It is in those wonderful swashbuckling sci-fi movies, from Blade Runner to the Total Recall, that you see a vision of global capitalism at its darkest – those huge mega-corporations which dominate all life, show no compassion, and are prepared to stop at nothing. And it is a mark of our inner attitudes that the hero is always the individual who first defies, and then breaks, the system.
When Britain came out of the Second World War, a controlled economy seemed perfectly natural for an economy that had been totally dominated by the government during the war. If the economy had been directed for the nation’s victory during the war, why shouldn’t it be directed for the people’s good after the war?
We recognise the ‘Welfare State’ as the enduring product of that attitude, but in reality it involved much more than simply the provision of services.
The government controlled the economy using ‘stop-go’ Keynesianism (and anybody who has lived through those times is entitled to be sceptical about Keynesianism as a basis for economic renewal today).
And, of course, the government owned a significant sector of the economy through the nationalised industries.
This was the world I grew up in. We mocked the utilities for their inefficiencies (‘the gas man cometh’) but, you know, for both your electricity and gas, you could walk down to a town centre shop, pick up a phone, and get straight through to a person who would arrange an engineer’s visit. All social services were not only run, but were DELIVERED, by the public sector. Growing up in Bradford, I remember that the city corporation ran a fleet of trolleys buses, together with all the associated overhead wires, to every part of the city.
That world has almost totally gone now.
We have, of course, sold off all the nationalised industries (the family silver, as Harold Macmillan called them). All of our utilities – water, gas, electricity, phone etc. – are privately owned; many of them foreign-owned.
Local government, also, has been dismantled; I was talking to a councillor colleague the other day who was wondering how long it would be before we did away with County Councillors altogether – County Councils almost no longer deliver services, they merely commission them from the private sector (so why do we need hundreds of Councillors receiving allowances when County Hall is little more than a tendering exercise). My own County Council recently commissioned its waste-collection services from a German firm, including a move from weekly to fortnightly collections, without even informing the County Councillors, never mind the public.
Schools have moved from local government-controlled, first to LSM, recently substantially to Academies, now to Free Schools.; all those huge council education departments have been dismantled.
The NHS, it seems, will be the last to go, but this Coalition government intends to begin that process which will see the move from a government which supplies the services, to an administration which buys the services from private providers on our behalf.
I cannot say I am totally happy with this. We have been conned into agreeing to it by being assured that, for some unexplained reason, private providers seeking profit would be so much more efficient than public sector providers motivated by ethics. We sat back and accepted the myth of the lazy public sector worker.
In truth, most of us have now found to our cost that – notwithstanding improvements in technology which would have happened anyway – the new private industries supply a much-reduced level of customer service. And where financial economies were achieved it was usually simply by paying a less-qualified and numerically-reduced workforce significantly lower wages … with all that meant for quality of provision.
What is happening now, of course, is that – having dismantled the state sector’s ability to provide the services – the private providers are beginning to turn the screw.
Prices rise steadily. The government rails against the electricity suppliers’ cartel … and can do nothing except urge us to shop around between its colluding members.
Nor, with a captive, dependent market, is there any motivation to innovate. In order to persuade the electricity companies to develop wind-farms, for example, the government has had to agree to allow them to charge the consumers double for the electricity they produce.
Firms will set up in peripheral areas … if there is a huge subsidy.
Bus companies will run ‘services’ to rural villages … if the County Council pays more.
My personal biggest beef is with PFI. For years, this has been ‘sold’ to us as the answer to our infrastructure needs. Private corporations have been allowed to advance money for schools, hospitals etc. as though it were a generous gift – at the end of which process the public finds it has signed a ruinous contract binding for decades. We are already beginning to see services going bankrupt under the pressure of huge PFI deals they now find they cannot afford.
The god of profit reigns, and we are at its mercy.
Recently, writers have begun to realise that the public finance of the private sector goes even deeper than this.
Huge multi-national corporations such as TESCO are being given a free workforce under the Workfare scheme – even if they only use these slave-workers for menial, manual tasks, it is saving them money and increasing their profit.
A recent report has highlighted, also, how all the large supermarkets fail to pay their employees ‘a living wage’ … leaving the tax-payer to pick up the difference under the working tax credit scheme.
Workfare and working tax credit amount, in effect, to a multi-billion subsidy of industry by the taxpayer.
In short, we are being ripped off wholesale by private industry.
It is very frightening.
Meanwhile – as Britain rushes headlong into a sci-fi world of rapacious corporations selling monopoly high-cost ‘services’ to governments and individuals – state-controlled industries are booming in China and India. Nationalised industries, it seems, are neither inefficient nor unprofitable.
Given all this, Ed Miliband’s campaign against predatory capitalism, and for responsible capitalism, is to be welcomed.
But one has to wonder how far such fine words and fair principles will count against firms who have well-and-truly got their claws into our public services, and who now have law and contract on their side.
Come back Clause 4; all is forgiven.