Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack (1738)
If you’re going to keep on repeating lies, the risk isn’t that others will start to believe them. It’s that you’ll start to believe them yourself and end up trapped inside them.
Thatcherites are now in that position, confronted by realities they failed to anticipate, mainly because they were convinced that the rest of the world plays by the same demented rules that they do.
Let’s start by taking a look at two of her favourite ideas.
The first is that the private sector is good and the public sector bad. Thatcher famously told a group of nationalised industry executives that if any of them were any use they’d be in the private sector. It doesn’t take long to work out the corollary: that in her view public services should all be run by second rate managers to ensure that they fail. The very services for which as Prime Minister she was responsible.
Today, many of those services are back in the public sector. Owned by the Dutch, French and German governments, to name just a few. And there’s the problem for Thatcher’s successor. Either these nationalised firms are managed competently, which is impossible, since they’re State-owned, or they’re not managed competently, which ideologically would be much more comforting. And if indeed they’re not, then David Cameron has just placed Britain’s energy future in the hands of incompetent State bureaucrats in Paris and Beijing. Which means they’re doing a more competent job than he is.
Time for the second great idea. The idea that the State doesn’t have any money of its own. According to Thatcher, every penny it spends is wrung out of taxpayers, without whom it would be nothing. It never was true, since at the core of every State is the common wealth, the rights of the community to things managed in common. The air, the water, and in some cases still, even tiny little bits of a once-common heritage in land. When publicly-owned industries make profits, those profits too flow into the common treasury.
Today they flow into other countries’ treasuries, allowing them to reduce taxation on their own folk. In the case of railways, for example, our taxes go to pay operating subsidies to companies owned by the railway administrations of France, Germany and the Netherlands, allowing them to invest more in their own systems. The case for public ownership of utilities is that these are natural monopolies, providing things we need in order to live and which, for various reasons, are impervious to competition. The prices they’re allowed by regulators to charge are therefore little different from taxes. And by allowing other governments to buy the right to make those charges, our own has in effect sold the right to tax us to foreign powers. We are serfs for sale.
None of this was supposed to happen. Nationalised industries were to be replaced by lots of little local companies all competing for business. Not national and international conglomerates able to dictate terms to any government daft enough to let them. Totalitarian liberalism is unrepentant, since if this is what the market produces then it cannot be questioned. The problem never lies with the market. It lies with the alternatives we champion, with our failure to understand the rationality of values far superior to the choices we are capable of making together. For the liberals, we, the customers, are the problem when we unite in our refusal to play by the rules.
Public anger at the sell-off of Royal Mail and at the deal struck over Hinkley C with French imperialists and another foreign regime, one with an even worse record on human rights, will not abate easily. Too many things are happening all at once for that. The failure of even the Co-op to act responsibly, destroying a treasured institution, has folk of goodwill grasping at any straw that will re-assure them that the future is not one long dark night of corporate piracy without end. In the process, they will clutch at many straws that will soon blow away in the wind.
The first thing we need to realise is that the UK, as it has long been understood, cannot form part of the solution. It’s too late for that. Attlee’s Britain no longer exists. His model is not repeatable and it would be a ghastly mistake even to try. It was always bound to be a betrayal of truly democratic principles, as our forebears in Common Wealth argued at the time. The industries nationalised were managerialised, not democratised. Yes, there was a Scottish Region of British Railways, but no Scottish Parliament to oversee it. There was a Wales Gas Board, but no Welsh Assembly. In England there were ultimately regions for electricity, gas and water, for railways, for hospitals, and for many other things. But how many of them matched? How many were designed around areas that made sense as the basis of future elected regional governments? Few, if any. No wonder it all ended so badly. Thatcherism arose in the 1970s as the establishment response to demands for devolution-all-round. It preserved London-based power by transferring the keys to Britain from Whitehall to the City, which is now in the process of handing them on to the Chinese.
The second thing is to beware any attempt by Labour to tap into the demand for re-nationalisation. For Labour, the nation is Britain and the clamour is there to be manipulated in defence of a centralised union under its absolutist control. There are better ways, ways offered by the nationalist and regionalist movements of these islands. Labour, to misquote Aneurin Bevan, is simply the future refusing to be born. It was revealed this week that London and the south-east of England continue to be the principal beneficiaries of the mess for others which those in power there have long sought to engineer. With more to come. Labour will equally continue to argue that the social distribution of power is everything, while its geographical distribution is irrelevant. Despite centuries of evidence to the contrary, millions will go on believing it.
The third thing to note is that restoring common ownership in a modernised form today has been made more difficult by the British State’s determined attempts to bankrupt itself. How is it all to be paid for? Even if assets are deprivatised at the same 30-40% discounts at which they were privatised, that is still a huge amount of money. Surprisingly little is said about how easy it is to find the money to buy problem assets, like toxic banks, or failing airports in Scotland, Wales or Cornwall. Politically too, it’s a smoother path to attend to precious lame ducks than to prise assets seriously worth having from the grip of more reluctant sellers. It’s the profits, not the losses, that need diverting from the private to the public realm. Marx and Engels are rarely read these days but they did wickedly point out that those who make such a fuss about the sacred character of property rights are the heirs of those who got rich by treating past property rights with contempt, say during the French Revolution, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, or the Norman Conquest. A little less reverence where rights do more harm than good would be no bad thing. In a real crisis, the City’s worldwide paper ‘assets’ will amount to nothing at all. What’s on the ground is what will count.
Inevitably, such matters are ones of opportunity and pragmatism rather than a precise strategy to roll forward the State. What we know is that the world is changing, and changing faster than we have been willing to notice. The more successful countries of the future will be those already thinking long-term, say 30-50 years ahead. Watch China’s moves in Africa, and now in Europe, and weep at our weakness in that regard. Fortunately, we are not alone. There are many, perhaps surprisingly many, parallel movements for change in small nations and historic regions right across Europe and beyond, opposed to dogmatic centralism in all its forms. Wessex is one piece of a very big jigsaw.
So what are the basic tasks a self-governing Wessex should look to organise? One list of ‘foundation occupations’ for any well-founded society that doesn’t wish to be occupied, economically any more than militarily, is as follows:
Category 1 – Occupations calling for the exercise of considerable professional skill, e.g. administration, justice, security, education, health. To the extent that a society alienates these services it also alienates itself. The identification of these professionals with the territory in which they work, its customs, its needs and its interests, is what gives a society its essential character. Deprive them of the opportunity for loyalty to place and no-one else will feel any either. There is room for unsubsidised, non-core private sector involvement in education, health and the law but public values are inevitably subverted if that involvement enters core services.
Category 2 – Occupations with duties where incentives are impractical, e.g. ambulance and fire services, post, prisons, traffic police, waste collection. Target-setting is likely to be counter-productive if it ends up degrading the service provided. There is therefore no substitute for managers sensitive to circumstances. The private sector has nothing to offer that is not equally available to an adequately resourced public sector.
Category 3 – Occupations with specialist technical skills, e.g. electricity, telecommunications, water and sewerage. These are areas where private sector involvement has often been the norm, but on a tight leash given how vital these services are to modern life. It’s likely that we under-estimate the consequences of losing control over them. It’s also likely that they’ll become ever more vital to our future and ever more vulnerable, e.g. to cyber-attack.
Category 4 – Occupations where productivity can be affected by the worker, and where worker co-operatives could therefore be organised, e.g. transport operation and maintenance. The problems of worker co-operatives in these sectors do not relate to the organisation of work but to the funding of investment. Every one of the transport co-operatives resulting from privatisation has since been bought out by corporate capital. To guard against any repetition, that funding issue needs to be addressed. Capital, according to William Barnes (in Views of Labour and Gold), is no more than that part of wealth that is rendered useful by labour. Considered thus, there is therefore no reason why it should not be organised by means of a democratic process, though necessarily on whatever scale, or scales, is commensurate with the needs of a modern society. Does a transport company with an ageing fleet always have to be bought out by those with the money to replace it, or are there other options such as asset leasing?
Category 5 – Occupations whose nature could change with circumstances. This is where watching the signs really matters. There are many services we normally entrust to the private sector, but what do we do when things are abnormal? Where would we be without tanker drivers or those overseeing the logistics of supermarket deliveries? To whom do they answer in a diplomatic crisis involving a foreign owner? Let’s not panic. But let’s at least have the answers to hand in a self-governing Wessex region of the future that seeks to prosper in interesting times.
The age of scarcity into which self-government is born will require a range of ‘foundation projects’ as well as occupations, though these are less easy to predict from history. Let’s not allow current prejudices to prevent us contemplating future solutions. They not only can be radical but will need to be radical. Today is the anniversary of the death, in 899, of King Alfred the Great, a Wessex hero, but also a warning to us. Alfred took risks for the sake of Wessex, such as assuming responsibility for kingless Mercians and Northumbrians, that were soon to lead to the unification of England and, under the Normans, to the eclipse of Wessex for centuries to come. All his investments of effort, in the physical infrastructure of military and naval defences, and in the defences of the mind provided by his revival of learning, were ultimately ineffective against the superior organisation and determined infiltration of hostile neighbours, despite their relatively small numbers. High-tax, high-spend policies of the Alfredian kind, directed towards rebuilding and securing a worthwhile society, won’t always be effective, it’s true (a well-organised world actually makes a more tempting target for top-down takeover). It's just that they're always better than not trying at all and succumbing to unintelligible chaos.
In the 1940s, Friedrich von Hayek wrote a famous critique of the State entitled The Road to Serfdom, yet still concluded that “In no system that could be rationally defended would the State just do nothing.” The small, community-benefit State we envisage for Wessex is one that ought to do much more than nothing if it is to have a better chance of lifting the yoke from our necks than the blind pursuit of post-Thatcherite sell-out we endure today.