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16 October 2014

Leviathan’s revenge: how Britain belongs to someone else

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

By Owen Jones

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.

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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)