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Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else
Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else
James Meek
Verso Books, 2015
272 pp., 29.95

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Alister Chapman

For Sale: Britannia

How Thatcherite privatization has played out.

Many Americans have a soft spot for Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady and Ronald Reagan's best friend, Thatcher is a reminder of the last time when everyone knew the West had won. In Britain, however, Thatcher has always been hated as much as loved. When Britons look back to the 1980s, their clearest memories are not of the end of the Cold War but of runaway unemployment, the decline of British manufacturing, yuppies, and the Falklands War. Americans who worry about the disappearance of good working-class jobs don't think "Reagan"; for British people with the same concern "Thatcher" is the only name that comes to mind.

James Meek is one of these people. He is a journalist who mourns the way his country has changed over the past thirty-five years. His book Private Island is a fresh contribution to the well-established Thatcher-screwed-up-Britain genre. Closing mines, gutting industry, crushing strikes, flattering finance, feathering nests that were already lush—these are the genre's standard themes. Meek aims to add a new one by examining one of Thatcher's headline policies: privatization. The book is damning of that policy and, implicitly, of global capitalism in many of its guises.

The facts are simply told. During the 1980s, the Conservatives sold a host of government-controlled industries on the London stock market. British Airways, British Rail, British Gas, and British Telecom, the water boards, bus companies, airports, and ferries—all went. In addition, Thatcher oversaw the sale of thousands of state-owned houses to their residents at bargain prices. The primary goal was not to raise money for the exchequer—it was soon clear that the government undervalued its assets and initial shareholders therefore stood to make an easy profit. Rather, as Thatcher put it, "Privatization was one of the central means of reversing the corrosive and corrupting effects of socialism … . [T]he state's power is reduced and the power of the people enhanced."

Did it work? Meek says no, and his book is a series of case studies on what has happened to the railways, electricity grid, waterworks, postal system, health service, and housing market. His tale is a tragedy. The reality is more complex.

Before he gets to his cases, Meek notes that privatization did not turn Britain into a nation of small shareholders. True, thousands of people bought the initial public offerings (and news since the publication of Meek's book suggests that many have forgotten that they did so). But the proportion of shares in British companies owned by individuals declined from almost 40 percent when Thatcher came to power to 12 percent at the time of her death in 2013. There are problems with these statistics, however. For one, they do not tell us what proportion of those shares were held by British residents. They also fail to reflect the growth of managed funds as a vehicle by which people own shares.

Meek's response to the second point would be that the growing popularity of funds is the result of the demise of good jobs with good, meaning guaranteed, pensions. His case here is the Post Office, which, though not fully privatized, has been opened up to competition from other delivery firms. These can cherry-pick, choosing to work only in the dense and therefore profitable cities, leaving the Post Office to conduct its regular and cost-ineffective deliveries to the island of Mull. Post Office employees have long enjoyed wages above the minimum, paid leave, pensions, and even footwear. New entrants to the delivery markets can compete on price because they offer their workers none of these things. The invisible hand is unlikely to be kind to the people who deliver the mail.

Nor is it especially good at business decisions, Meek argues. He tells the story of the privatization of British Rail and the ignominious collapse of its private successor, Railtrack. In the course of the privatization negotiations, consultants for the new entity secured the deal by presenting a clever and cheap plan to renovate the 150-year-old west coast main line, an outdated web of routes between Glasgow and London that had fallen into dangerous disrepair. With privatization complete and Railtrack in command, however, it became clear that the plan couldn't be made to work. Consultants with little expertise in rail had gambled on an unproven technology. By the time the renovations were complete, the bill was six times the initial estimate, Railtrack was bust, and the government was knee-deep in running the railways again.

Markets can also fail to provide good service. Meek looks at the flooding of a privately run water treatment plant in Gloucestershire in 2007 that left tens of thousands without running water for more than a week (yet still charged them for it). Here, however—given that these were the worst floods in more than a hundred years—Meek finds it difficult to demonstrate that this would not have happened had the plant remained in state hands.

The floods are the human-interest story, but Meek is really concerned about two other aspects of how the new utilities in water, gas, and electricity work. First, the desire for dividends means that the utilities' new owners have often loaded their companies with debt—a cheaper form of financing that provides short-term rewards to shareholders but one that risks the default of a vital industry (with, presumably, a guaranteed government bail out to follow). Second, because everyone needs water, gas, and electricity, the companies can charge high prices without the democratic oversight that government control provided. Margaret Thatcher may have loved competition, but capitalist firms hate it and avoid it when they can, says Meek. What could be better business than having a monopoly on people's ability to shower or use a toaster? Meek says we need to call utility bills taxes, and regressive ones at that.

Tragedy becomes farce in the chapter on electricity. Britain's power generation used to be owned by Britain. Now, the power stations are owned by companies such as E.ON of Düsseldorf, Iberdrola of Bilbao, and Berkshire Hathaway of Omaha, Nebraska. Most ironic of all, one of the entities that has gained a controlling share in parts of the industry is EDF, the French nationalized electricity firm. EDF's new British employees like the deal—final salary pensions are back. But Meek worries about the impossibility of national, democratic control over prices in a vital industry, and is ashamed to be a citizen of a country that doesn't have the political intelligence or the technical, industrial, and managerial expertise to run utilities right.

Meek is a patriot, sad at what Britain has become. He ends his book, however, with proposals and hope. His proposals are not what one might expect. He does not call for renationalization. He does not want to kick out foreigners. What he wants is for public utilities to be "in the hands of commercially run, non-profit making associations" of a sort that Britain has seen before in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[1] Foreign companies can compete for work within the networks but not own them.

The hope comes in his closing critique of capitalism:

I'm not immune to the common notion among men of my age that everything is getting worse. Yet it sometimes seems to me that, as I get older, I get more naïve, or more hopeful. If traditional socialism takes too benign a view of human nature, the prevailing economic and moral orthodoxy … —that personal greed and family interest, occasionally attenuated by personal pity, is all that makes the world run smooth and shiny for the greatest number—is too cynical. I don't buy it. The notion of "care" has become so hollowed out from overuse that it's easy to forget part of our motivation to do a job well, alongside the earnings, is we really do care. Not always, but more often than the cynics would hold … we care about the people we serve, and we care about doing the job well, in the eyes of our peers, and for its own sake.

Well said.

For all his credentials on the left and his critiques of American consultants, Meek is not a crude anti-capitalist. He acknowledges that the market works well in many respects, although he doesn't always give the utilities' new owners credit for the improvements they have introduced. But there is a commitment to social democracy here that is worth listening to, especially for Christians, for so many of that creed's progenitors were Christian people who cared about the lives their neighbors lived.

Privatization is likely to continue in the United States, not least because of the underfunded pension schemes of many states and municipalities. This book is worth reading not so much for its critique of global capitalism as for its attention to the millions of employees and consumers affected when governments tinker with major utilities and industries. It is also a reminder, in an age of rising income inequality and pressure on educational institutions to show that their graduates make it financially, that our accounts of human flourishing need anchoring to something other than money.

1. For a more market-based proposal on what to do with public holdings that rejects both privatization and standard government control, see Dag Detter and Stefan Fölster, The Public Wealth of Nations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

Alister Chapman is associate professor of history at Westmont College. He is currently working on immigration and religion in Britain after World War II.

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