Those old enough to remember the world before it went completely mad may fondly recall nationalisation as an inspirational idea incompetently implemented. Good, in theory, because it allowed democracy to be extended into the field of economics, so that choices can be determined by intelligent debate rather than by a mindless love of money. Bad, in practice, because the rules of procedure remained unchanged and were exploited in damaging ways. The same old over-centralised managements carried on with their same old haughty methods, with only nominal accountability to over-centralised ministries that answered to Parliament only when they felt it was Parliament’s business to know.
Accounting remained based on a concept of profit that precisely aligned costs and revenues, sometimes arbitrarily, with relatively little of the flexibility that might have allowed social priorities to intervene, but just enough of it to identify nationalisation with reckless loss-making. Thatcherism re-imposed the discipline of the market, refusing to allow declining industries to be run as social services. It was a logical response to the failure of the Callaghan government to balance the national books. Of course, there were strategic exceptions even then. Nuclear power and London commuter services might be lame ducks but they couldn’t be allowed to go to the wall. Coal, steel and engineering could. Which is why Swindon is now known for shops and not workshops and we buy our trains from abroad.
Thatcherism grew out of the problems that flowed from the 1973 oil crisis. It came to power in 1979 and merged seamlessly into Blairism after Labour, in 1995, ditched any remaining commitment to economic democracy. Since 2008 it has been in its death-throes. Bank bail-outs have proved that, politically, the free market is a lie. Cameron’s attempts to use the cover of austerity to drive forward privatisation of local government services and the NHS are facing determined opposition. Moves to sell-off our forest heritage have already been thwarted.
More fundamentally, the intellectual argument has been shot through the heart. The spivocracy of the free market no longer delivers choice. The choice of whether or not to sacrifice our lifestyle in order to prop up the financial class is now transparently a political one. Sadly, politics generally isn’t up to the job of responding. We have Labour continuing to champion competition and deregulation, while the case for State control of energy prices was last week made on the floor of the House of Commons by a supposedly Conservative Prime Minister.
As with railways, the pressure is building to take the energy sector back into common ownership. Maybe even democratic common ownership? There’s been none of that in energy since the last municipal gas and electricity departments were regionalised under the Attlee government. But regionalised in the usual ad hoc way. Two different sets of regional boundaries, pre-determined by agglomerating private company territories, neither set aligned with political boundaries, and in no way intended as a preparation for decentralised democratic control through elected regional bodies. If that ever was the ultimate intention, we’re still waiting.
We could, for example, have had a Wessex Electricity Board. (We did have a Wessex Electricity Company, whose expansion was cut short by nationalisation.) It would have been difficult to achieve in the 1940s, when the priority was post-war reconstruction and ad hoc solutions ruled. But the industry was reorganised twice in the 1950s, ultimately creating a federal structure across England/Wales/Cornwall, while Scotland got its own separate institutions. The next time reorganisation was on the cards was in the 1970s, when Labour’s Tony Benn sought to centralise the industry into one vast corporation on the precedent of British Gas. Only the need for Liberal support to prolong the minority government’s life vetoed that. As for gas itself, John Osmond’s 1974 book The Centralist Enemy gives a breathtaking account of the damage done as British Gas was formed out of the regional boards. It’s the usual tale of looking to London for answers instead of coming together in defence of the region.
Then came privatisation and all that followed. With the result that the energy sector today looks nothing like what was sold from 1986 onwards. It’s been diced and sliced and reassembled into conglomerates that make what the banks did with mortgages look relatively straightforward. Sometimes electricity is generated by one company, transmitted nationally by another, distributed locally by a third, and supplied to the consumer by a fourth. Sometimes the four are completely independent of each other. At other times one company does two or more but never entirely all four. It can also do one or more aspects of gas, and some suppliers have also done other things, like double glazing. But you can’t guarantee that yours will. And as for tariffs, the free market gives you a choice of about 400, a tactic known as confusion marketing. Which applies to rail fares too.
It’s chaos, and chaos is becoming unfashionable. Chaos isn’t good any more. It wearies the brain. The public looks to politicians to cut the Gordian knot and restore simplicity and sanity. To renationalise the railways, the energy companies, the water companies, and all the rest. If Labour won’t do it, maybe the Tories will. Who knows? There’s no reason why they couldn’t. It was Disraeli who bought shares in the Suez Canal, Churchill who took a stake in what became BP and Chamberlain who nationalised coal royalties. Even Edward Heath made the U-turn, selling off State assets to start with, but bailing-out Rolls-Royce in the end. It was the Tories too who stole our local water boards off us by stealth between 1972 and 1989.
Nationalisation always finds its way onto the agenda when firms look to the taxpayer to socialise their losses, simultaneously demanding asset sales as the means to continue to privatise profits. The acid test of true intentions is what, if any, compensation is paid, and to whom. Municipal undertakings have always been nationalised on less generous terms than private ones, thanks to the convenient myth that the State is one entity, even though its parts are politically separate and can even be diametrically opposed in outlook. One of the greatest boons of devolution may be to break down this unitary thinking, so that a parish or county council is at last seen as having rights that are vested in local folk and not in the London regime.
Our own contribution must be to point out the folly of simply repeating recent history. Nationalisation is centralisation and that means more of the same. More top jobs in London. More disdain for the folk on the spot. Priorities set in London for London’s gain and our loss. One size being made to fit all. And the whole show fanfared as Britain on the rise, united once more under its natural leaders.
Scotland and Wales will be sceptical. They won’t want to play that game. And neither should we. We need to take control of our energy resources and networks for our benefit, under the guidance of a Wessex Witan beholden to no-one beyond our boundaries.