The Worldwide Weblog of Donald Pincher

by Joshua Gaskell

Tag: Privatisation

Monday, 7th December 2015

I click ‘unsubscribe’ on an email from Virgin Trains and am taken to a message saying,

Are you sure?
These service emails are designed to give you updates on your upcoming journeys. You’ve already unsubscribed from our lovely marketing emails (it still hurts).
If you still want to unsubscribe, please call our Customer Relations team on 0333 103 1031. Much love.

With much hate, I call the number. Every attempt is made to get rid of my call before it is answered, including an impertinent offer to fob me off on to National Rail (privatise the profits, nationalise the losses, eh readers?). While on hold, I’m treated to a looped selection of railway-themed pop, e.g. “The Day We Caught the Train” by Ocean Colour Scene, and “Last Train To Clarksville” by The Monkees. (Both songs whose appeal, beyond the cuttings of railwaydom, is that they sound like they’re by The Beatles but they aren’t.)

The call lasts for one hour, twenty-three minutes, and fifteen seconds. Most gallingly, Ocean Colour Scene, The Monkees, et al. are regularly interrupted by a message encouraging me to sign up to emails from Virgin Trains. When I finally get through, the man tells me that the instruction to call customer relations is erroneous and that he cannot unsubscribe me.

It still hurts.


Wednesday, 15th April 2015

A controversial freelance historian speaks out about the Tories’ hopes in Scotland:

I am sure the Tories don’t need me as a friend but it’s in their interests that I’m saying these things. They should ask themselves the question, ‘why have they been so hated for thirty years that there has been rout after rout in constituency after constituency?’, and it’s the one question they seem to be very shy of.

Saturday, 11th April 2015

With suggestions of new toll roads and a system of paying upfront to see one’s GP, the shifting of rail financing from tax-funded subsidy to individual passenger, and an obsession with choice in all things, the Tory’s intend to create an economy in which everyone pays meanly for his own and no one else’s; in which, as the lady saith, ‘There is no such thing as society.’

In fact, their socio-economic vision for Britain is summed up in the whinge–boast catchphrase of Richard Herring: ‘I paid a pound!’

The Tories are creating an I-paid-a-pound! economy.

Monday, 9th March 2015

Just over a week ago, London Transport* put out a press release announcing that from next month its bike hire scheme will be rebranded, from Barclays Cycle Hire to Santander Cycles. As when Santander took over the already-demutualised Abbey National, this is not a qualitative change, the decision to make the public good subservient to profit having already been made. (In this case the profit motive will switch from being that of Barclays – one of the ‘Big Four’ high-street banks – to that of Santander – which wants to boost its profile in order to take customers away from the Big Four.)

The press release states that ‘The new £43.75m deal is the largest public-sector sponsorship in the world’ – a dubious distinction – but doesn’t say how much of that money will be wasted on ‘the new red-and-white livery’.

One organisation not mentioned in the press release at all is the one that actually operates the scheme: Serco. (Its contract to continue doing so runs until 31st July 2017.) Despite the fact that the scheme is essentially a public transport system run by an arm of local government, neither sponsorship by, nor outsourcing to a private company is felt to be enough on its own. Not one or the other – both.

This is a parody of a ‘new deal’, and the right-thinking response to it is the same as that given by Iain Sinclair to the original scheme, way back in 2011:

It was a nice conceit. I would be paying, by direct debit, for the privilege of trundling around […] as a mobile sandwich-board for a group of investment bankers.


* This is wilful parachronism: ‘Transport for London is the present successor to the mantle and has persuaded most Londoners [my emphasis] to call it TfL rather than London Transport’ (Brewer’s Dictionary of London Phrase and Fable).

Wednesday, 4th March 2015

This morning’s news that the government has sold its stake in Eurostar is an opportunity to reflect on the privatisation of Britain’s public assets, which has been taking place for the last four decades – mostly the last three – and shows no sign of abating. It’s a supply-side process (the public never having demanded it be relieved of its chattels) and will therefore presumably cease only when the supply runs out; when some future Chancellor privatises himself into a corner, sells the last square of Westminsterian carpet on which he’s standing, and finally shuts up shop.

The argument over whether or not £757.1 million for Eurostar is a good or bad deal misses the point. Making the calculation in the first place is cynical, in the Wildean sense of being carried out by those who know ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’. Before today I could travel through the Chunnel with an abstract sense that the HS1 Eurostar service belonged to me; and, importantly, so could everyone else, making it, in aggregate, priceless. By reducing everyone to members of Patina Rail LLP, the government has put a price on priceless and thereby radically shrunk the value of the asset. The same was true of British Telecom, British Gas, British Airways, the water authorities, the electricity industry, and Royal Mail; and the same will be true of HS2 if and when, tens of billions of pounds having been spent, a future government sells that too.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy has this to say under privatization:

[It] encourages ‘commodification’: changes to goods making them more market-friendly, such as turning them into distinctly priced units or solely developing their revenue-yielding properties. This has negative side-effects. Elephant populations in Zimbabwe increased after elephants were privatized. Yet, the value inherent in having ‘free-roaming creatures in their natural habitat’ is lost when individuals have control-conferring property rights over these creatures.

I don’t know about Zimbabwe, but in Britain this process of commodification has led to privatised gains and socialised losses: politicians have addicted themselves to the role of asset-stripping ivory merchants, whilst being unable to shirk the state’s duty of administering the elephants’ graveyard.

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