With every day that passes, it becomes clearer that those who hoped the crisis of capitalism might lead to a reinvigoration of the public sector and a revival of non-market values will be sadly disappointed.
The crisis has been smartly transferred to the public sector, which faces near-bankruptcy thanks to the double whammy of rescuing the banks and picking up the bill for the unemployment and social dislocation caused by the bankers’ errors. The main beneficiaries will be our old friends Capita and other providers of contractual services to the government. The Financial Times predicts a new burst of outsourcing, as ministers struggle to make cuts. The private sector expects to take over, for example, chemotherapy, kidney dialysis and probation supervision services.
Meanwhile, in the City, attempts at more vigorous and effective regulation of derivatives, hedge funds, private equity and so on are being firmly resisted. I fear New Labour, having long ago made its Faustian pact with the City, has little alternative but to back off. The only way to repair the public finances is to restore the City’s ill-gotten gains, so that they can again be taxed.
Last autumn, at the height of the banking crisis, a Daily Mail headline announced “Free-market capitalism lies shredded”. Leftist sages, such as George Monbiot and Ken Loach, were consulted on whether the end was nigh. How long ago it now seems.
Is everybody on the make? No, they are being incentivised. That is why, in addition to the expenses and pensions of MPs and BBC executives, you can read about bonuses of £130,000 paid to a London headmaster and about chief constables receiving private school fees, satellite TVs and cars for spouses, along with hefty bonuses and “packages” for retention and relocation. Apparently nobody in a senior executive position, whether in the public or private sector, can be expected to subsist on a bog-standard salary, even if it comfortably exceeds £100,000 a year.
In his recent book Supercapitalism, Robert Reich recalls how, 50 years ago, heads of big companies saw themselves almost as public officials, carefully balancing the interests of shareholders, workers and customers. They took pride in serving the wider community and doing a job well; a bonus for maximising “shareholder value” would have seemed nonsensical to them. The old-fashioned values of the public sector – which then included modest pay and few perks – seeped into the private sector to the extent that it was sometimes hard to tell the two apart. Now they again share a common ethical framework but the private sector’s values, as redefined by neoliberal doctrine, are the dominant ones.
I am not sure why ministers get so indignant about accusations that Britain is behind the protests against the Iranian regime. You would expect our liberal interventionists to swell with pride when Ayatollah Ali Khamenei describes Britain as the greatest evil.
No doubt Britain is innocent of Khamenei’s charges, if only because the Department of Health, which told us all to stay indoors during our recent heatwave, would rule out Tehran as too hot for government-sponsored subversives. But are the charges as self-evidently absurd as ministers suggest? When the Iraqis rose against the British and American occupation, we blamed it on Iranian and Syrian influence. When Iranians rise, the ayatollahs blame it on British and American influence. Spot the difference.
(Disinterest declared: I appeared on Press TV, the Iranian propaganda channel based in west London, a couple of times more than a year ago. Since then, having learned more about it, I have – unlike Andrew Gilligan, Lauren Booth and other esteemed fellow journalists – refused all further invitations, despite the offer of limousines to drive me and fees that exceed anything I’ve earned from a British broadcaster.)
On the eve of Michael Jackson’s funeral, I was persuaded to go on Radio 5 Live, along with the leader of his fan club who, to my alarm, looked and sounded perfectly normal. My job, it became clear, was to play the old buffer who thinks Jackson’s music an incomprehensible screeching noise and his fans deranged philistines. I fulfilled expectations by failing to name the titles of his songs, even when they were played to me.
But who am I to pass judgement on Jackson? He produced music that made people want to dance, and there are worse things in life than that. My real gripe is that death has become just another selling opportunity. I think it started with Elvis Presley, who became an even bigger industry after he died than when he was alive, as Tom Parker, his manager, predicted when he told the family that the death “changes nothing”. Now the promoters of Jackson’s O2 concerts are sending out either refunds or replica tickets, which can be resold as “souvenirs” for sums far exceeding their face value. Even Parker couldn’t have foreseen that.
The death of a 72-year-old umpire, hit on the head by a ball at a cricket match in Swansea, was a horrible accident. But as the chairman of the South Wales Cricket Association said, it was a million-to-one chance. I hope nobody takes seriously the suggestion – from Dickie Bird who, as an umpire, wanted to take the players off whenever a cloud crossed the sun or a spot of dew appeared on the outfield – that umpires should be given helmets. We already have batsmen wearing helmets to face even the gentlest slow bowling, and increasingly wicketkeepers and fielders also wear them. It cannot be long before somebody wants to issue them to spectators and to declare anywhere within a one-mile radius of a cricket ground a hard-hat zone. The story that the former England captain Brian Close, standing at short leg for Yorkshire, would deliberately head the ball so that another fielder could catch it is probably apocryphal, but it suggests previous generations were made of sterner stuff.
Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005