The Hollow State


Privatisation is the social equivalent of selling a kidney to pay the mortgage. Except that, under current circumstances, it’s not even your mortgage you’re paying but that of some crook you’ve never met but whose well-being you’re assured is fundamental to economic stability.

It was no accident that the real start of the privatisation drive co-incided with the rejection of devolution and the first attacks on local autonomy led by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Devolution offered the possibility that many nationalised industries could ultimately have become regionalised industries, subject to the kind of effective scrutiny that an overloaded Westminster Parliament could never provide.

Nationalisation had taken public services out of the hands of local authorities, where democratic accountability knew no bounds, and placed them in the hands of quangos whose managements were accountable to no-one. This was soon made clear by a Speaker’s ruling, in 1948, that MPs could not ask questions of Ministers about ‘day-to-day’ matters because (in theory) Ministers had no formal responsibility for detail (though a great deal of influence in practice). Such ‘inquisitiveness’ was strongly resisted by the Labour government, apparently on the grounds that it risked making Ministers personally responsible for far too much. But if Ministers did not control the industries they claimed to have acquired for the nation, then who did? The managerialist black hole into which great swaths of public life disappeared was no accident either. This was the inevitable result of the Labour Party’s instinctive fear of decentralisation and democracy, of the idea that there might be decisions taken beyond its own control and of which it might not approve. Better by far to leave the decisions to technocrats than to locals of another party.

The Thatcherite solution was to sell the family silver back to the family, who already owned it but understandably, at discounted prices, paid for it a second time and then re-sold at value when necessary to recover the cost. A generation later, the family are having to rent the silver back to be able to eat their dinner. Privatisation has now even reached the shores of the USA, that bastion of collectivism that never even realised just how pinko it actually was.

Initially, Thatcher’s privatisations had some decentralist characteristics. With real autonomy, local bus operators and regional electricity companies regained or acquired a sense of their own distinct identity. Boards were no longer appointed by Ministers in Whitehall but elected by shareholders, often with a substantial regional presence. But within the decade it was all going into reverse, small fry gobbled up by groups that soon went national, then international. The employee-owned ‘People’s Provincial’ in Fareham was hailed as a privatised bus company even a socialist might endorse, then conveniently forgotten about once stalked and devoured by the Aberdeen-based group First. Top managers who bought their companies and then sold out walked away with millions. Simply for being in the right place at the right time. Wessex had seen nothing like it since Jack Horner stuck in his thumb and pulled out a plum.

The irony of Margaret Thatcher’s ideology, like that of Enoch Powell before her, was that if you support both national sovereignty and the free market the two will one day collide. And the market will win. In winning it may even boost the national sovereignty of others who refuse to play by these loser’s rules. What was once the South Western Electricity Board is now EDF Energy, a subsidiary of the French Republic. True blue? More like sacré bleu. At least we can say that France is only next door. Other infrastructure is owned by the Spaniards (Bristol Water), the Americans (Western Power Distribution) and the Australians (Bristol Airport). Wessex Water is owned by a billionaire in Malaysia. Did Maggie envisage that?

Our Party insists upon local and regional control over everything that is locally and regionally important. At a recent policy-making meeting it was agreed that land which is publicly-owned – or becomes publicly-owned in future – should be declared inalienable. Capable of being re-assigned, free, within the public sector, yes. Capable of being leased for a fixed term, yes. Capable of ever being sold again, never. Private ownership of land must be subject to limitations on acreage and a residency qualification. We are determined to face down those who believe our communities should be up for sale to the highest bidder. Property rights are our servants, not our masters, and our vision of Wessex is of a region where they are comprehensively re-written for the public good.

There is another vision. It is the vision of the big three London parties, carrying on in cackling consensus their work of eviscerating the State. Their ultimate aim is already publicly stated – a United Kingdom that has sold everything except the police and the military. The police to protect the interests of the super-rich. The military to go wherever in the world finance capital needs a helping hand. A post-democratic State without a heart. Just two hefty armoured fists, paid for by me and you. Their vision? Our vision? Your choice!

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