Rogue Mail: a demo by the Communication Workers Union against Royal Mail privatisation, October 2013
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The Royal Mail underselling shows this was privatisation through ideology not pragmatism

If ministers had held out for a better price, they could have raised an extra £750m.

Money is still a bit tight down at the Treasury – so any deal under which the taxpayer loses out to the tune of three quarters of a billion quid might be considered just a tad embarrassing.

That's certainly what the National Audit Office (NAO) thinks. Last October the government sold 70 per cent of the Royal Mail at a price of 330p a share. By the end of that day, those shares were already trading at 455p, and in January they hit a peak of 615p (they’ve since fallen back a bit). In other words, if ministers had held out for a better price, the sale could have fetched an extra £750m.

The watchdog’s boss, Amyas Morse, doesn’t really go in for fiery language but his comment was quietly damning nonetheless. The business department’s approach was “marked by deep caution,” he said, “the price of which was borne by the taxpayer”.

Anyone expecting ministers to be don sackcloth and ashes about all this, though, will have been sorely disappointed, and on this morning’s Today programme, the business minister Michael Fallon was utterly unrepentant. “The audit office report actually recognises that we achieved our objectives,” he explained to an increasingly exasperated Jim Naughtie. “It was the biggest privatisation for 20 years, we had to be careful about it to make sure that we got it away [and] we did get it away.”

In other words, the government was so frightened that the deal wouldn’t come off at all that it cheerfully underpriced it to make sure that it did. Fallon was basically admitting to exactly what the NAO had accused him of: privatisation was an end in itself, and we should consider ourselves lucky that the government succeeded in flogging off the family silver at all.

There are a number of reasons why a minister might favour privatisation. To raise money for other things. To outsource risk. To duck responsibility, by giving them someone else to blame.

For many on the right, though, it’s a matter of genuine faith. Services will always do better under private sector leadership, they think, because business types are clever and public servants suck. Hulking government bureaucracies are always less efficient and responsive than equally hulking corporate ones.

Never mind that most of the privatised railways are drowning in public subsidy, while the East Coast Main Line has started turning a profit since being taken back into public ownership: the latter needs to be re-privatised as quickly as possible because, well, it just does. Private good; public bad.

(There’s another view, common in some parts of the left, which states that business is inherently evil, the state inherently great, and that any move from the latter to the former will inevitably lead to the collapse of civilisation as we know it. This is, indeed, equally silly. It’s just not what I’m writing about right now, so there.)

The thing is, some privatisations were probably no bad thing. Yes, the shareholders are only interested in profits, and most corporate execs these days demand the kinds of salaries that’d enable them to turn their basement into the Batcave for a laugh. Get things right, though, and the government can use all that to its advantage, to encourage innovation, or investment, or difficult decisions for which ministers lack the guts. To go back to the railways, the lines into Marylebone station are run vastly better these days than they ever were run under British Rail. Sometimes, it can work.

But sometimes, it doesn't. Sometimes government mucks up the way it structures its contracts. And sometimes a service is just so unprofitable that the only way of ensuring it exists at all is for the taxpayer to suck it up and pay for the bloody thing.

Which side of this divide the Royal Mail privatisation will come down on is not exactly clear: cleverer people than I don’t seem to agree. But I’d be more confident about it if Michael Fallon hadn’t just suggested that the government’s goal was privatisation at any cost. Getting these things right requires careful thought and lengthy negotiation. If ministers couldn’t hold out for a better share price, then how can we believe they held out for any of that?

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Google’s tax worries, Oxford’s race dilemma and the left-wing case for leaving Europe

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong.

As a Gmail user and a Google searcher, am I morally compromised by using the services of a serial tax avoider? Surely not. Google gets roughly 95 per cent of its revenues from advertising and much of that from clicks on the ads that surround its offerings. I have long observed a rule never to click on any of these, even when they advertise something that I need urgently. Instead, I check the seller’s website address and type it directly into my browser.

Taking full advantage of its services without contributing to its profits strikes me as a very good way of damaging the company. More problematic are pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca (zero UK corporation tax in 2014) and GlaxoSmithKline (UK corporation tax undisclosed but it has subsidiaries in tax havens), which makes many prescription drugs and consumer products such as toothpaste – I chew it to stop me smoking. To boycott all such companies, as well as those that underpay their workers or pollute the planet, one would need, more or less, to drop out from the modern world. Consumer boycotts, though they have a certain feel-good factor, aren’t a substitute for electing governments that will make a concerted effort to tax and regulate big corporations.

 

After EU

David Cameron is finding it hard to get changes to EU rules that he can credibly present as concessions. But the talks that would follow a vote for Brexit would be a hundred times more difficult. Ministers would need to negotiate access to the single market, renegotiate trade deals with 60 other countries and make a deal on the status of Britons living in the EU, as well as EU citizens living here. All this would create immense uncertainty for a fragile economy.

With a current-account trade deficit of 4 per cent, the dangers of a run on sterling would be considerable. (This apocalyptic scenario is not mine; I draw on the wisdom of the Financial Times economics editor, Chris Giles.) But here’s the question. If the UK got into the same pickle as Greece – and George Osborne had to do a Norman Lamont, popping out of No 11 periodically to announce interest-rate rises – Jeremy Corbyn would walk the 2020 election. Should we lefties therefore vote Out?

 

University blues

Hardly a Sunday now passes without David Cameron announcing an “initiative”, either on TV or in the newspapers. The latest concerns the under-representation of black Britons at top universities, notably Oxford, which accepted just 27 black students in 2014 out of an intake of more than 2,500. As usual, Cameron’s proposed “action” is risibly inadequate: a requirement that universities publish “transparent” data on admissions and acceptances, much of which is already available, and a call for schools to teach “character”, whatever that means.

The truth is that many black students looking at the white, middle-class Oxford – with its disproportionate numbers from a handful of fee-charging schools, such as Eton – would justifiably conclude that they don’t belong. Cameron rules out quotas as “politically correct, contrived and unfair”. But quotas in some form may be what is needed if young people from poor white, as well as black, homes are ever to feel that they would be more than interlopers.

In the meantime, Cameron could tell elite universities to stop setting ever-higher barriers to entry. As well as demanding two A*s and an A at A-level, Oxford and Cambridge are introducing tests for “thinking skills” and subject-specific “aptitude”. Whatever the developers of such tests claim, it is possible to coach students for them. State schools don’t have the resources to do so or even to research the complex requirements of the various colleges and subjects. Oxbridge admissions tutors must know this but evidently they don’t care.

 

A fine balance

The latest government figures show that, despite the former education secretary Michael Gove introducing £60 fines for parents who take their children on term-time breaks, the days lost to unsanctioned holidays are up by 50 per cent to three million in four years. This was a predictable result. Previously, the sense of an obligation to respect the law and set their children an example of doing so persuaded most parents to confine absences to school holidays. Now a modest price has been placed on term-time holidays. Parents do the sums and note that they save far more than £60 on cheaper flights and hotels.

A similar outcome emerged in Israel when daycare centres introduced fines for parents who arrived late. Previously, most preferred to avoid the embarrassment of apologising to a carer and explaining why they had been delayed. Once it became just a monetary transaction, many more happily arrived late and paid the price.

 

Minority report

Here in Loughton, Essex, where I live quietly and unfashionably, we are dancing in the streets. Well, not quite, but perhaps we ought to be. According to an analysis by the Policy Exchange think tank, Loughton is the third most integrated community in England and Wales, just behind Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands and Amersham, Buckinghamshire, but above 157 others that have significant minorities. We are well ahead of fashionable London boroughs such as Islington and Hackney, where residents obviously keep Muslims and eastern Europeans out of their vibrant dinner parties, whereas we have bearded imams, African chiefs in traditional dress and Romanian gypsies dropping in for tea all the time.

Again, not quite. I’m not sure that I have met that many non-indigenous folk around here, or even seen any, except in the local newsagents. Still, I am grateful to Policy Exchange for brushing up Loughton’s public image, which was in need of a facelift after the BNP won four seats on the council a few years ago and a TOWIE actor opened a shop on the high street.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war