Meta-privatisation: now they're selling us, the public

A fortnight ago, OurKingdom published a piece I wrote arguing that banging on about privatisation as a one-word anathema on the coalition government’s policies fails to capture the sheer scale of the enterprise on which successive governments have embarked. I compared the process to a modern enclosure movement, not of common land but of the public sphere. 

Now, in the latest London Review of Books, out today, the novelist James Meek has reinforced and added to my argument in a parallel piece. He says that the episodic nature of the privatisations has hidden a “meta-privatisation that’s passed the halfway point”:

“The essential public good that Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and now Cameron sell is not power stations, or trains, or hospitals. It’s the public itself. It’s us. The commodity that makes water and roads and airports valuable to an investor, foreign or otherwise, is the people who have no choice but to use them. ”

Meek takes the argument into a new domain. He says that the public has become “a human revenue stream”, a shift sold hard to the public, first by denigration of existing services, then the rejection of government responsibility (“we’ve no more money,”, etc etc), and finally the solution, private investment. The perception then becomes that if the private sector were not replacing old sewers or power stations, we, the public, would have to pay higher taxes. But, he says, “we are already paying higher taxes – they just aren’t called taxes”. Instead they become the “water bill”, “fare increases”, “higher electricity bills”. Thus the government makes it possible to keep traditional taxes low or even to cut them, and can abandon a general taxation system under which the rich are obliged to help the poor to pay for services to one where less well off people enable services, like the road network, that the rich get for what is to them a trifling sum.

It seems to me that an imaginative narrative, encompassing these and other arguments, can lay bare the sheer effrontery of the seizure of the public sphere in the interests of corporate power and the rich. The question is however, “Is the Labour Party too compromised by its own surrender to the market to tell the people what is going on?” Or is this a job for Gorgeous George?

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.