openDemocracyUK

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

Stuart Weir
5 April 2012

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?

Sign the petition: save our Freedom of Information

The UK government is running a secretive unit inside Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office that’s accused of ‘blacklisting’ journalists and hiding ‘sensitive’ information from the public. Experts say they’re breaking the law – and it’s an assault on our right to know what our government is doing.

We’re not going to let it stand. We’re launching a legal battle – but we also need a huge public outcry, showing that thousands back our call for transparency. Will you add your name?

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData