany have dreamt of taking on that mighty Boeing, a plane that emerged in the 1960s and came to symbolise the easy commercial dominance of America; for years, the filing cabinets at Airbus in Toulouse have contained secret folders saying “avion tres grand de l’avenir” or “superkolossalluftwagen”; and here it is, at last, the Airbus 380.

Airbus – did someone say “bus”? Bus is too modest a vehicular analogy. This is not a bus, or even a tram or a train or ship. It is an Airvillage. Already Richard Branson is planning to fill his 380s with casinos and gyms and coffee parlours and double beds – nudge, nudge – and I predict that this plane is just the prelude to a new age of stratospheric gigantism, comparable to the emulation between the great ocean liners of the 1920s. It won’t be long before Branson will be offering orchestras and swimming pools and deck quoits, and they’ll be staging Aida complete with elephants in the Upper Class lounge. And it will Europe that launched this tin Zeppelin, Europe that showed the way.

Admittedly, the 380 has yet to prove that it can actually fly, and I seem to remember that some other Airbus models had quite a high prang rate, something to do with the fly-by-wire system being not quite right, but Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder are certainly entitled to gloat.

The German Chancellor gave a figurative two-fingered salute to Donald Rumsfeld, when he boasted that the 380 was above all a victory for “Old Europe”; and as I say, we Euro-sceptics, we who deplore state subsidy, must take it on the chin. When I joined this paper 17 years ago as a leader writer, there was barely a week in which the late Lord (Jock) Bruce Gardyne, our economics expert, failed to offer an editorial attacking Airbus. It was a scandal, he said, that so much taxpayers’ money was being forced down the gullets of these flightless Toulouse turkeys. How, he demanded, could you expect a plane to be a commercial success, when it was assembled from parts all over Europe, the fuselage from France, the wheels from Spain, the wings from Britain, and so on.

It was all political, he argued; it was putting the political imperative of European integration above good business sense, and we should have nothing to do with it. Well, the best we can say for Jock’s editorials on Airbus was that they were right in principle. A huge amount of British government money was pumped into Airbus over the years, and the 380 alone has attracted £500 million of subsidy. Boeing, by contrast, was able for decades to be the dominant force in air passenger travel, without a cent of direct state subsidy.

And yet we must look at the world as it is, and not at some idealised universe of Thatcherite economics. It may not have been an entirely fair fight, but Airbus is now beating Boeing, not least because of serious errors of strategy in Seattle. This derided European consortium is now, on the face of it, a triumphant success, a success for state subsidy, and for the 400 British firms that will supply more than 50 per cent of the 380’s components, including the wings, landing gear and engines.

While Boeing’s new 747-400 has won only a few orders, 14 airlines have already signed up for the gyms and double beds of the Airbus 380; and the political significance of this will not be understated in Brussels, Berlin and Paris. It is no longer the Americans who will provide the essential tools of globalisation; it is no longer an American machine that will claim pride of place in the aviation section of the Guinness Book of Records.

And as the people of Hounslow – and South Oxfordshire – prepare for this vast shadow to pass above them, they may wonder why Europe cannot rival America in other ways. If the EU can build the biggest commercial planes, and dominate the skies, why is America still the military master of the planet? The answer, of course, is that aeronautical success is no clue to political and military clout. The Russians had enormous Antonovs and Tupolevs, and where are they now? If Europe really wants to be a superpower, and if Chirac and Schröder really want to cock a snook at America, they must do something that no European government is prepared to do, and spend vastly more on defence.

Everyone complains about American management of this unipolar world, and, as one looks at some of the Pentagon’s recent miscalculations, such as post-war Iraq, one can see why. But at present the Americans can and must make all the relevant decisions, because it spends easily more than twice as much as all 25 EU countries on defence, and that is with the dollar at a deep low. If Europe wants the kind of political influence that goes with supplying the world’s fattest aircraft, it will have to do more than out-subsidise Boeing.

Europe will have to build the choppers and the fighters that go with world leadership, and there is no sign of that whatsoever. The most that can be said is that Americans will buy the Airbus 380s to ferry their troops around the world.

  • Boris Johnson is MP for Henley and editor of The Spectator

Shame he didn’t acknowledge the input of the commenters, though…