After Privatisation December 10, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Culture, Economy, Irish Politics, The Left.
Ian Jack in the Guardian on Saturday has a thought-provoking article on the nature of privatisation, how far it can go and just how large the gap between the period before the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and now actually is.
It is of particular interest given that we were just discussing nationalisation as an aspect of social democratic programmes in the last day or two, and it points perhaps to just how much has been lost and how much was achievable by the left even under mildly progressive governments. Or to put it another way it points to how much the space within which the left can operate and expand the project has been constrained in the last three and a half decades – which of course was the point of the exercise – and how much has been forgotten.
Jack notes that it was Harold Macmillan who introduced the phrase ‘selling the family silver’ in relation to the processes of privatisation, and not in a complimentary fashion, though he later disowned it.
But it is when Jack gets into the detail that the differences between now and then come into sharp focus:
At the time of Macmillan’s speech, privatisation had hardly begun. British Rail’s ferries and hotels were the first to go (how strange it now seems that the best hotels in almost every city outside London were owned and run – usually well – by public servants in the most literal sense). But British Telecom, British Steel, British Airways, British Shipbuilders and Rolls-Royce – all of them listed as targets in the Tories’ 1983 manifesto – had still to complete their journey from the public sector, and the big privatisations that that would affect every household had yet to come. Gas, water, electricity: people puzzled as to how the same stuff flowing through the same pipes and wires could be owned by different companies, and yet somehow it became so in the name of competition. Then came the British Airports Authority and British Rail and large chunks of the Ministry of Defence, while many public institutions such as local authorities and the NHS outsourced much of their activity and shrank sometimes to the role of regulator. Nigel Lawson triumphantly announced “the birth of people’s capitalism”, but many private companies sold out to foreign ownership; others were taken over by private equiteers; others again subsumed into octopus-like businesses such as Serco and G4S, which picked up the contracts for outsourced work ranging from Royal Navy tugboats to nursing assistants.
There are issues, obvious one’s in relation to some of those companies. Rolls-Royce springs to mind, although it was not simply a car manufacturer. The Concorde project from earlier in the 1960s and 1970s likewise. The idea of state funding to ensure Phil Collins et al made it to the United States in jig time was problematic, to put it mildly. But the sheer scope of nationalisation is demonstrated by this list.
And why not. Why shouldn’t the state run hotels or ferries? I’ve always been puzzled too by the idea that a state-owned airline was somehow odd. Semi-state bodies charged with doing so seems eminently sensible in a broad range of areas and with a better understanding of market conditions and so forth what reason is there that such bodies couldn’t turn a penny for the state?
The bizarre nature of attempting to marketise areas, such as public utilities where there was no clear logic to same is underlined by Jack. This wasn’t competition but the pretence of same, and we’ve seen examples of that much closer to home, and one suspects will continue to see more. The chimera of ‘people’s capitalism’ likewise.
Jack offers an excellent quote to sum up these processes:
The words of the novelist and reporter James Meek ring ever truer. “The commodity that makes water and roads and airports valuable to an investor, foreign or otherwise, is the people who have no choice but to use them,” Meek wrote last year in the London Review of Books. “We have no choice but to pay the price the toll keepers charge. We are a human revenue stream; we are being made tenants in our own land, defined by the string of private fees we pay to exist here.”
What is most evident is that we, the citizenry, are coerced into transactional relationships in a myriad of areas – and that often due to an inability of the private sector to live up to its own rhetoric that of necessity means that many are shut out of those relationships in whole or part.
It’s darkly entertaining though to read Jack’s closing thoughts.
But why not take it further and outsource the air force, the army and the navy? Mercenaries from poorer countries would be cheaper, accepting even worse rates of pay than the average British infantryman. Why not outsource the police, given that prison warders are already privatised? Why not outsource the government? It has cut so many parts from itself that it does no more than bleed on its stumps.
Clearly he’s unacquainted with the libertarian right and those who cleave to similar paths albeit using less overt rhetoric. The current Tory project is ever more nakedly about constraining the size and shape of the state, and state provision, in a manner which, in part due to the thinness of the state in the period since Thatcherism, is vastly more easy than it was in 1979 onwards.
That said he does offer the idea of outsourcing the British political class itself, say to the Finns… yeah, that’s not the worst idea.
‘He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.’ November 13, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics.
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The Conservatives have removed a decade of speeches from their website and from the main internet library – including one in which David Cameron claimed that being able to search the web would democratise politics by making “more information available to more people”.
In a remarkable step the party has also blocked access to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, a US-based library that captures webpages for future generations, using a software robot that directs search engines not to access the pages.
But their cunning plan may not have foreseen all eventualities. The British Library has records of these kept independently. However they can only be accessed within the British Library.
Of course it couldn’t have anything to do with discomfiture over this entirely unashamed u-turn this very week, could it?
What if – there was no Thatcher premiership, what then for Ireland? October 24, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Irish Politics, What if?.
On foot of the discussion here on the outcomes of no 1916, something which might be worth returning to in greater depth, what of another key event in both Irish and British history? Had a Labour administration been returned in 1979, or perhaps more interestingly an administration closer in approach to that of the earlier Heath governments, what would be the possible implications for events on this island, and indeed the one directly to the east?
Here’s a piece by novelist Philip Hensher from the Guardian in April of this year which considers the broader question raised by this in relation to the United Kingdom itself. I’ve got to admit I find some of his contentions open to serious question.
For example, and perhaps this is typical of this area, Hensher posits one alternative for Britain more generally (and strikingly and tellingly he doesn’t mention Ireland at all) without Thatcher – on foot of a Labour victory in 1983 on that manifesto:
The Britain of this 1986 is not necessarily a very cheerful place. You are employed by the government, whatever you do, and your pay is set by a central body, matching driving instructors’ pay to shop assistants’ to filing clerks’ to journalists’. If you want to go out for dinner, there are a few restaurants in Soho serving Serbian specialities, thanks to our new friends, on the three days a week when there is electricity to eat by. What Britons pay for the single brand of washing powder in the state-owned supermarket is determined by another central body. It is a long time since anyone has been abroad on holiday, or met an American or an Arab – anyway, a new passport takes a year to arrive. On the other hand, that ubiquitous figure, the Marquis of Headington (not so long ago, Robert Maxwell) has been forging strong links with his old friends in eastern Europe. President Ceausescu recently came to pay a visit. There are other international alliances, after all, than the EEC, which we left, and Nato, which we are leaving. Soon, there will be other avuncular figures arriving at the airport to shake the hands of Foot, the Queen and Lord Headington: visitors from the Kremlin with fur hats and bushy eyebrows, full of detailed advice, in no particular hurry to leave.
While another is:
[that] the country would have muddled through, getting by with one government or another, not doing terribly well, managing decline. It could have been Portugal. There was a historical-necessity aspect to Thatcher, by which I mean that anyone, sooner or later, would have perceived that full employment wasn’t achievable without terrible costs elsewhere, and that there was no reason for the state to own removal companies, and that an 83% top rate in income tax might not be the best way to encourage enterprise and industry. Those insights didn’t need Thatcher. There was also a Thatcher aspect to Thatcher, and some of what she did had to be done by her, for good or bad. Who else would have seen an end to the cold war from the start, saying at the Berlin Wall in October 1982, “One day they will be free”, when every other western politician would have urged tact? Who else would have decided to embark on a war not just against miners’ unions, but against miners in a spirit of revenge for which she will never be forgiven?
There’s a line put about that somehow leftists are blind to the agency of individuals in history – it has indeed spawned a small genre of books that argues precisely that point. I think that’s a significant overstatement of the reality. As with everything there’s a mixture. Absent Thatcher or de Valera or Franco certain historical threads would be significantly different but many of the same issues and questions would have been raised requiring not dissimilar responses even if they were more muted. And deeper rooted dynamics, whether of class or other, would have continued in one way or another. In other words certain aspects while not necessarily playing out in the same way would still have been apparent. Of course the responses to same could be radically different. It’s entirely possible to see a Britain where the full frontal assault on the miners was played out in a manner which would have avoided much of the conflict and social dislocation, or another where there was no assault and so on and so forth.
Oddly Hensher comes to a similar conclusion:
By now, we would probably be roughly where we are. Surely, someone else would have made the reforms, or some of them, anyway. But it would not have happened in exactly the same way, and some of it would not have happened at all. Perhaps we would be waiting six months for a mobile telephone, and paying the bills to the post office, headed by the Postmaster General – I don’t believe it would be a very advanced telephone, either. Perhaps there would be three TV channels and the requirement for a licence before you could use the internet.
On a not unrelated note, it’s depressing to read the comments under piece, and indeed it’s more than implied in the piece, about – for example – state ownership of services and companies where the ‘three months to install a telephone’ is taken as an inevitability of state ownership as if it were impossible to order these matters differently and more expeditiously than that within the public sector. Privatisation was not the only ‘solution’ to that, indeed in this state it wasn’t even the solution in some areas. But to see such stuff raised to the level of seemingly iron laws…
Talking about pensioners… October 22, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Economy, The Left.
Given the protest this lunchtime it’s worth looking at one central point. Time and again I hear discussions from the right about ‘pensioners’. It tends to be a variant of the old outsider/insider line, wherein one group or another is for various reasons gifted with special treatment at the expense of all others. The solution is almost invariably to drag provision, services, etc downwards rather than upwards.
I’ve mentioned before how I like Michael White’s analyses in the Guardian. White’s an interesting character, left wing in a mainstream British LP inclined way, but fairly traditional in certain regards – for example, he apparently doesn’t hold with same-sex marriage but supports civil partnerships. Obviously I would disagree, but on most matters political his judgement is worth considering. And he makes a point in relation to the response to the Alan Milburn report on social mobility that is so central to any debates and discussions on issues like pensions that while obvious clearly needs to be stated and restated until it hits home. He writes:
Prince Charles has just given a speech in defence of embattled pensioners, minutes after Alan Milburn, the former Labour minister turned coalition social mobility champion, said lucky old folk had suffered least from the burdens of recession. Can they both be right? They can.
Because, as he notes:
Milburn is right to say that the jobless young and the working poor – the people “who do all the right things, stand on their own feet, strivers, not skivers” – are most hard-hit by stagnant or falling wages and rising costs.
But he also notes that:
Pensioners, so the argument runs (it’s backed by the prestigious Institute for Fiscal Studies), have seen their state pensions relatively well-protected and all their other paybacks – winter fuel allowance, free TV licence, the bus pass etc – left intact. But the awkward fact is that in the unequal Britain Lady Thatcher strived to create, the poverty gap within the pensionable age group is as big as it is on other age groups. Some pensioners are very badly off, but not all.
This last is absolutely essential to underscore. Some pensioners do well, many/most do not.
But it is extremely convenient for the argument on this to be determined by a right where such nuance is ignored because at this point it is expedient politically, in regards to fund raising by governments to beat pensions as a group back. We see elements of that discussion here already, indeed it has been a part of the discourse for years now, in part due to the supposed unwillingness of the FF/GP government to ‘face up’ to pensioners in the past.
I don’t, as it happens, agree with White’s analysis in terms of a ‘solution’. He argues for cut offs, which presumably could only function in the context of means testing. I don’t think that’s good for a number of reasons, not least the concept of universality. But I also think on the grounds of practicality it’s not that useful. We have a fully functioning tax net that can easily be applied to encompass pensioners where they are not already enmeshed within it. It is universal and taxation can be used to ameliorate any inequities. Use it as such and then it’s possible to offer a wide range of provisions and services and ensure that taxation claws back what can be clawed back.
Always good to see the far right in trouble… October 21, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Economy.
…and speaking of which, there was an entertaining line in the Guardian Politics Weekly podcast last week which made me laugh out loud, from host Tom Clark when discussing the resignation of EDL leader Tommy Robinson.
As Clark put it:
In what’s been called a watershed for the far-right the EDL lost it’s leader this week. Tommy Robinson walked away from the anti-Muslim movement that he helped to found in 2009 citing disillusion with street protest and worries about the extremist views of some members.
Hugh… erm… what do you think he thought he was doing for the last three or four years then?
The whole EDL issue is worthy of much more attention than has been afforded it, particularly in this state where we’re seeing some very curious ‘populist’ groups emerging in the wake of the crisis.
BTW, deep scepticism on the part of the Politics Weekly panel at the resignation.
Prime Minister Parkinson? That can’t be right. October 10, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Uncategorized.
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Margaret Thatcher planned to promote Cecil Parkinson to foreign secretary and effectively annoint him as her successor in the immediate aftermath of her 1983 post-Falklands general election landslide, according to the latest release of the former Conservative prime minister’s personal papers.
He always looked like Roger Moore’s younger brother (assuming he had one), and struck me as a political lightweight – though one D. Cameron isn’t any improvement in that regard. But then look at how John Major was third on her list of potential successors. These were remarkably insubstantial, politically speaking, figures. One wonders was that deliberate, albeit unconscious, on Thatcher’s part. Curious.
That Tory speech… October 7, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics.
As he notes:
[what it lacked was] any emotional connection with the millions of food bank and Poundland Britons (increasingly middle-class, the Daily Mail tells us) who are having a seriously hard time.
And also there was an:
…inability to acknowledge that it was badly regulated markets, labour markets, financial markets, energy markets of the kind “set free” by the conference’s patron saint, Margaret Thatcher, which have failed the country so clearly since 2008.
No mention of low wage, insecure jobs, of rough justice from Atos-style fitness-to-work tests.
This one is gold:
No attempt either to explain that Theresa May’s one-third reduction in net immigration is probably down to student exclusions and the visa squeeze on high-end IT specialists which so annoys big business.
That might have unsettled Cameron’s audience with complexity – and given Nigel Farage a soundbite.
And I like this assessment:
For all his praise of small start-ups (his wife’s included), Cameron still sounds like the corporate suit he once briefly was. We all want to push out children to get on in life, he said. At the back of the hall we smiled, remembering the call from Buck House which landed Dave his first job at party HQ.
Unfair, of course. Life is unfair and Tory grandees pretending that all you need to do is work hard and play by the rules is uplifting for many – but insufficiently so for those trapped by forces beyond their control. “Land of opportunity” will not cheer the Neets or the jobless 50-somethings.
A great point made in comments. Easy for Cameron to talk glibly about… ‘we wouldn’t let our children…’ …but what about those who haven’t got parental or other networks to fall back on.
Same old tories…
A very calculated insult… October 1, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, The Left.
…the dispute over the Daily Mail’s characterisation of Ed Miliband’s father Ralph continues. It’s good to see someone in political life fight back, and one suspects that the Mail wasn’t certain that Miliband would fight back so hard and fast. Whether that works or not is a different matter, but it’s hard to see the Mail coming out of this in quite the way it may have imagined. Others have noted that as a story it is dominating headlines the Tories might prefer to have made, so well done there Mail in terms of an own-goal.
But this has a very deliberate political goal which has little or nothing to do with Ralph Miliband’s politics, which were kind of sort of orthodox, but not exactly, and that is to yet further undermine even the most anodyne social democratic policies and put them beyond the pale. The give away on that is the following from the Mail’s ‘response’ to Ed Miliband’s own response to the original piece when it says:
How can Ralph Miliband’s vision be declared out of bounds for public discussion — particularly since he spent his entire life attempting to convert the impressionable young to his poisonous creed?
Indeed, his son’s own Marxist values can be seen all too clearly in his plans for state seizures of private land held by builders and for fixing energy prices by government diktat.
More chillingly, the father’s disdain for freedom of expression can be seen in his son’s determination to place the British Press under statutory control.
If it believes that Ed Miliband’s supposed ‘Marxism’ is evidenced by ‘plans for state seizures of private land held by builders’ and ‘fixing energy prices by government diktat’ then it’s understanding of Marxism is minimal to non-existent. But note the elision of ‘impressionable young’ and ‘his son’.
Of course the sheer brass neck of the Mail of all papers discussing that particular time period is, one hopes, yet another yawning own goal. Let’s hope this is a very calculated (albeit unintentional) mistake on the Mail’s part.
After yesterday’s vote. August 30, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, European Politics, International Politics.
The result of the vote in the House of Commons on Syria, 285 votes against involvement in military action as against 272 for, are positive for a number of reasons. Here’s a few of them.
Firstly, because all the supposed ‘actions’ by the US or the UK are so entirely cosmetic, driven largely by domestic US political concerns. They – and this is known by everyone involved, whether pro or contra them, will make absolutely no difference on the ground. Their intention is not to damage the capacity of the Syrian state to prosecute its side of what is clearly a civil war. They assist those on the opposing side in no functional way.
All they are there to do is to reassert US ‘authority’ and in the most pointless way possible.
Secondly, because Cameron’s defeat and subsequent retreat points up the first. By being prevented from participating, and by a democratic vote, it pushed back against those who would underwrite the cosmetic action outlined above. Indeed there’s been something of a retreat even in Washington – not that that will stop some actions eventually. But it may yet underscore the futility of such approaches in this instance.
None of those arguing that Obama should be ‘tougher’ intend for US troops to land on Syrian soil. And that is what it would take – putting aside the likely catastrophic consequences of same for one moment – to seriously alter the nature of the conflict there. If that’s not going to happen, and the US isn’t going to push the regime over, then all is is effectively rhetoric.
Notably it was a defeat to Cameron delivered in part by his own, Conservatives were conspicuous in their antipathy to the prospect of intervention. This is a strand that has long been extant in Conservatism. Douglas Hurd exemplified it best during the 1990s, but I wonder is it now much more dominant as the right libertarian element becomes an increasingly significant part of the mix in that party?
Thirdly, it underscores just how partisan and self-serving Cameron and his circle were in their attacks on the vastly more cautious Ed Miliband. Whatever about Miliband’s own position, and there was no small political calculation in that, the nature of those attacks was both absurd and abysmal – and perhaps hinted in their extremity at the fact Cameron was going down to defeat. Indeed the more that comes out the more absurd the Cameron position – not least the charge that Miliband was ‘siding with the Russians’. One has to admire Jim Fitzpatrick who resigned as a shadow minister because he couldn’t accept Miliband’s proposals. Good for him, even if perhaps it was a little premature given the immanence of the government defeat.
Michael Gove et al made a right show of themselves, and crucially demonstrated their inability to accept democratic decision making. Indeed Gove’s partner Sarah Vine in attacks on twitter on those who voted against the government merely underlined how hollow the exercise was.
I am SO angry about today’s vote. No military action would have come out of it. It was simply about sending a signal. Cowardice.
What’s interesting is that Vine doesn’t appreciate the contradiction in her own words. If Vine knows that, and Cameron knows that then presumably Assad knows that too and can and will act accordingly. And what is the particular signal, and what would Assad have done on foot of receiving it? He’s unlikely to step back from attempting to consolidate his regime on foot of a ‘signal’, and all other options appear so much moonshine short of a more decisive military advantage to his opponents. And so the dance goes one.
As to the central issue of the Syrian civil war, given that no one actually wants to do anything very much about it one way or – and given that militarily there’s not very much that can be done about, short of the sort of massive intervention that characterised Iraq, it will continue much as it has done. But without in any sense wanting to appear to champion that regime, it is of a different character to Saddam and more importantly appears much less unpopular and – arguably, more stable (ironically the Syrian regime always appeared much more ramshackle than Iraq under Saddam – not so much in material terms, but in political terms, but it has proven remarkably resilient). And yet Iraq demonstrates that even in a context of a broadly loathed regime nationalist sentiment will emerge rapidly against those who intervene. What then of a serious effort to push Assad over?
But again, that’s not on the table.
So if the Iraq and Afghanistan have demonstrated the disastrous and potentially catastrophic limits of hard power in relation to interventions, Syria appears to point up to the limits of soft to medium power. While having clear implications for the future exercise of British power, and in fairness other European states have been generally extremely leery of involvement, that – one would hope – will have implications further afield.
Let’s not speak about it… August 11, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics.
For those interested in such things there was reference on the most recent Slate political gabfest, towards the end IIRC, to a jaw dropping rumour in relation to – shall we say – media and politics and stuff in the UK. I hadn’t heard the chatter on t’internet on it over the last week or two (or a precursor story in the media which in it’s own way was equally jaw-dropping from some months back and which did make the UK press surrounded by numerous disclaimers as to its truth) because I was largely off line. Why has this not come to light in the UK proper? Libel laws one presumes, which accounts for my own caution.