– By James Martin “I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” – Mark Twain In the UK this week, we saw one of few remaining pieces of the state silver embark on the path to privatisation. I am of course talking abou …

Walton Pantland

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– By James Martin

I didn’t attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it.” – Mark Twain

In the UK this week, we saw one of few remaining pieces of the state silver embark on the path to privatisation. I am of course talking about the Royal Mail. It came as no real surprise really, there is a Tory Government in power, they like selling the fruits of the nation’s labour, especially to their friends and political donors.

The argument they put forward, as always, was that despite it making profit for the exchequer, that Royal Mail needed private investment. It’s a similar argument I have for the Royal Family. The 1980s revisited us, a Government Minister was shoe horned on to the BBC’s flagship political programme ‘Question Time’, she argued that ‘You can have a stake in the Royal Mail’s future by buying shares [at £750 minimum]’, seemingly missing the point that nationalised industries mean that the public already has a stake in its future.

We are back here yet again. The now 30 year old myth that has been ‘sold’ to us that, ‘business knows best’ and that ‘a great shareholding democracy’ is best for a country. Whilst we know this is nonsense, the argument for nationalisation has now become so radical an issue (just like a left wing party supporting a union) that the political class will distance themselves away from it and never mention it. British Rail belongs in a history book to them. When it is rarely discussed, nationalise the banks and reduce their bonuses was the last time, in 2008, we were told that ‘If we nationalise the banks or reduce their bonuses, they will leave!’ Good I thought at the time, working for a bank as it happens – let the highly paid, economy wrecking, employment right abusing bankers leave. We may get a better system in place afterwards, a state run bank. I could only have hoped I suppose.

Nationalised industry is quite literally paid for and maintained by the hard work of the people of this country. My concern is that there aren’t many more nationalised industries left, the neo-liberal takeover is nearly complete. The few we have left in the UK are:

  • The NHS (For sale sign just erected)
  • The BBC (Currently having visits from the Government)
  • Worker’s Rights (Yes they were nationalised, not dependent on where you work)
  • HM Court Service (Currently being ‘leaned’)
  • Roads (Toll booths opening in your area)

I would imagine that for people of my generation, having never really experienced state run services, it is difficult to even conceptualise. So, on that basis, where did it all begin? Why is it that only the left and the nostalgic keep returning to the argument to bring industries back in to public ownership? Let me give you a crash course into the background and arguments for public ownership.

In the UK, it all started back in 1945, the great reforming government of Clement Attlee’s Labour Government was elected with a huge mandate for nationalisation. Things just couldn’t return to the pre-war norms, after all, at the end of World War II, the country had effectively been brought in to state ownership by the National Government to fight the war. For the new Labour Government, it made sense to keep certain industries in public ownership for the betterment of society – To create a National Health Service free at the point of use, to build a British Railway’s system for the benefit of the people of the country, to build houses for the people to live in. How could nationalising something be better for everyone? Well here are just some of the basic reasons why:

Investment

Industries such as the sciences or nuclear energy require secure long term investment and large starting funds. Nationalised industry can provide this and provide a guarantee of work, which in turn benefits the economy.

Welfare

Sectors such as healthcare, education, justice, policing, fire control, energy, water, housing, public transport and some communication (such as postal services) are required for basic living standards. Public ownership allowed for continued investment, resources focussed to the poor, planning for future and allowed for the health and wellbeing of society to be upheld and democratically accounted for. It would make no sense to have a private fire brigade for example, companies cannot compete to reduce the cost of a burning house – one of the reasons the previous insurance based scheme was quickly abolished.

A Natural Monopoly

Many of the industries nationalised were natural monopolies. By this I mean, that if you have a rail, water or electric system in a country, its maintenance and creation costs cannot be lowered by competition. Private competition would only serve for exploitation once the networks were complete and the profit motive would lead to poor maintenance and would allow private companies to charge higher fees to their customers.

Infrastructure

Public transport plays a key role for those that don’t have their own transport. It has a an effect in reducing pollution, congestion and social mobility. Private companies would again seek to minimise investment in favour of profit and as a result would have an effect of increasing inflation due to higher customer ticket costs for example.

Trade Unions

Industrial relations would be better served in doing what unions do best, representing its members (and therefore the public) with a democratically accountable government instead of profiteering business owners with little accountability.

I would very much doubt that public ownership is discussed in any school, newspaper or parliament today. It’s difficult to see past making money for yourself and instead of helping each other in our increasingly Darwinian world. That said, you will find nationalising services discussed on the shop floor (along with 5p per plastic bag at a supermarket). I’ve heard discussions like something out of the ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’, collective foot stomping and demands to a non-existent politician that ‘the NHS should be kept public’, though even this defiant shout is being increasingly silenced by the myth that the country is skint and can no longer afford things. Austerity has been used as a battering ram to silence public will; we in the trade union movement continue to argue that austerity is not needed (see previous articles on Robin Hood tax).

Let me leave you with this, right wing governments that are selling off nationalised industry and using the myth of national debt and its subsequent repayment. On that basis, I find it incredibly strange that as soon as the option to rain fire and bombs over the skies of a Middle Eastern nation, we have all of the money in the world for that – just not enough cash for the working people of our country, the 99% having a stake in any of the services that they require to survive. No, we will have to grovel for justice from G4S, insure our health with Branson and pay £400 for a morning train ticket to see relatives 100 miles away. Sorry I’ve just realised, that’s now and not the future, the nostalgia I spoke of earlier – it must be creeping up on us all.

The way change occurs to begin with, if you come up with a good idea, like healthcare, you’re ignored. If you go on you must be mad, absolutely stark-staring bonkers. If you go on after that you’re dangerous. Then, if the pressure keeps up there’s a pause. And then you can’t find anyone at the top who doesn’t claim to have thought of it in the first place. That’s how progress is made” – Tony Benn


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Walton Pantland

South African trade unionist living in Glasgow. Loves whisky, wine, running and the great outdoors. Walton did an MA in Industrial Relations at Ruskin, Oxford, and is interested in how trade unions use new technology to organise.

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