(…and others like them).
As a child of the Sixties and Seventies, I have never shared the view that public utilities are a bad thing. I remember visiting the local SWEB electricity board showroom when we needed to buy new appliances, or to pay a bill (those were the days…) – and to a lesser extent, there was a consciousness that the basics of life were provided for all by a caring, social State. Even the much-maligned British Rail was somehow a benign entity, cash-starved and declining though it was. SWEB too may have been a bit dowdy, but even to a six year old, it somehow exuded a benevolence that a private company never can.
I was in my twenties when most of the privatisations took place. Even then, I had my doubts: why should the civic assets of our nation be placed in the hands of a few, for their private profit? Macmillan’s observation about selling the family silver was correct. And how can a private company, with shareholders to keep happy and a profit to make, deliver basic needs more cheaply and more equitably than the State?
We now know the answer: it can’t. Deregulated markets have come to mean one thing only: an opportunity for a small group of greedy individuals to enrich themselves at everybody else’s expense. It is no coincidence that the wealth of the richest has hit the stratosphere during this period. Deregulation primarily gave carte blanche to those people to devise ever more devious ways of meeting short-term shareholder expectations – thereby releasing huge rewards for themselves. And we won’t even begin on corporate tax avoidance.
A lot of this has happened below the radar: who knew, for instance, that almost all of the water utility companies are now de-listed and owned by private equity funds and the like? No opportunities there for the small investor. Then we have the executives of Persimmon reaping huge bonuses on the back of state-subsidised housing construction – and Carillion’s bosses brazenly altering rules to ensure their bonuses could not be clawed back even in the event of company failure. How much more evidence is needed? And yet there are those in government who still hesitate “to interfere in the affairs of the business sector”… The fact is, the private sector exists, as it always did, to make a profit for the few, not serve the many. It will not do anything that compromises its short-term profitability – and it will do anything that enhances it – immoral or illegal included – if it thinks it can get away with it. The myth of the customer being king has been revealed for the sham it always was, and the only surprise (to me at least) is that so many knowledgeable people apparently believed it would be otherwise.
For four decades, Britons have been fed the ‘wisdom’ that the private sector is more dynamic and more efficient than the state. A whole string of failures is now showing this not to be true, and as Polly Toynbee suggested in The Guardian recently, Britain is now lumbered with a toxic brand of unaccountable, amoral capitalism that will probably take more decades to rectify – or preferably dismantle. Public-private profit may be one thing, but working against the public interest is another. My impression is that things have not gone as far on the continent; few countries followed Britain down the wholesale-privatisation route – and it is now evident how wise that was.
Yet there are two elements of this disaster that are not receiving much coverage.
Firstly, many of the rogue individuals who are responsible for this wholesale malpractice are the products of one toxic generation, whose genesis dates back to a certain Prime Minister whose policies encouraged them: the almost-forgotten Yuppies of the Eighties and Nineties, the Nick Leesom clones who never got caught – but who still made their fortunes gaming the post- Big Bang deregulated City. They nearly ruined the system then; in the meantime they have gone on to become the captains of industry and are still lining their pockets – only from positions of much greater power and influence. The sooner they are brought to book, the better.
The second is the cultural change that has accompanied privatisation. I sense that the commercialised private sector extends much further into people’s lives – and the wider cultural institutions of this country – than has been permitted elsewhere. As a non-TV viewer, it is most evident to me on the few occasions I do see broadcast media – the level of commercial intrusion that people seem to tolerate shocks me. It seems there is no aspect of British life that the private sector has not been able to turn into an opportunity to make a quick buck. The homogenising effect on the population has, I believe been huge: people’s lives have increasingly become mere conveyor belts of pre-packaged, standardised offerings, from the homes they live in to the clothes they wear, from the holidays they take to the food they eat, to the music they hear – everything revolves around that which it is profitable for commerce to purvey. There is a huge difference between a citizen and a consumer; in Britain, we only have the latter.
It can be argued that people have choice – but I think the wider corporate case masks the truth here: it is the M&S white-knickers argument again. People will buy what they are given if it’s all there is, and the hassle of trying to go against the flow is too much for most. Most companies attempt to homogenise their markets around mass-producible products. And they are becoming ever more sophisticated – and ever more disingenuous – in persuading people that that is what they really wanted all along. Orwell’s Big Brother has turned out to be a private corporation.
It has gone too far when nearly all elements of our culture are now determined by their profit margins. There is, in my view, no case whatsoever for running schools and hospitals as even quasi-commercial operations. Quite apart from the inefficiencies that are the same as elsewhere, management has been diverted from providing basic services into meeting contractual targets; interpersonal relations on which such organisations run have been severely damaged by the target-chasing that results. It is also fundamentally morally wrong for profit to be made from basic needs, let alone misfortune. It amounts to the monopoly of the helpless.
Cornerstones of our culture, such as the intellectual independence of our universities are being subordinated to their need to run as increasingly rapacious businesses; this cannot be right. Unrestrained business appeals most basely to people’s greed; in that sense it is also responsible for high levels of debt, the psychological damage of over-consumption and the environmental disaster that services it.
I would also include wider cultural matters in this: is there really a need for art galleries, museums and even charities to be made to operate as profit centres? Why should welfare targets be determined by how much money they save, rather than disburse? Their benefit is of an entirely different nature, and in difficult times most of all, it should not be denied those who cannot make them pay. Contractual constraints and that same profit motive have made it impossible for ordinary people to do the obvious things in situations where the personal touch ‘going beyond the necessary’ makes all the difference.
Forty years on, it is inescapable that the promised Eden of high-quality, privately provided services for all has proved to be an illusion. It was always going to, not least because in the eyes of profit-seekers, the most vulnerable either merit only the most pared-back of loss-leader provision – or they simply don’t even exist. One might even consider it only marginally more ethical for the private sector to offer every last luxury to the wealthy – and then fleece them utterly for it. This country is now run as a private racket for the benefit of a small number of greedy, amoral people – and they need to be stopped.
I have great doubts that any politician will have the courage to tackle this; even Corbyn will probably find tackling the vested interests a lot more difficult than he expects, assuming he ever wins power to begin with. And even if we start making amends now, the cultural damage will take decades and generations to put right. It is one thing to have a market economy – but we now have a market society. It was never much of a ‘partnership’ to begin with – more of a mugging.