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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Stability is essential to solve the pension problem

The new chancellor must ensure we have a period of stability for pension policymaking in order for everyone to acclimatise to a new era of personal responsibility in retirement, says 

There was a time when retirement seemed to take care of itself. It was normal to work, retire and then receive the state pension plus a company final salary pension, often a fairly generous figure, which also paid out to a spouse or partner on death.

That normality simply doesn’t exist for most people in 2016. There is much less certainty on what retirement looks like. The genesis of these experiences also starts much earlier. As final salary schemes fall out of favour, the UK is reaching a tipping point where savings in ‘defined contribution’ pension schemes become the most prevalent form of traditional retirement saving.

Saving for a ‘pension’ can mean a multitude of different things and the way your savings are organised can make a big difference to whether or not you are able to do what you planned in your later life – and also how your money is treated once you die.

George Osborne established a place for himself in the canon of personal savings policy through the introduction of ‘freedom and choice’ in pensions in 2015. This changed the rules dramatically, and gave pension income a level of public interest it had never seen before. Effectively the policymakers changed the rules, left the ring and took the ropes with them as we entered a new era of personal responsibility in retirement.

But what difference has that made? Have people changed their plans as a result, and what does 'normal' for retirement income look like now?

Old Mutual Wealth has just released. with YouGov, its third detailed survey of how people in the UK are planning their income needs in retirement. What is becoming clear is that 'normal' looks nothing like it did before. People have adjusted and are operating according to a new normal.

In the new normal, people are reliant on multiple sources of income in retirement, including actively using their home, as more people anticipate downsizing to provide some income. 24 per cent of future retirees have said they would consider releasing value from their home in one way or another.

In the new normal, working beyond your state pension age is no longer seen as drudgery. With increasing longevity, the appeal of keeping busy with work has grown. Almost one-third of future retirees are expecting work to provide some of their income in retirement, with just under half suggesting one of the reasons for doing so would be to maintain social interaction.

The new normal means less binary decision-making. Each choice an individual makes along the way becomes critical, and the answers themselves are less obvious. How do you best invest your savings? Where is the best place for a rainy day fund? How do you want to take income in the future and what happens to your assets when you die?

 An abundance of choices to provide answers to the above questions is good, but too much choice can paralyse decision-making. The new normal requires a plan earlier in life.

All the while, policymakers have continued to give people plenty of things to think about. In the past 12 months alone, the previous chancellor deliberated over whether – and how – to cut pension tax relief for higher earners. The ‘pensions-ISA’ system was mooted as the culmination of a project to hand savers complete control over their retirement savings, while also providing a welcome boost to Treasury coffers in the short term.

During her time as pensions minister, Baroness Altmann voiced her support for the current system of taxing pension income, rather than contributions, indicating a split between the DWP and HM Treasury on the matter. Baroness Altmann’s replacement at the DWP is Richard Harrington. It remains to be seen how much influence he will have and on what side of the camp he sits regarding taxing pensions.

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has entered the Treasury while our new Prime Minister calls for greater unity. Following a tumultuous time for pensions, a change in tone towards greater unity and cross-department collaboration would be very welcome.

In order for everyone to acclimatise properly to the new normal, the new chancellor should commit to a return to a longer-term, strategic approach to pensions policymaking, enabling all parties, from regulators and providers to customers, to make decisions with confidence that the landscape will not continue to shift as fundamentally as it has in recent times.

Steven Levin is CEO of investment platforms at Old Mutual Wealth.

To view all of Old Mutual Wealth’s retirement reports, visit: products-and-investments/ pensions/pensions2015/