Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Britain for sale

Living in Britain as something of an outsider (sort of: I'm Irish but of a lot of English descent), I perhaps get more wound up than most by the anti-Johnny-Foreigner attitude that is expressed by the British media.

Now don't get me wrong - there is plenty of antipathy towards foreigners in Ireland - but the levels of hysteria expressed by the British press about immigration and the hatred directed towards all things to do with the European Union are in another league. And you see this hatred expressed by individuals too, with people I know joining Facebook groups such as "I was born in the UK so why the fuck do I have less rights than immigrants" or "This is our country and if you don't like it fuck off". No doubt the constant barrage of foreigner-bashing headlines in the media inspires the negative attitudes and the Facebook group names (and incidentally, I find it interesting that the more right-wing the group, the more the work 'fuck' appears in it).

The impression that the press gives is one of Britain being a perfect country with a perfect identity that is somehow sullied by these bad people from abroad interfering with it. But the problem with this (aside from the obvious) is that the British press also seem to hate their own state, and the idea of their own government 'interfering' either.

As such, most British newspapers have campaigned for decades for the Government to keep out of owning or running British public services - and successfully too. Railways, electricity, gas, airports, airlines, ferries, telecommunications and even water have been taken out public ownership and placed in the hands of wealthy private owners.

The irony of all this, is that the new private owners in question often tend to be...yes, you guessed it, foreigners. The French provide a hell of a lot of UK electricity. A Spanish company runs most of the big airports. American healthcare companies are cherry-picking bits of the NHS. If Mandelson gets his way, we might have a Dutch company delivering mail. God knows who's running the railways (the train operating companies certainly don't).

Remember British Rail? Sealink? British Gas? British Telecom? You, the Brits, used to own and run them. You don't any more. They are all in the hands of various rich people, many of them from abroad. The nationality of these private owners doesn't bother me; what frustrates me is the fact that public services have been placed in the "care" of private owners at all.

When a public service is privatised what typically happens is this: a middle man gets put into the mix (interestingly, something that successful companies always try to avoid). The service often remains bankrolled or underwritten by you and me, the taxpayer, but the middle man (Johnny Foreigner or Paddy Englishman, I don't care) has to make a profit. In order to facilitate this profit, invariably one (or all) of the following things needs to happen:

  • more tax has to be spent on giving our middle man his profit
  • the Government has to reduce the level of access to the public service because it now costs more
  • the middle man has to reduce the cost of the service by cutting corners or staff pay (both detrimental to the quality of the service)
  • the taxpayer, in addition to paying for the service through tax, has to provide a top-up payment to facilitate the profit (that's why UK rail fares are extortionate!)
The counter-argument to the above is that the private sector adds 'rigour' and competition. It's apparently meant to be more efficient than the public sector. Well, private sector 'rigour' and 'efficiency' don't seem all that appealing in the light of the credit crunch - if the private sector can't even get private finance right, how on earth is it meant to cope with public services?

As for competition, it doesn't (and can't) exist for many of the public services that have been privatised. Privatisation hasn't provided me with a range of choices when it comes to things like water, buses or trains. I'm stuck with what's provided - the middle man for my area. (I'm currently using Russian gas and French electricity and I have to get a bus owned by a company that operates transport in Germany and Denmark. Again, not that I mind the nationalities - it's the nature of the ownership that worries me).

Whatever the debate about efficiency, there is still the issue of accountability to think about. "Public service" means just that: serving the public, not making some guy rich. Should a health service be run to make somebody a profit, or should it serve the interests of everybody? Should an environmentally-friendly train journey cost two to three times as much as travelling by car, just so First Great Western can stay in business? Should something as fundamental to life as water be controlled by a company, or should it belong to all of us?

As for rich foreigners, it's hardly surprising that the press has no problem with them owning British public services. After all, they've got a little thing for owning British newspapers too. Isn't that right, Mr Murdoch? Mr Black? Mr Lebedev?



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2 comments:

  1. The reason for Britain's anti-foreign attitude as you call it is probably due to the fact that we are the most welcoming nation on earth to people from all walks of life. We are repaid for giving people jobs, free schooling and health service by denouncing all we stand for, bombing our transport systems, hijacking our soldiers parades etc. We have taxes spent on foreign celebrations and yet get told our own patrons saints day is racist.

    Need I go on?

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  2. Ah. A Daily Mail reader.

    I think the British have also been pretty good at going over to other countries, nicking their resources, bombing the civilian population, instigating a bit of slavery etc.

    But that's beside the point - I think the article was about who owns public services rather than how welcoming the British are. And the fact is, foreigners own all your public services!

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