Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg was the opening keynote speaker at the the Guardian’s Public Services Summit in St Albans 12 days ago. A two day discussion of “structural challenges facing the country”, the summit was attended by “public service deliverers” including “forward thinking chief executives, elected members [and] civil servants”.
Clegg, who had been greeted by protesters on his way to the summit, took the stage to fairly muted applause before setting the tone of his speech. “How can we reinvent and strengthen our public services at a time of anxiety and stretched resources?” he asked. “And how can we preserve the public sector ethos as we move to a more plural, diverse and personalised way of running our public services?”
He went on to propose that the answer was “modernisation”. Quoting from the Beveridge Report, he stated his belief that public services were about “co-operation between the state and the individual.” Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s NHS reform would readdress an uneven balance between state and individual, he said, by putting power back “in the hands of those who understand patients, the GPs.”
Then after talking at length about scrapping the burden of bureaucracy and target culture from the public services, he came to a crucial point. He wanted to reassure those “anxious about the claims that what the government is doing is privatising for ideological reasons.” He said:
“New and alternative providers – from the private, community and voluntary sectors – have a vital role to play in our public services... But I will also take a hard line against the kind of blanket privatisation which was pursued by governments in the past. Because replacing a public monopoly with a private monopoly achieves nothing but reduced accountability.”
Most of Clegg’s speech – about “diversifying” and “modernising” public services – was familiar, and his use of similar language has been questioned on ourKingdom before. However his claim that he would take a “hard line against blanket privatisation” was a significant revelation.
And here’s why. Just ten days on from Clegg’s speech, David Cameron wrote a piece in the Telegraph. In it, he explained how his government plans to implement privatisation on a level that even Margaret Thatcher on her wildest nights would never have imagined possible:
“We will soon publish a White Paper [titled Open Public Services] setting out our approach to public service reform... It will put in place principles that will signal the decisive end of the old-fashioned, top-down, take-what-you're-given model of public services.”
Appearing to directly contradict the words of his deputy days earlier, what Cameron outlined was a radical picture of what can only be understood as blanket privatisation.
“The grip of state control will be released and power will be placed in people's hands,” Cameron asserted. “There will be more freedom, more choice and more local control.”
His words were chosen very carefully, with euphemism adopted to conceal the gravity of the plans. Instead of privatisation, he refers to “diversity”; and he makes no mention of capitalism or marketisation, rather “freedom”:
“[We have] a vision of open public services – and we will make it happen by advancing some key principles... The most important is the principle of diversity. We will create a new presumption … that public services should be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service."
At his summit speech days earlier, Clegg had said: “there will be no for-profit providers in our publicly funded schools system.” But not according to Cameron:
“Of course there are some areas – such as national security or the judiciary – where this wouldn't make sense. But everywhere else should be open to diversity; open to everyone who gets and values the importance of our public service ethos.”
The prime minister and his deputy, then, do not seem to share the same vision of the future under these plans. Clegg admits there will be privatisation, but not on the scale proposed by Cameron. And while the differences between the two are currently simmering under the surface, they will surely soon begin to boil.
In no uncertain terms, the Open Public Services white paper will, as it stands, tear down the last vestiges of the public sector. Almost everything will become fair game as the profit-driven interests of private enterprise gradually swallow up public services. With the implementation of market principles, services that ‘fail’ – including hospitals – could be made bankrupt. Oliver Huitson has argued elsewhere that the market relies upon such failure; it is simply an economic eventuality. Under similar plans, for instance, the government owned Forensic Science Service has already been made to close in 2012, as it runs at a cost not a profit.
David Cameron says that the coalition’s plans are not ideological. “We need a complete change,” he argues. Yet as far back as 2006, doctors were asserting that they did not want to see more privatisation of the NHS in England. Since then widespread disapproval has remained prevalent across the health sector, and as Allyson Pollock has recently noted, the BMA, the Royal College of Nursing and the NHS Confederation have all opposed the coalition's plans. Privatisation is “not in the best interests of the staff and patients," said Karen Reay of the Unite union last week. This government, however, does not appear to care – and neither is it willing to listen.
But amid the cacophony of voices shouting about the coalition's proposed reforms, cuts and all the other tumultuous changes rippling across the world at present, Clegg has offered a quiet assurance that he will “take a hard line against blanket privatisation.” This time, unlike his renege on tuition fees, he must stick to his word. If he is to retain the waning credibility of both himself and his party, he should now step out from behind Cameron’s shadow and oppose the changes proposed in this white paper. Because public services cannot be bought and sold; they are not commodities, they are necessities.