Top line: East Coast is Britain's best-run railway company. Photo: Bloomberg/Getty
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Leviathan’s revenge: how Britain belongs to someone else

James Meek’s superb new book exposes the perversities, hypocrisies and failures of privatisation.

Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else 
James Meek
Verso, 238pp, £12.99

Thatcherism professed defiance against both the state and Europe: what a supreme irony, then, that its legacy involves the handing over of British utilities to nationalised European companies. It promised to forge a property-owning, share-owning democracy to build a new era of popular capitalism. Yet where about 40 per cent of British shares were held by individuals in 1981, the proportion had collapsed to less than 12 per cent by the time Margaret Thatcher was booted out of office. “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level,” Thatcher famously said at Bruges in 1988. Less well-publicised is how – that same year – she flaunted to a group of business people the success of her administration in forcing the European Economic Community to remove obstacles to cross-border business. And so Britain’s electricity is now provided by the likes of France’s state-run EDF. The British state has been rolled back in favour of the French state.

James Meek’s superb book exposes the perversities, hypocrisies and failures of privatisation. Meek is a writer of fiction as well as a journalist, and it shows: he crafts beautiful and vivid passages that turn what could be a dry subject into a highly readable study. It is well timed, too. Our political elite treat privatisation as an article of faith, and dismiss its opponents as discredited dinosaurs who belong in a 1970s dystopia of rubbish piling up in the streets and a leviathan state throttling individual enterprise. But privatisation never did win the hearts of the British people. According to opinion polls, large majorities support public ownership of the privatised utilities – and that includes either majorities or pluralities of Ukip and Conservative voters. An open door is there to be pushed, and Meek is part of a growing literary counter-assault against neoliberals, who argue for the privatisation of public assets, reduction of taxes on wealthy individuals and corporate interests, and for the state to promote supposedly “free” markets.

Meek engages very impressively with the intellectual defences of neoliberalism to critique and undermine them more effectively. Privatisation would force subsidy-hogging, overmanned and technologically backward monoliths to become efficient, lean and forward-facing. They would be forced to compete, and if they failed to offer an adequate service they would be driven to bankruptcy. Yes, workers would lose their jobs, but they would become proto-Alan Sugar entrepreneurs, or find other work. “Everyone would win, except the lazy, and Arthur Scargill,” as Meek puts it. He considers the experience of the collapse of the Soviet bloc, which he experienced: in the initial period of capitalist restoration, he even wondered whether he was suffering from a creeping dose of Thatcherism. But post-Soviet Russia suffered one of the worst falls in living standards of any peacetime industrialised nation, and roughly a decade was sliced off the life expectancy of its men.

Each chapter – though admittedly rather self-contained – exposes the failures of a wave of privatisation with a mixture of reportage, interviews and facts. The railways are probably the most striking instance: subsidised by the taxpayer, their upgrading and technological development underwritten by the state, they were left fragmented and inefficient (though Meek doesn’t mention it, the publicly run East Coast line was found to be Britain’s most efficient rail franchise). Elsewhere, water companies paid £1bn in dividends to shareholders between 2009 and 2013 instead of investing in their infrastructure. The electricity companies invented a system for setting their wholesale prices that only they understood, finding ways of manipulating the markets to charge artificially high tariffs even as the cost of energy fell. The Tories built on foundations provided by New Labour and unleashed the privatisation of the NHS while claiming to love it. Then there is the disaster of right-to-buy: soaring social housing waiting lists, a collapse in housebuilding since responsibility was abdicated to the market, and the subsidising of private landlords with the explosion of housing benefit.

What Meek’s book does not do is promote an alternative. There is a collective failure on the part of all of us who oppose neoliberal triumphalism to present coherent alternatives that resonate with people. But in the 1970s, the left did present its own critique of the top-down, bureaucratic forms of nationalisation developed by the postwar Attlee administrations. Instead, it proposed democratic involvement on the part of both workers and service users or consumers. Surely this has to be at the heart of any new wave of public ownership.

Nonetheless, Meek calmly and eloquently administers some welcome right hooks to the prevailing dogma of neoliberalism. The question is whether the new dissidents can learn from the example of the neoliberals themselves: they, too, once languished on the ideological fringes but then they turned their polemics into policies. Economic crisis provided them with an opening, a moment when “the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable”, as Milton Friedman put it. Today’s crisis offers a similar opening. The neoliberal project has failed: but it will never be defeated until it can be replaced by something else. 

Owen Jones’s “The Establishment: and How They Get Away With It” is published by Allen Lane (£16.99)

Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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