Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Gambling our future


This column of mine appears in today's Morning Star.

“The absurdity is that, precisely when the breakdown of the orthodoxy of deregulated markets, the small state and corporate privilege is plain for all to see, the main political parties are clinging to it ever more tightly“,
writes the socialist commentator Seumas Milne.

One example of Britain’s political elite clinging to discredited neo-liberal orthodoxy is the government’s shocking plans to hand over entire NHS hospitals to the private sector.

Another is the imminent privatisation of the Tote, the state-owned bookmaker. The Tote was set up in 1926 by that well-known communist revolutionary Winston Churchill: it shows you have far down the neoliberal road we have travelled when a state-run institution established by a Conservative government and which escaped the attentions even of the serial privatising Mrs Thatcher, is now to be flogged off.

None of the standard arguments wheeled out by the pro-privatisation brigade apply to the Tote. Inherently profitable, in its 82 years of existence, it has never taken a penny from the government in subsidy. Selling the Tote to another rival bookmaker will reduce, and not increase competition. “The selling off of the Tote would be a catastrophe- Armageddon for racing. There is no correlation between the Tote and any bookmaking firm, either in ideology, philosophy or reality” is the verdict of the renowned punter and racehorse owner Harry Findlay.

But while the Tote sale is rotten news for Britain’s millions of punters, its good news for some. Advising the government on the Tote sale are the US investment bank Goldman Sachs. The involvement of Goldman Sachs in the sell-off process has led some to raise the issue of a conflict of interest.

“Goldman Sachs, is acting for the Government. and it is reported that Gala Coral is the front-runner in the auction. It is also Goldman Sachs that acted as the chief advisor to Gala Coral last year during their own bid for the Tote. We all know that Goldman Sachs is the Government's favourite banker but surely it can't be that they are providing advice both to the bidder and to the Government?", asked Labour MP Greg Hands in a parliamentary debate on the future of the Tote in May.

In a recent article for the Sunday Telegraph, Jim O’Neill, Chief Economist of Goldman Sachs, claimed that globalisation was a ‘bonus’ for Britain. While there will be many people who will be sceptical over that claim, there’s one thing about which there can be no doubt : globalisation and its associated process of privatisation has certainly been a ‘bonus’ for Goldman Sachs.

FIGHT THE GREAT EU RAIL SELL-OFF

* The late humorist Auberon Waugh was a great fan of Belgian ticket inspectors. As a regular traveller on Belgium’s ultra-efficient, reliable and eminently affordable state-owned railway, I can understand why.

On my most recent journey on Belgian Railways I got into conversation with a ticket inspector on the subject of railway privatisation. The ticket inspector had visited Britain and been shocked by the sky-high walk-on rail fares, the complicated fare structure and the fragmentation of the network.

The system is a huge contrast from the consumer-friendly Belgian Railways, whose kilometer based pricing system means that fares are the same price regardless of when you book the ticket.

But sadly, it’s the privatised, consumer-unfriendly British model that neoliberal ideologues, backed by global capital, are trying to impose on Belgium and the rest of Europe. The EU’s ‘Third Rail Package’ to take effect from 2010, provides for the ’liberalisation’ of international rail traffic in Europe. And the European Commission will report on the next stage of 'liberalising' domestic rail services by 31 December 2012.

If such ‘liberalisation’ goes ahead it will mean the end of state-owned railways, like the excellent Belgian Railways.

The good news is that the fight back has already begun. In London last month, the European Conference of Rail Trade Unionists called for European wide demonstrations against rail liberalisation, and for Europe’s railway unions to work together to defeat the privatisation agenda. The Campaign for Public Ownership looks forward to working alongside the European Transport Workers Federation, the RMT and all other progressive bodies to prevent the privatisation of railways in Europe. We simply can’t let it happen.

FUELLING THE WAR MACHINE

* Wars, conflict, it’s all business’ sighs Monsieur Verdoux, Charlie Chaplin’s anti-hero in the 1947 film of the same name.

If Monsieur Verdoux were around today, I don’t think he’d be changing his mind.

Nine years ago, Yugoslavia was in the line of fire. Five years ago it was Iraq‘s turn for 'Shock and Awe'. And now it’s Iran turn to receive the threats and ultimatums.

Those three countries each had different political systems. Yugoslavia was a multi-party Socialist-led democracy. Iraq was a Baathist dictatorship. Iran is an Islamic theocracy.

But all three countries had one thing in common: the majority of their economy was in public ownership.

With the Serbian economy sold off en-masse to foreign capital and Iraq’s oil industry about to be privatised- is there anyone who still doubts that it’s the insatiable search for profits which is fuelling the war machine?

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