Private Island

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I’ve always liked James Meek‘s novels – and in fact just finished reading his poignant Afghanistan-centred tale, “We Are Now Beginning Our Descent”. He’s just published a book, “Private Island“, on privatisation in the UK.

Perhaps inspired to a certain degree by Guardian economics editor Larry Elliott’s Blairite indictment “Fantasy Island“, it seems a timely piece of work amid little discernible difference between the main parties and even UKIP on their neoliberalist approach to the economy and given the Green’s – to me at least – slightly more palatable dirigisme.

An excerpt from it, as published in the FT recently.

Not long ago I visited a coal power station at Cottam in Nottinghamshire. It had been privatised in 1991, along with the state organisation that built and ran it, the Central Electricity Generating Board. It was built where it was to be close to the coalfields that fed it. All but one had since closed. The coal I watched streaming in on conveyor belts came from abroad.

None of this was surprising. Margaret Thatcher took on the miners in the mid-1980s and beat them; the plant was privatised more than two decades ago; end of story. It was pretty much over for Britain’s coalminers by the 1990s. Terribly old news, and a bit fresh for the history books. But when I visited I saw there was something else going on at Cottam – something that mocked the “privatisation” of 1991. The event of privatisation had seemingly occurred but, in fact, new privatisation events were still taking place, and the true shape of electricity privatisation through time was, is, still emerging.

For Cottam had been renationalised, but by the French government not the British. In 2000 it was acquired by the French state concern Electricité de France, which also owns a huge chunk of the rest of Britain’s electricity industry, including all its nuclear plants. There, in Nottinghamshire, all the supposed goals of privatisation – to dismantle state control over industry, to give ordinary Brits a financial stake in its success, to show inefficient, socialistic European state companies how much more successful privatised, entrepreneurial British executives would be – were being defeated, day by day, hour by hour.

Over the past decade, between writing novels, I’ve poked around in the British privatisation story. I looked at the privatisation of the British postal service, which is far from over, and can’t be separated from the much earlier privatisation of its Dutch equivalent; at the water industry, first privatised then, much later, alienated; at the privatisation of council houses, still trickling on after decades. In doing so, I’ve seen a gap emerge between what privatisation was supposed to be and what it has actually become over time… The meaning that has taken up residence in the system describes not only privatisations in the narrow sense but subsequent developments such as government outsourcing, the delocalisation of Premier League football and the demutualisation of building societies.

This isn’t privatisation as a narrow financial-political exercise, but privatisation as the dispersal of control over national economies of democracies away from the nations in which they are manifest towards tax havens, multiple jurisdictions, super-rich families and authoritarian states. With hindsight, it was always likely that, if the government of a country like Britain constantly broadcast an anti-government message – that its own employees were a danger to prosperity, that salvation lay with private enterprise – mere flotation on the stock market couldn’t be the end of privatisation; it would have to go further, be more private, more set apart. Publicly quoted companies must become private equity companies, and private equity companies must become multi-jurisdictional entities, based everywhere and nowhere. That which was supposed to be private with respect to a government becomes private with respect to a people.

Hindsight is of little practical use without its counterpart, foresight. Yet in a way that, too, is being privatised. I interviewed a wealth management expert in London, a woman who specialised in advising extremely rich families how to protect and expand their treasure. I asked her how far ahead a wise family would plan. “A hundred years,” she said.

Not being wealthy enough to have sought her services, this was a revelation. It was one thing to know that the fourth dimension of the economy, the dimension of time, mattered. But this was being dragged to the brink of the well of economic time and obliged to look into its dizzying depths. How, I wondered, could democratic governments, with their rodent-class lifespan of four to seven years, hope to keep up with jurisdiction-hopping billionaire clans shuffling their assets to a century-long schedule? Or, indeed, with the generational strategies of big commercial corporations, or the sovereign wealth funds of authoritarian states like China and Russia? I asked a wealth management expert how far ahead a wise family would plan. ‘A hundred years,’ she said

The few hundred British politicians who represent the interests of non-billionaires do have help as they flit in and out of power. Civil servants are society’s wealth manager. We pay them to have foresight. But, in the view of Margaret Thatcher’s heirs, society doesn’t need wealth managers; ordinary citizens are served by the free market, individual choice and enlightened self-interest. State-sponsored foresight smacks of central planning, and central planning is a Soviet relic, or worse.

… Earlier this year a Conservative minister, Francis Maude, reacted to the “discovery” of an internal Whitehall job spec for mandarins, which pointed out that the long-term concerns of bureaucrats and the short-term wants of politicians were bound to conflict, as if it were the amber light for a putsch.

Tesco is thinking more than five years ahead. So is Electricité de France, and Siemens, and the Chinese government, and Exxon, and Google. They apply the wisdom of hindsight, and they look generations ahead. In the real world, when you strip the state of its duty to make long-term plans, or denigrate the practice, you don’t liberate citizens from planning. You make them subject to the private plans of others.

Sound interesting? Pick up a copy at independent online book shop Wordery here.

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