Flickr/Spencer Wright. Some rights reserved.
I write this partly in response to Rachel Graham’s excellent article in OurKingdom on 5 August 2013, in which she discusses the formation of a new single-issue campaign, We Own It, dedicated to resisting and reversing the present government’s – and previous governments’ – systematic programme of privatising public services and assets. This is a great idea and I wish it every success.
Rachel Graham asks: “So why the drive for privatisation? Perhaps following the money gives an answer”. Clearly, private financial interests, including those of politicians, play a major part. At least equally as important, I would argue, is a drive to erase England as a, or rather the, nation affected. I say this because the services and assets being privatised are overwhelmingly restricted to England, or to England and Wales in policy areas such as justice in which Wales is effectively tacked on to England, administratively and legislatively.
The two recent examples of privatisation cited by Rachel Graham – the NHS, the 111 service and the electronic tagging of prisoners on probation – are limited to England (and Wales for the latter). To this we might add proposed or ongoing privatisations in areas such as:
- Schools (i.e. Free schools and academies – England only).
- Higher education (tertiary education, in England only, has increasingly become a private market).
- blood plasma (whether the privatisation of plasma resources UK affects England only or is a uk-wide issue is still not fully clear to me, because this part of the story hasn’t been adequately reported – see further discussion below).
- Local services (e.g. Libraries, leisure and sports facilities, or even the entire ‘portfolio’ of a council’s services in the case of the London borough of Barnet, with surely more councils to follow – in England only).
- The courts service (of England and Wales).
- Policing (increasing involvement by private security firms such as G4S – England and Wales)
- Legal aid, including the proposed transfer of the whole (and diminishing) criminal English (and Welsh) legal aid budget into the hands of a few corporate providers of solicitor services
- The probation service (of England and Wales)
- Road building and maintenance (proposed extension of the toll-road network, i.e. Private roads – England and (I think) Wales)
- And the would-have-been privatisation of England’s forests and woodlands.
But let’s not forget also our former PM Gordon Brown’s fire sale of English assets.
One purely functional explanation of why these privatisations are mainly limited to England is that, in the aftermath of devolution, the UK government’s remit in these areas is restricted to England (and sometimes Wales). Therefore, if the government is going to have a policy bias towards privatisation, this is inevitably going to involve mostly English services and assets. An alternative way of putting this is that it is only in England that the government can get away with it, because, unlike in the devolved nations, there isn’t a strong national, English voice – such as might be provided by a national parliament – to stand up in defence of what belongs to the nation, i.e. England.
The counterweight to ‘the private’ is ‘the public’ or ‘the commons’ – yes – but it is also ‘the national’. Therefore, if the state wishes to get away with systematically privatising public services, publicly owned and managed social assets and natural resources, it is essential that the state first undermines the public’s consciousness that it – the public that is – is a nation to whom those services and assets belong. Let’s put it this way: ‘we’ cannot defend ‘our’ NHS unless we come to realise who we are – or indeed who ‘we’ is. We are the nation referenced in the very name of the National Health Service. And the nation in this instance, as in so many of the other examples, is England. We, the NHS and England define – or should define – each other: we and the NHS should together be defining of what England as a nation means.
The message I’m attempting to convey here is very stark and simple: privatising English services involves privatising, and by that very token abolishing, England itself as a public, as a commons and as a civic nation. A precondition of that English asset stripping has been to exile England from the public square: suppressing any national English voice or consciousness, and even banishing from public discourse any concept of England’s ownership of the services that are being taken from it.
This is inscribed into the very detail of language used to discuss privatisation measures and policy in general. Government departments, politicians and ‘national’ media do everything they can to be as geographically non-specific as possible about policies and legislation that affect England only or England mainly. This involves avoiding the use of words such as ‘England’ and ‘English’, even or especially if the policies in question affect England alone. Instead, phrases and words such as ‘our country’ or ‘the country’, ‘our NHS’ (as in the above example), or even ‘Britain’ and ‘the UK’ are used. The tendency to replace ‘England’ with ‘Britain’ is especially prevalent in ‘national’ news, current affairs or factual programming, including programmes of a more topical nature where the subject matter is England-only but the media in question (e.g. BBC, ITV or Sky) feels it has to pass it off as pertaining to Britain as a whole because the programme is going out across the UK.
It is for this reason that, when the story broke, I was not sure (and am still not sure) whether the privatisation of Plasma Resources UK – the Department of Health-owned blood-plasma service – will affect only English services or those of the devolved nations as well. The mainstream media simply didn’t report on this aspect of the story, because it was carelessly – or deliberately – portrayed as a UK-wide issue, whether or not it actually is. And I would have to say that OurKingdom’s superb, in-depth article on this particular privatisation measure also didn’t help to clarify its ‘geographical extent’, as the legislators term it, as the article never once indicated whether Plasma Resources UK sells its products into the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish health services – although it did indicate that it supplies around 30% of the UK ‘market’ for blood-plasma products. So does this effectively mean the ‘English market’, or are PRUK’s products simply hawked on the open market and, presumably, purchased by the devolved nations’ NHSs as well?
I would have to say that I would reproach Rachel Graham’s article in OurKingdom, which was my starting point in the present article, with the same failing: not one reference to ‘England’ throughout a discussion in which many of the examples of the deleterious effects of privatisation relate to England only, or are aggravated in England compared with the UK’s other nations because the decisions that affect England are taken by a UK government that is not directly accountable to English voters. An example alluded to by the author is the awarding of rail franchises, resulting in situations such as the East Coast Mainline fiasco and significantly larger price hikes for English rail users than for their Welsh and Scottish counterparts.
Rachel Graham discusses the results of the Survation poll of respondents in England, Wales and Scotland commissioned by We Own It, which found significant support for public-sector provision of essential services. One key finding was that 79% of respondents felt that “the public should be consulted before a service is privatised or outsourced”. However, there was no discussion of the form such consultation should take. Surely, one of the reasons why there is such high demand in England for direct democracy on issues such as this is that, in England, the elected government is so unaccountable and out of touch with voters. Of course, I say ‘in England’ advisedly, because the same Survation poll found significantly less support for direct consultation of this sort in Scotland: only 60% (see p. 7 of the poll). Clearly, one of the reasons for this discrepancy is that, in Scotland, people feel they have an elected government which more closely represents their views on this topic, i.e. one that has not in fact carried out any privatisation of Scottish services.
So in order to resist and campaign against the UK government’s relentless privatisation drive, it is essential, in my view, to foreground the England (and Wales) specific scope of most of the ongoing initiatives. This is not just a practical and tactical point, i.e. that it will be more effective in raising public awareness and mobilising protest if people are informed of the increasing divergence of policy between England and the devolved nations. Ironically, apart from effectively discriminating against the people of England, the UK government is also undermining its own case for why ‘we’re better together’ as a union state, in England perhaps even more strongly than in Scotland.
More fundamentally, however, I would return to my main point: that the most effective way to asset-strip a nation is for the nation to forget it is a nation. No English nation, no national, public English services.
This overriding concern – that England itself is being wished out of existence, let alone English public services – is one of the reason that a group of like-minded civic English-nationalist bloggers (myself included) have set up a new web campaign called ‘English Commonwealth’. This is intended mainly to raise the kind of awareness of England-specific issues, and of English nationhood, that this article has discussed, initially through a few selected campaigns that we hope people will rally round. One of these is a campaign to encourage, indeed to demand, the use of the words ‘England’ and ‘English’ in circumstances where issues of national importance to England (and usually to England only) are being debated in England’s market square (as opposed to public square).
The challenge to ‘say England’ when you mean it is addressed not just to British-establishment politicians and media, but – and perhaps especially – to those on the left of politics who wish to protest against the privatisation of English services. With what vision do they wish to oppose such a theft of the nation’s – England’s – assets? It’s simply no good, indeed it is absurd, to talk of a new ‘One Nation’ British settlement, because – as a result of Labour’s own actions when last in government – we simply are no longer one nation.
Unless, of course, that nation is to be England.