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

Irene Clennell Go Fund Me handout
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6 times the Home Office broke up British families in the name of immigration

Irene Clennell came to the UK in 1988, married a British man and had a family. In 2017, she was deported. 

Irene Clennell first arrived in London in 1988, before the Home Office’s younger staff members were even born. Soon after, she married a British man called John, and received indefinite leave to remain. They made their home in County Durham. They have two children and one grandchild. 

Now, though, Clennell is in Singapore, after being detained and forcibly deported on the orders of the British government

Her crime? She spent periods of time back in Singapore caring for her ailing parents, enough to invalidate her indefinite leave to remain. It seems the Home Office decided her parents took too long to die.

Clennell’s case matters – and not just because her husband last heard from her sobbing on a plane. Her family is the latest to be torn apart by the government’s stringent immigration rules. 

As well as an inflexible approach to the amount of time spent in the UK, the rules demand that British citizens must earn £18,600 a year to bring over a non-EU spouse – a rule that discriminates against women, who are more likely to work part-time for less pay, and those living in lower-paid regions of the country. 

With EU nationals facing an uncertain future, and the government desperate to meet immigration reduction targets, this inflexible approach matters. Here are some of the families that have felt the consequences:  

1. The father who can’t see his son

Toni Stew, from Worcester, met her husband Mohamed El Faramawi in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. But this was no holiday romance – they got married six years later, and have a young son.

But because Stew works part time, in order to care for her son, she does not earn enough to sponsor her husband’s move to the UK

El Faramawi has only met his son a few times since the birth 17 months earlier.

2. A couple trying to look after their parents

Kevin Draper, from Bristol, met his wife Mae, originally from the Philippines, through friends in Hong Kong. In 1995 they settled in the UK, but then a job came up in Dubai. 

In 2011, sad news summoned Kevin home – he needed to care for his mother, who had Alzheimer’s. Meanwhile, Mae’s mother passed away, and she went to support her family in the Philippines.

She was advised to apply for a UK visitor visa, and finally received one in 2013 after two failed attempts. Having been reunited with her husband and daughter, she decided to apply for a spouse visa. But in 2014 she was told that in order to do that, she would have to return to the Philippines, and the process could take another two years.

3. A British father who was made redundant

Dominic James met his wife, an American named Katy, in 2005. After they married a year later, she managed to join him in Edinburgh for three years.

They moved out to Seattle, where they had a daughter, but the couple always intended to return to the UK. James managed to get a transfer from his employer to the Edinburgh office, but was made redundant shortly afterwards.

Despite Katy’s work experience in the UK, her visa application was denied because James, now self-employed, did not earn enough to meet the minimum income requirement rules. (The Home Office eventually granted Katy 30 months longer to stay).

4. A mother who thought the UK was home

Beverley Boothe arrived in the UK in 1979 as a teenager, to join her parents who had emigrated from Jamaica in the 1960s. 

According to Boothe, she received indefinite leave to remain in 1980. At some point in the next three decades, she lost the passport with the original stamp in it. But she assumed the Home Office had a record of her application.

It turns out they didn’t – records are only kept for 15 years from the date of the “last action”. Boothe, a criminology graduate, gave the Home Office her fingerprints and information about her family. Just before Christmas 2013, she was ordered to go to Jamaica or face deportation.

Not only did Boothe have no close family to return to, she had her own children in the UK. Although they all have British fathers, her youngest daughters were unable to obtain passports because of her status.

5. A father facing separation from his wife… and parents 

In 2012 AJ, an American, moved with his father to South Shields, Tyneside, when he went to join his new wife. There, AJ met Lian Papay, and fell in love. The couple discovered they were expecting, and married in 2013.

But Lian did not earn enough to sponsor AJ, and so her husband is forced to rely on short-term visas. Ironically, when AJ flys back to the United States, he leaves not only his wife and son, but his father and stepmother.  

6. A woman who wanted to care for her father-in-law

Gary Walsh, a Falklands war veteran, married his wife Xia Zhao, an accountant, more than 16 years ago and has two adolescent children. 

The family lived in Malaysia, but flew to the UK after hearing Gary’s elderly father was unwell. 

Xia Zhao came on a one-year visa, but after discovering how ill her father-in-law was, applied to stay and work so the family could care for him. Her application was refused, and she was advised to apply instead from China in a process that could take years. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.