‘I see no reason why other organisations can’t work within the NHS, but why do they have to be profit making? Why can’t people be satisfied with a good salary and the satisfaction of doing a good thing?’ James Meek doesn’t live up to his name. His book, Private Island, is a tirade against the senseless privatisation of the last decades that has made monopolies of essential services. As Meek says ‘what is really being privatised is you, the people of Britain, packaged up and sold to foreign investors’.
Born in Dundee, Meek was back in Glasgow yesterday for Aye Write!’s preview day Write On! This was a day of engagement and debate in which commentators and experts discussed politics from the referendum to the psyche of politicians.
Meek is certainly political. His book focuses on what he terms ‘universal networks’, things like transport, health, electricity and the postal service, which society has decided everyone must have access to. But, as he sees it, the problem now is that the political right-wing are making it impossible for the less well off to afford these essentials. This is because privatisation is fundamentally a shift in taxation from the very rich to the poor, as the direct taxation goes down but the price to access a service goes up. Council taxes might be frozen in Scotland, for example, but the price of electricity and water (which are also, essentially, council taxes in Meek’s view) continue to rise.
But Meek is adamant that he is not anti-privatisation or pro-nationalisation. He is all too aware of the problems with nationalised industries, although he doesn’t go into this in detail in the book, including a lack of transparency and a disincentive to modernise. Yet he does not see these as the only two options, and that has often been the failing of privatisation processes. No other options were explored in the case of selling off council houses or the Royal Mail. Rhetorically, too, it was sold to the public as privatisation or bust.
Ironically, the aim of privatisation was to give people more choice, but it has not worked out that way. Meek predicts that in twenty years time there will be about 6 chains of hospitals, 6 brands of school academy, and 6 housing associations. It will be interesting to follow the emergence of a new universal network, broadband, over the next few years – how is it going to be paid for, and by whom?
Meek wants all universal networks to be not for profit. But he is sceptical about the political will and the will of the electorate to make this happen. So far, it hasn’t been described to people in a way that makes the sacrifice worth acting on, and it is clear that regulators can’t be relied upon to assess private companies: they are being ‘captured’.
In Scotland, Aberdeen-based FirstGroup will hand over ScotRail to Abellio on April 1, whose parent company is the Dutch national railway. The ferry company CalMac will soon face competition from Abellio’s frequent partner Serco for the West Coast contract. We may not often notice who is running these services as consumers, but the difference could be worth billions as the East Coast line showed. Will it ever change?