On Monday, David Cameron made a rather rambling and long winded speech; my other half and I watched snippets of it on the BBC News at Ten. I sighed; she said, “I’ve been to so many of these,” with a touch of weariness in her voice. While I don’t have her experience of working for the government, I also felt fatigue upon seeing Cameron’s media-friendly visage and his jowls quivering as he spewed polished, meaningless syllables: I noticed that he lacks the worry lines and worldly wise glances that mark out a life full of experience and wisdom. Yet this is our Prime Minister: worse, his opposite number is cursed with the same lack of gravitas. We’re stuck.
Content is more important than form. Cameron daubed his rhetoric with purple passages such as the one which stated his desire to leave a legacy of “Victorian” proportions: sarcastic commentators instantly suggested this would involve the reinstitution of workhouses and the repeal of child labour laws. That said, his plan for greater private sector involvement in building and running roads was the item which was taken most seriously. Utilising the threadbare excuse of public penury, he suggested that private firms could charge tolls in some instances and be paid out of taxes in others in exchange for modernising and expanding the transport network. His assertion that the plans were “not about tolling” probably resonated with most people as it did with me: it most certainly is about tolling. The BBC suggested that his proposals were easier said than done: after all, a petition against toll roads had been one of the most successful ever deployed on Number 10’s website.
Nevertheless, if one will pardon the pun, the roads strategy suggests a direction of travel. This impression was further enhanced when the controversial National Health Service reform bill finally passed through the House of Lords on Monday night. The frontiers of the state are being aggressively rolled back, the private sector’s involvement in delivering public services is being just as determinedly ramped up. The dreams of the most radical Thatcherites in the 1980’s have been far exceeded. Perhaps best of all from the Conservatives’ point of view, a shrunken state is also closer to being irreproachable.
Put simply, a state that is responsible for nothing cannot be blamed for anything. For example, when water was in public ownership, should something go wrong with the pipes or sewage, it was the government that was condemned. Similarly, the government was held accountable if the trains didn’t run on time. In both instances, the British public would write to their MP or lobby the relevant ministry to get matters sorted out; there was a clear line of responsibility. By privatising both water and the railways, the government put itself at a remove. Now if something goes wrong, it’s the government’s prerogative to cajole, pressure, regulate and push rather than actually fix. If the companies don’t amend their policies or remedy problems, well, the headlines will disappear after a day or two, and then life will carry on as normal. The government, in its own mind, has fulfilled its obligations by issuing a protest. The companies have shown obedience to the bottom line by ignoring these objections as much as possible. All is well, except for those actually using the services.
No doubt Conservatives would argue in response that the private sector operates more efficiently than the state. It is certainly true that the effect of applying business disciplines is easier to quantify than results accruing from the desire for public service. And indeed, some private industries are fine: it’s great that the Heinz company makes soup, for example. If the state got involved, there would likely still be ongoing parliamentary enquiries about the proper amount of salt to put into the UK’s cans of Cream of Tomato. Actually, there are, but at least the soup was produced prior to the enquiry.
That said, we need to ask why the private sector appears to achieve its aims in a more frugal way: is it that the motivation to maximise profits spurs innovation and efficiency, or is it because a fearful and emasculated workforce is cheaper and easier to motivate? The situation is complicated by the business culture which currently prevails in Britain: more managers appear to be focused on cost cutting than strategic investment. It is, of course, self defeating, because it means Britain is less competitive in comparison to other European nations. For example, Germany has a tradition of investing in apprenticeships and education, as well as a focus on quality: were the privatisation of public services to be done there, one could be reasonably confident that the business culture would focus attention on building long term, positive relationships with customers rather than maximising quarterly earnings. This disparity in perspective means that Germany’s economy is much more sustainable. Germany thus thrives (and would likely do so even without the benefit of the Euro) while Britain languishes.
No doubt an ardent Conservative would retort that privatisation provides better leverage of intellectual capital. According to right wing economists, it utilises the collective hive-mind of the market. However, contrary to what doctrinaire capitalists believe, the market is not solely a composite of rational intellect, it is also magnifier of the prejudices, passions and quirks of individual human beings. Take pet rocks for example: in December 1975, an advertising executive named Gary Dahl sold 1.5 million stones in cardboard boxes, marketing them as the ultimate pet (it would never need to be fed, vaccinated, given water, nor would it die). The fad wore off, and sales dropped off after the Christmas season. As this indicates, while some level of basic rationality exists and is possible, the market is not always the best means of making logical decisions. This was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt by the credit crunch: bankers, people who took out mortgages and investors all believed that they could spend beyond their means and somehow there would be no consequences. This simply wasn’t true; nevertheless, market necessity meant logic couldn’t reassert itself until it was too late.
The arguments and objections to the extended use of the free market are relatively easy to understand, yet the Conservatives persist in their desire to privatise without hesitatation. Perhaps this urge is driven by a lack of imagination as well as an absence of introspection: it does seem as if the Conservative Party is stuck in a catastrophic ideological feedback loop, whereby privatisation is seen as an answer to all economic and social problems. Maybe we can accuse the government of merely being stupid: one is tempted to believe that the Tories privatised their thinking and it’s now being done by the lowest bidder. And certainly, privatisation delivers some members of the cabinet from the burden of thought. The problem is that while the functions of the state may transfer into the commercial sector, its responsibilities and duties remain, regardless of what the Conservatives may believe or even what the public may perceive. No dreamy talk of a “Big Society” can fill this gap.
Put another way, after the Thatcher years, it would have been apropos to talk about a hollow state, a government stripped of many of its functions: as Harold Macmillan remarked in a salty speech about privatisation, “First the Georgian silver goes…” The current and ongoing abrogation of responsibilities indicates it is a vacant and irresponsible state. Instead, what we require is a balanced state. A balanced state ensures that there is a role for itself and for the market, it does not elevate one or the other to the level of fetish. It looks at matters soberly, admits market failure as well as bureaucratic bungling and proceeds carefully before deciding what is the right means to achieve societal ends. However, a genuinely balanced state is a responsible and serious entity: it doesn’t easily lend itself to media-friendly slogans or the dreaded “eye-catching initiatives” of the Blair years. It operates best in an environment that doesn’t suffer from cognitive dissonance: however, this is unlikely to occur when discordant and disjointed thought appears to be the latest Westminster fashion.
According to my Twitter feed, there was a vigil on Monday for the NHS in a number of cities throughout the country. In my mind’s eye, I can picture it: people of all ages and from all walks of life, quietly gathering, holding up signs, talking, and lighting candles as dusk approached. The occasional passing motorist or lorry driver probably honked in approval. When the sunlight finally faded away, and the candles burned out and the protestors went home, we were still left with the fact that a Conservative fetish, however well moderated by Liberal Democrat manoeuvres, had prevailed. A terrible shame: the NHS was a product of a balanced state. Upon seeing that market mechanisms were not delivering sufficient health care, the post-war Labour government stepped in and subsequently improved the lives of millions. In this age of the irresponsible state, it is difficult to envisage a situation in which a future government would be quite that courageous. Genuine courage means one is willing to risk failure: the smooth, polished, media-friendly generation of politicians which reign over us now are unlikely to ever want to do this, not when they have the option of divesting themselves of responsibility. Rather like with the credit crunch, we may only realise their improvidence long after the hour of reckoning has struck.