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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Mrs Thatcher and her Blue Children

This column of mine appears in the Morning Star.
(And, on the subject of privatisation, have you read the latest news about Britain’s wonderful privatised railways- already by far and away the most expensive in Europe?)

Neil Clark

It's exactly 20 years ago this month that Margaret Thatcher, the longest-serving British prime minister of the 20th century, left Downing Street.

Thatcher's negative impact can be seen in many areas. But arguably the most toxic legacy was her privatisation programme.

Thatcher broke with the policy of previous post-war Conservative governments which had accepted the mixed economy post-war consensus, instead embarking on a major series of sell-offs when she first came to power in 1979.

British Telecom, British Gas and British Airways were three of the biggest state-owned companies that Thatcher flogged off.

She also broke up the National Bus Company and Sealink - the highly-profitable publicly owned ferry company.

But the great tragedy was that privatisation did not end with Thatcher's eviction from Number 10 in November 1990.

John Major's government took privatisation even further than the Iron Lady dared to go - embarking on the disastrous sell-off of Britain's railways.

To its credit, the Labour Party opposed the Tory sell-offs of the 1980s and '90s. But, to its great shame, when finally returned to government in 1997, it not only did nothing to bring privatised industries back into public ownership, it actually extended the process still further.

Now, after this year's election and despite the fact that privatisation has never been so unpopular, we have the most pro-privatisation government in our history.

The Royal Mail, in state hands since 1516, is next up for sale. The Tote, a state-owned bookmaker set up by that well known socialist revolutionary Winston Churchill in 1928 and whose profits are ploughed back into racing, is also under threat. As are Britain's publicly owned forests. The government's NHS reforms mean the effective end of the state-run health system in all but name.

It's interesting to note how the arguments for privatisation have changed down the years. Back in the 1980s, we were told by the Thatcherites that privatisation would improve efficiency and give customers a better deal.

But the fact is that the nationalised industries of the '60s and '70s were far more efficient - and customer friendly - than their private successors.

Our railways are by far and away the most expensive in Europe with more big price rises to come in the New Year.

Our privately-owned buses are the most expensive in the continent too, while in 2008 Britain saw the highest energy price rises in Europe - almost four times higher than Belgium, the next country on the list.

The serial privatisers, therefore, have had to come up with a new excuse to continue with their policy. Today's Thatcherites don't say we need to privatise because it will be good for consumers, but because the government urgently needs to raise money to deal with the "deficit crisis."

But it's an argument as bogus as the old ones that we were given back in the 1980s.

As John Pilger pointed out in the Morning Star earlier this month, "a deficit of 10 per cent is not remotely a crisis. When Britain was officially bankrupt at the end of the second world war, the government built its greatest public institutions, such as the National Health Service and the arts edifices of London's South Bank."
In truth, it's privatisation and not public ownership that Britain can't afford.

Bringing the railways, buses and utilities back into public ownership would actually save the country money in the long term.

Not only would it mean that there would no longer be any need to pay subsidies to profiteering, privately owned transport companies but, in the case of the utilities, it would enable the new state-owned energy companies to reduce prices to consumers and businesses thereby aiding economic recovery.

Any truly progressive - and economically literate - British political party would put public ownership right at the heart of its manifesto.

Will new Labour leader Ed Miliband be bold enough to end his party's support for privatisation and revert back to the policy his party followed for much of the post-war era?

Or will Margaret Thatcher, 20 years after leaving Downing Street, still be allowed to set the political agenda?
Looking forward to the festive season? Those kindly souls at British Gas have a nice little Christmas present for you - a 7 per cent rise in gas and electricity prices to take effect from December 10.

British Gas spokespersons, of course, came out with the usual guff about regretting the price increases and how rising overheads meant that it had no option but to do so. But the explanation doesn't quite fit with the news that Centrica, British Gas's parent company, expects that the group's profits for 2010 will be more than £2.2bn.

In the Morning Star recently Solomon Hughes wrote about demonstrators protesting outside Vodafone shops over the company's avoidance of paying around £6 billion in tax. We need to start to build a similar campaign of protest against Britain's profiteering utility companies, starting with British Gas.

Question - who said: "I think this idolisation we have of business people, as if they're heroes, is wrong.

"I admire people who invent, who create, who are inspirational. Would you really want to be related to someone who's as evil and ruthless as the Sheriff of Nottingham? Sour-faced, evil, sadistic ******s. Meanness is a trait I despise. That's what I see in The Apprentice. It promotes evilness and greed."

The answer is not a leading British leftist, but TV presenter Eamonn Holmes.

Up to now I can't say I've been a huge fan of Holmes, but he is right to attack The Apprentice.

In its promotion of dog-eat-dog selfishness, big-headedness and greed, The Apprentice is a programme which perhaps best defines the neoliberal era. It's a programme that could not - and would not - have been made in the social democratic 1970s before the onset of Thatcherism.

Back then, TV programmes reflected the more progressive values of the age.

Two of the most popular drama series of the period are currently being re-shown on digital TV and its interesting to compare their more humane message with the shallow "greed is good" of The Apprentice.

The Onedin Line, which ran on the BBC from 1971 to 1980, was not only a thrilling, brilliantly acted drama but one in which the excessive greed of characters such as the odious banker Josiah Beaumont is sharply criticised.

The programme, which was set in Liverpool, also highlighted the appalling conditions sailors worked under in the Victorian era and the lack of social provision for them.

The Onedin Line was not only popular in Britain but in the socialist countries of eastern Europe too - it was even rumoured that President Tito of Yugoslavia got transmission times changed so he wouldn't miss an episode when he was away.

In Upstairs Downstairs, probably the most subtly subversive drama ever shown on British TV, its the miners who are portrayed with the utmost sympathy during the 1926 general strike and not the mine owners. When Captain James Bellamy rages against the strikers whom he accuses of wanting to bring the country down, his step-cousin Lady Georgina Worsley calls him a "pompous ass" and his father, the "One Nation" Tory minister Lord Richard Bellamy, declares: "You must have strong unions for the good of the country."

A new mini-series of Upstairs Downstairs is being broadcast on the BBC this Christmas. Will a leading character come out with such pro-trade union sentiments? Don't bank on it.


Anonymous said...

Great article, Mr. Clark. The debate over deficits is framed in a very dishonest way. The Conservatives and others talk about overspending as being the cause of the deficits, but they fail to note that the recession is primarily responsible for rising deficits via decreased tax revenue.

Also, it seems like the term "overspending" only applies to public services for regular people, not to foreign wars or bank bailouts, those things are always necessary! Really, it is all about advancing neoliberal ideology and selling public assets off for the benefit of the privateers that fund the politicians, think tanks, lobbyists, publications, etc.

I also agree with you about television shows like "The Apprentice." Neoliberalism is turning the Anglo-Saxon nations into hotbeds of meanness and cruelty, where kindness and compassion are seen as weakness and folly.

It is really disturbing, and it is unfortunate more religious leaders don't speak out against this kind of culture. I don't think Jesus would have approved of "The Apprentice" and the culture of greed it promotes.

Neil Clark said...

Hi John. Many thanks.

"Really, it is all about advancing neoliberal ideology and selling public assets off for the benefit of the privateers that fund the politicians, think tanks, lobbyists,etc"

Sadly that's the truth about privatisation.

"Neoliberalism is turning the Anglo-Saxon nations into hotbeds of meanness and cruelty, where kindness and compassion are seen as weakness and folly. "

Neoliberalism encourages us to see other people not as potential friends or comrades, but as rivals.

You can see this 'dog eat dog' mentality quite clearly in The Apprentice. I'm fairly sure that if Jesus did come back to earth and watched the programme, he'd be horrified at the selfish values it is promoting.