Book Review: Private Island

As my previous review of Stuart Maconie’s Nanny State mentioned, this one by James Meek has been sat on my to-read shelf for far too long – since 2017, in fact (and in spite of the recommendation in my comments to read it. I did get around to it. Eventually.).

Maconie quotes lengthy passages from Private Island – and no wonder since this is the product of lengthy research, detailed and time-consuming interviews, preparation and observation, and, I suspect, a certain ability not to take ‘no’ for an answer. Private Island – subtitled ‘Why Britain Now Belongs To Someone Else’ – was published in updated form in 2015 and is the product of a series of essays written largely for the London Review of Books, for which Meek himself is still a commissioning editor. It is written in an appropriately literary spirit of enquiry and seeks to explore the privatisation dogma under which this country has laboured over the entire period of the forty years since 1979, with separate chapters focused on the mail, railways, water, electricity, health care and housing alongside a look at Thanet where Nigel Farage stood for Parliament, again unsuccessfully, in the 2015 general election.

Appropriately for a book published by Verso, Private Island wears its radical heart on its sleeve – the cover portrays a vulture, beak dripping red, hunched over this green and pleasant land – although the content is far from polemic. The cover nevertheless provides a suitable introduction to the theme since the decision at least to think about it came from when Meek was living in Kiev at the time the Soviet Union came to a crashing end (in 1991) and finding himself ‘Watching the vultures come to feast on the carcass of the world’s largest state-owned planned economy,’ while beginning to wonder ‘what had been done by politicians, economic theorists, lobbyists and business people in my own country’ (p. 2).

In the ensuing pages, none of these groups are spared, but all are speared with the calmly-stated wrath of Meek’s cool, factual analysis of the venal, self-interested, naive plays of which all were successively guilty at one point or other, coming together in a cabal of fundamentalist opposition to the public sector and, indeed, of the welfare state. Meek wonders not just why but how this was allowed to happen and, in lessons that also echo those of Britain’s failed relationship with the EU, the answer is not complex. We have been – deliberately – blinded to things that are of value but which are easily castigated because they are not obviously valuable, are sometimes guilty of egregious errors and are all too easily the butt of jokes (or jokey analysis which becomes a version of the truth). We have, as a result, had the wool pulled over our eyes by governments of all colours (including vaguely pinkish ones) and that has led us to where we are: an underclass getting further and further left behind as those that have gone ahead pull the ladder up behind them (about which Thatcher was astute in one critical respect), increasingly needing the benefits of the welfare state but ignored by political parties maintaining the illusion that the free market is the only answer. And to Brexit. Privatisation has been an utter, colossal failure both in terms of public policy and in terms even of its own agenda, as Meek sets out for example in the chapter on housing. Calling an end to it is thus long overdue.

The trick, however, is how we build back to what we have lost. The year zero fundamentalists of the Vote Leave illuminati now in control of the government might provide a few opportunities in this respect, as might the similarly corrosive economic effects of the pandemic. It would clearly be wise not to overstate the case – many of the Vote Leave fundamentalists see themselves as the true heirs to the Blessed Margaret while economic fundamentalists are still in charge of the Treasury (Sunak has ties to the small government economic liberalists at the Centre for Policy Studies, set up by Keith Joseph, one of Thatcher’s gurus) and the road ahead is firmly uphill, whatever the Pink ‘Un might have been saying this morning about the futility of austerity (the full original lies behind the FT‘s paywall). Too many of those in power are still in thrall to Thatcher’s legacy; and forty years plus of antipathy to the public sector is tough to overcome.

Current events, as always, provide game-changing points and there can be none clearer than this week’s social media-led furore over the free school meal ‘hampers’ provided (to children in England) by private firms, substantially Tory donor Chartwell UK. Charging the UK taxpayer £10.50 for items costing – at retail price – £5.22 is shameful profiteering in the first place. In the second, as Meek would point out, neither should it be surprising to any of us: this is what private firms do. They are there to make money and, by searching out the cheapest and the lowest cost, will thereby maximise the gains to themselves from profit that is already built in. It is no wonder that the ‘hamper’ looked so anaemic and processed to within an inch of its life: it might have fitted in with advice in which the government itself is absolutely complicit (the original food guidance is here, by the way) but it looks a long, long way away from the Eatwell Guide which inspired it. Child Island, indeed.

This particular story seems to have ended (for now) with the restoration of vouchers, but how many of us think that the public sector – freed from the profit motive – would have produced on its own account such a paltry ration? My friend and colleague Keith Flett is entirely right to point to the workhouse origins of poor law relief – and the notion of the ‘undeserving poor’ lingers in modern day parlance, too: check the comments of Ben Bradley MP (I’m not linking) – and it’s clear that we are likely to see a return to Victorian Britain (days of the sun never setting on the Empire etc. etc.) as a consequence of the current direction of government policy, if indeed we are not already there in several respects. The welfare state – against which privatisation was the response – was set up to do better than this: and it still would if given the chance. There should be no way in a rational society for private companies to be anywhere near providing free school meals for vulnerable children. It is a scandal that they are. Furthermore, we need to call it what it is: a private company charging the taxpayer £10.50 for something that taxpayers can buy themselves for half that is not just extraordinarily inefficient: it is guilty of ripping people off. Vouchers might be the obvious point of return – giving people dignity but also, critically, £10.50 of value for £10.50 of cost – but, otherwise, I’d have worked with a new poverty ‘czar’ that I’d appoint to come up with a proper hamper: Jack Monroe knows a thing or two (or even three), from own, hard-lived experience about eking out low incomes and still providing nutritious food. Hell, for the difference between £10.50 and £5.22, someone could even throw in a copy of one of her books.

This fairly lengthy digression illustrates well one of the three main points to emerge from Meek’s analysis: that the private sector should not be involved with things that are a matter of policy concern. This perhaps needs bottoming out a little – a positive sport-for-all policy probably shouldn’t imply a desire to nationalise the Premier League – but things like green energy, environmental health, public healthcare and housing, to name some other examples on top of children’s free school meals – are all, being matters around which public policy has an interest, issues that should rightly be reserved in principle to a rejuvenated public sector.

Secondly, that there has never been a proper debate about alternative ownership patterns is indeed a shame. There is a wealth of options in between a nationalised, dusty government department on the one hand and rapacious private ownership on the other; and these need to be explored (and in ways that, unlike the history of much of employee share ownership initiatives, has longevity) as a result of a desire to take things back public. And here I don’t mean the nonsense of it being fine for state agencies from countries other than the UK to take ownership of large swathes of our public services, a fact to which Meek also points.

Thirdly, the notion that taxes are lower when the costs of financing, for example, new power plants have been simply shifted on to the bills we pay for electricity is clearly the pursuit of a chimera (albeit one that has been remarkably convincing to large numbers of people – though there leads another lengthy digression). Proper accounting of what we, as citizens, are paying the state (or its privatised agents) to do on our behalf needs to be correctly done and then, perhaps, we might be in a better position collectively to undertake the critical evaluations that we need to make which will allow us to call this failed experiment what it actually is.

It is not too late to avoid the return to the evils of Victorian Britain which the welfare state sought to end. Buy Meek’s book (and don’t leave it lying a-mouldering on a book shelf for three years or more!) or pick up his analysis via the LRB website (links as above). But do choose to get angry about the facts about which the slightly dispassionate, matter-of-fact telling deployed here can sometimes mitigate against.

In closing, I note that December next year is the eightieth anniversary of the Beveridge Report which, during wartime, paved the way for the welfare state which the Labour government coming to power in 1945 chose, despite all the other calls on public finance at the time, to implement. If I was a young SPAD unable to believe my luck at being in Westminster (or in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast for that matter), I’d be keenly pitching a report which, in commemoration, sought to identify the five giants preventing people from escaping poverty and bettering themselves in 21st century Britain and on which governments coming to power in the years to come might build. After we are done with Covid-19, we are again in a position of needing to construct a future fit for heroes. The road from here might be uphill but, if they can do it, then so can we.

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