Thursday, October 22, 2009

Britain a democracy? You're having a laugh


This article of mine appears in the Morning Star.

For all the parties' talk of 'choice', there seems to be precious little of it about when it comes to selling off our public assets.

Do you remember the days when political commentators in Britain used to sneer that US "democracy" merely meant the choice between two identical pro-big business parties?

That was when there were genuine differences between Labour, Conservatives and the Liberals on a variety of key issues. But those days are long gone.

The reality is that the Britain of 2009 is to all intents and purposes a one-party state.

Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are merely wings of the "Capital party" - the same Capital party which has governed Britain since 1979.

In 1997 capital decided it needed to change the faces at the top of the ruling junta as they'd got a bit stale, so we got "new" Labour and grinning Tony instead of the old Tories and the grey-haired John Major.

Now capital has decided that in order to keep up the charade that we live in a democracy it's time for another cosmetic regime change and so the "new" Tories, with Dave "Tony Blair mark II" Cameron, will be wheeled back in. Change we can believe in. Not.

Anyone who doubts the thesis should consider the recent pronouncements our three main parties have been making about privatisation.

Two weeks ago Prime Minister Gordon Brown - the man who wants you to think he's a social democrat - announced a fire sale of publicly owned assets including the Tote, the Dartford Crossing, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, the student loan book and the Royal Mint.

The Tory reaction was not to criticise Brown over the principle of selling off state assets but to claim that the measures would "do little to solve the problems" of alleged government overspending.

"Given the state the country is in, it is probably necessary but it is no substitute for a long-term plan to get the country to live within its means," a party spokesman said.

The Tories then announced further privatisation of their own, with uber neocon shadow defence secretary Liam Fox telling the BBC's Andrew Marr at the weekend that the Met Office - in public ownership since its establishment in 1854 - may be flogged off too.

And we know that serial privatiser Ken Clarke is simply itching to privatise the Post Office if his party gets into power.

The Lib Dems, like the Tories, have no problem with Brown's fire sale in principle. Their quibble is with the timing.

"Given the state of the public finances, asset sales, at least in principle, make sense," said deputy leader Vince Cable. "However as we saw with the sale of the defence technology company QinetiQ, this government does not have a good track record in getting the taxpayer a good price from asset sales."

If the Lib Dems do have a share of power after the next election, then even our motorways and major trunk roads may be owned by the private sector, judging by the enthusiastic reaction Cable gave to a recent plan by investment bankers NM Rothschild calling for the government to sell off roads overseen by the Highways Agency.

The Financial Times quoted Cable as saying of the Rothschild plan: "This is an attractive, positive idea which could release considerable resources to the public finances and may have real environmental merits.
"The scale of it is vast - it makes rail privatisation look like small beer."

Let's recap. If Labour wins the next general election we'll get more privatisation, if the Conservatives win we'll get more privatisation and if the Lib Dems win - or hold a share of power - we'll get more privatisation.

All this when opinion polls show that it's public ownership and not privatisation that the public wants. Britain a democracy? You're having a laugh.

The sight of our three main parties trying to outdo each other on what public assets they'd flog off shows us quite clearly where the real power lies.
Capital won't be satisfied until every asset currently in public ownership is in private hands.

Privatisation may be terrible news for consumers, employees and for the taxpayer, who is nearly always short-changed. But for investment banks like Goldman Sachs and NM Rothschild - described by the Financial Times as the "architect of several privatisations" - it's a big money-spinner. And of course the companies and financial institutions which buy the sold-off state assets, often at knock-down prices, make a killing too.

And then there are the ministers who sell off public assets and then pop up on the boards of privatised companies shortly afterwards.

The question is what can we, the people, do about it?

The realisation that Britain is a one-party state where capital calls the shots may be demoralising at first, but the positive thing is that it can help to frame our response.

We need to focus on direct action outside Parliament and campaign on a local and national level.

Hungary shows us the way.

In the southern city of Pecs, rising anger from local people over rocketing water bills led the town's mayor to send security guards to the city's waterworks in the middle of the night to reclaim it from the French multinational privateer Suez Environment.

The company's spokesman has complained and has threatened legal action, but it won't get much sympathy from local residents, 94 per cent of whom support the mayor's stance.

The mayor of Pecs acted because the local people had had enough. It's time we followed their example.

Don't get angry, get even, the old adage goes.
But if we really are going to get even with the privateers and stop privatisation once and for all we need to get angrier.

Why should we put up with the highest train fares in Europe and being forced to stand in toilets when we have paid thousands of pounds for our season ticket?
Why should we accept having to pay rip-off bills for our water in a country famous for its wet weather?

We wouldn't sit back calmly and allow a burglar to enter our house and take away our furniture and television, so why should we let corporate thieves get their greedy hands on our public assets?

Working together to fight privatisation is essential. The battle our postal workers are fighting to save the 350-year-old Royal Mail as a public service is one which should involve all of us. The RMT's fight for a publicly owned railway is our fight too.
Never forget that we are the many. The pro-privatisation spivs are the few.

Important battles lie ahead in the next few months. It's high time we made our numbers felt.


Neil Clark is co-founder of the Campaign for Public Ownership.

5 comments:

Gregor said...

I'm afraid I'm a lot more pessimistic Neil. What I find most infuriating about this is how the right has distorted discourse about 'statism' and 'big government'. I myself hate intrusive government but the paradox is that Social Democracies are often better than free market fanatic nations at reigning back state-sector nosey parkers:

http://www.privacyinternational.org/article.shtml?cmd[347]=x-347-559597

Yet, like Reagan (or more accurately plagiarising Reagan), Cameron has started using the term 'big government' which is meaningless. Certainly the Tories are no friends of civil liberties despite mealy mouthed statements (which if you can follow basic politicalese means 'we will do nothing).

Yet the example of America shows that it is often those states with privatisation fanatics that have the most brutal state employees whilst Social Democractic nations also tend to have better democratic systems as well as more accountable police and military (the right-wing adoration of Pinochet who reduced state involvement in the economy whilst torturing and killing innocents would be funny were it not so horrible).

However, it does seem that the left can go into a death spiral as people hide their guilt towards the poor by dehumanising them. I've seen little sign that the British people overall are waking up. I think here in Scotland we have a fairly well-educated liberal society so I will probably vote SNP purely because I think Britain is sleepwalking into a Latin American style totalitarian free-market fanatic nation.

Neil Clark said...

Hi Gregor,
I completely agree with what you say about 'free market fanatic nations' and the loss of liberties. The Pinochet example is a good one. Did you see the Niall Ferguson history programme a few months back when he can hardly conceal his admiration for Pincohet's free market economic reforms? The whole 'Road to Serfdom' thesis is
false- neoliberalism leads to a loss of liberties and genuine freedoms, as it did so clearly in Chile. And then of course there's the wars that are caused by the desire to impose neoliberalism on other countries- Yugoslavia in 1999 was a good example.
The toppling of Milosevic's Socialist adminstration in 2000 and the introduction of neoliberal economic 'reform' hasn't led to greater freedoms, but the opposite, witness the draconian new media law which I wrote about recently in the New Statesman.
Closer to home, just think how much freer we were in the social-democratic Britain of the 70s than are today.

DBC Reed said...

People tend to identify Statism with Socialism,Communism and Fascism, but neglect the formative influence of militarism which has acted as non-political, institutional pressure.
Monarchs and Republics were happily fighting each other with small mercenary armies, (though finding it hard to raise the money) until Napoleon came along with an unstoppable Citizen Army.Things got worse with the Franco Prussian war: the we must emulate the Germans tendency got so strong that HMI's insisted on elementary school pupils in the Uk doing military drill with an Army sergeant.The need to have a huge supply of cannon fodder led to care being taken of the population that had n't been thought necessary previously: the pitiful state of 50% of men presenting themselves for enlistment in the Boer War led to panic and palliative measures.Taxation and the military became interlocked.
The Big State is the support system for the Big Army but the latter came first.Political complexion was optional: Napoleon on St Helena with his doctor Barry O ' Meara said he could have recruited enough Englishmen to help him conquer Britain by distributing the property of the nobility.Hitler promised a life of ease out East at the expense of the local peoples
There was big resistance to the idea of a standing army for a long time in the UK and U.S.
The one thing the Right never wants privatised is the armed forces, though organised on Stalinist principles.
On the contrary,a return to mercenaries like the Gurkhas and the French Foreign Legion would be no bad thing as we could avoid fighting by bribing people, as Clive did at Plassey. The needs of a mercenary army do not back up into the political process to such distortionary effect.

Gregor said...

I don't have a TV though it doesn't surprise me that admiration of Pinochet has become mainstream (and incidentally, I heard John Bercow recently saying that he was a moderate conservative who admires Thatcher which shows where the centre ground now is). The ironic thing is that Pinochet renationalised many things during the recession, though I suspect that the Generalissimo was probably laughing up his sleeve when the neo-liberals held him up as a symbol of freedom.

As for Yugoslavia, this is an interesting documentary that I've been watching (though it is very long and I have not seen it all).
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ed2E3jzwmo8&feature=player_embedded

It does indeed sound like the 70s were a freer time (before I was around). I read once that a poll carried out then found that people were at their happiest. Wouldn't know it from internet message boards , but it sums up why I am pessimistic. Now I don't think people could imagine happiness without consumerism and they've retrospectively blotted out the happiness they felt at living in a cohesive, free society because they didn't have the possessions and conveniences they now have.

peezedtee said...

Given that the railways are privatised, it might make sense to privatise the roads, so that they are on a level playing field, especially if road-use charging is introduced, as it should have been long ago.