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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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder