Britain is not just ‘undergoing privatisation’, this is a modern enclosure movement

Cameron is leaving no stone unturned in his 'revolution' of the public sector. This is not about the privatisation of individual services: a bigger game is being played, with profound importance for Britain and her people.

Even in the midst of the ruthless plundering of the NHS, too many of those defending the service bang on about “privatisation”, as if this one-word curse is enough to rally the public and to expose the wickedness – and that it what it is – which lies behind the coalition government’s relentless assault. 

Three reasons to be realistic: 1. Privatising services has often been shown to work in certain circumstances and to improve services (so uncompromising  condemnation doesn’t work);  2. Labour in power opened up public services to privatisation in the NHS, schools and elsewhere (allowing ministers to play yah boo politics); and 3. using “privatisation” as the main instrument of the campaign against government policies does not begin to encompass the sheer scale of the assault and the devastating effect it is having within the public services. It is too narrow a bridgehead. 

I think that those who oppose the neo-liberal drive towards the “small state” need to re-imagine the the full enormity of what is going on.  Cameron and co – a group which includes Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander – and their two parties are engaged in the destruction of the historic postwar compromise between the public and private sectors with the wholesale transfer of public functions to private enterprise.  Their project amounts to no less than a modern enclosure movement, in which it is not common land but what is still left in the public sphere as a whole that is being wrested from the people.

This enclosure movement is most evident in the NHS where the purpose of the Health and Social Care bill is to give private companies the power to take over services, managerial processes and infrastructure in every area of the Service.  More NHS services will be put out to tender by law every year.  Look also at Gove’s “reforms” of Britain’s state schools; the outsourcing of police functions; the opening up of planning on behalf of developers;  the severe restriction of state welfare benefits; the abandonment by the state of families renting from private landlords; the  removal of environmental controls on behalf of industry; plans to hand over  roads to private capital; the potential sell-off of the Royal Mail, even our forests were in danger (and may very well still be so). 

At the same time, the emphasis on “choice”, always a Trojan horse under Labour, will privilege the middle and professional classes at the expense of working class families.  Gove’s policies proclaim a universal intent; but even he admits that it is actually the middle classes who will benefit. And do not expect them to share their privilege.  Forget any notion that the “sharp elbows” of the middle classes will be employed to make room for less privileged families; they bond, network and move within their class, there is scarcely any cross-class “bridging”. Instead, look to proposals in the budget that will reflect, and be influenced by, the interests of middle and professional classes alongside those of the private sector.

The second major aspect of the destructive nature of the government’s assault is its demoralising and undermining of the public service ethic among the country’s public servants – civil servants, teachers, benefit staff, tax inspectors, lawyers, doctors, railway workers, academics, and so on. Jenny Manson, a retired tax inspector, has edited a collection of essays from a wide range of practitioners and observers that sets out the stark realities that the public service and public servants all endure (Public Service on the the Brink, Imprint Academic, Exeter, £17.95).

The cuts are demoralising in themselves, forcing fewer workers to take on more work and demonstrating the government’s conviction that the public service is a burden on the economy. But they are accompanied by “a lot of phoney stuff” (Jenny Manson) associated with the New Public Management drive initiated under Labour  -  “strategic planning”, “leadership skills”, “lean management”,  and so on – which not only reflects the government distrust in the commitment and abilities of public servants, but also a general conviction that practice in the public sector is inferior to that in the entrepreneurial private sector. The current regime, her contributors argue, undermines the sense of purpose that informed the public service ethic at its best – the idea of public service being for the public. Manson describes a perceived “aparatchik” approach among new entrants and a new “talking the talk” phenomenon.

She voices a typical complaint:

I know what my job is and I want to do it as well as I can. Indeed I would love my work if I could get one day’s peace to get on with it.  But I am beset at every turn by unintelligible, time wasting and fruitless management initiatives, constant change, ill-judged targets, wrong-headed ‘commercial’ examplars and continuous and misguided restructuring.  I have to watch as, instead of my ‘customer’ (actually patient, pupil, taxpayer) getting a better deal from me, the only beneficiaries seem to be those who can lobby for special treatment.

It is impossible in this short space to summarise the diverse contributions to this valuable collection from, for example, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and railways to secondary and university education and the failings of privatisation in local government and of PFI in the Ministry of Defence. OurKingdom has begun publishing a series of edited extracts from the book (see here on how the press portray public sector workers, and here by Mark Serwotka of the PCS Union). What the collection goes some way to show is that public service is in the grasp of an unrelenting and unproven ideology that is stripping it bare of its essential values. 

But then that is what is happening to our society.

About the author

Stuart Weir is founder of Democratic Audit at the Human Rights Centre, University of Essex, and co-founder of Charter 88. He is a consultant to the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust on the State of the Nation polls.