The combination of privatisation, increased state surveillance and greater police powers suits the neoliberals and neocons who rule over us perfectly, argues NEIL CLARK
On October 13 the government sold off the last publicly owned stake in Royal Mail, which had been in state hands since its inception in 1516.
On November 4 Theresa May announced a new Investigatory Powers Bill, which would enable mass state surveillance of everyone in Britain.
In the words of the US investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald: “The UK is about to become the only democracy in the world to force internet companies to store people’s browsing history.”
At first it might seem strange that a government that is so keen on privatising and reducing state involvement in the economy is also keen on increasing the state’s snooping powers. But there really is no contradiction.
The era of neoliberalism, which began in Britain in 1979, has seen the state withdraw from doing the things it should do — things were most definitely in the public interest such as operating a universal delivery postal service, running the railways and owning the national infrastructure — and instead increasing the range of things it shouldn’t do, and which are inimical to the public interest, such as mass surveillance and fighting illegal wars which put British citizens’ lives at risk.
It’s instructive to compare the role of the British state today with that of 40 years ago to see the dramatic change which has taken place.
1975 could rightly be regarded as the high-water mark of post-war social democracy in Britain.
State-owned utility companies provided reasonably priced electricity, gas and water. British Rail and subsidiaries of the National Bus Company operated the railways and buses. A British Rail subsidiary, Sealink, ran the ferries. The car industry, the steel industry, the coal industry were all nationalised, as were our airports and flag carrier airline, British Airways.
Students received local authority grants (not loans) to study at university and polytechnics. Almost a third of Britons lived in council houses.
In 1975 the state was a very important part of our lives, but in a positive way. Its role was extensive, but at the same time it was less invasive than today. Our civil liberties were certainly much greater than now. Opinions could be more freely expressed without one being in danger of being labelled an “extremist” and the government and its supporters in the media did not go hunting for heretics, as today.
A Prevention of Terrorism Act had been passed in 1974 as a response to IRA bombings, but it had to be renewed annually. There was certainly no Prevent strategy in nursery schools.
The state 40 years ago undoubtedly served the interests of the majority of the population.
But starting from 1979 that began to change. Thatcherism was supposed to “set the people free” but it did the opposite.
A major programme of privatisation was combined with new increased powers for the police — and restrictions on the rights of trade unions.
The neoliberal project was not really about increasing freedoms for ordinary people but reducing them for the benefit of an increasingly powerful and wealthy elite.
We saw the brute force of the new state unleashed during the 1984-5 miners’ strike in events such as the Battle of Orgreave.
We were told that what was being introduced was the “free market,” but in fact what we got was a new form of corrupt crony capitalism whereby the state would be used to enrich those in the financial and corporate sectors with the “right connections” to the government.
This was done in three main ways. First, there was a major programme of privatisation in which publicly owned assets were sold well below their real value, with the sell-off of Royal Mail being only the most recent example.
Second, there were the huge taxpayer subsidies paid to private companies to run services, such as railways and the buses, that were less expensive to run when in state hands.
Third, there was the great PFI scam, introduced in the 1990s. British taxpayers now owe around £305 billion in repayments for over 700 PFI projects over the next 30 years.
The state could have funded these projects itself (and of course it would have been much cheaper in the long run to have done so) but the neoliberals in charge of the state preferred to enrich private banks and construction firms and saddle taxpayers and the NHS (which owes £80bn in PFI payments) with the enormous bill.
Nationalisation has been a dirty word in the neoliberal era, but in 2008 it was different when the banks needed bailing out. Then the state did intervene — but of course George Osborne and co saw to it that the taxpayer was left short-changed at the end of it.
The capture of the state by corporate/financial interests has also meant a more aggressive foreign policy.
In the more democratic Britain of 1975, the only foreign conflict Britain was involved with was a “cod war” with Iceland — in the neoliberal/neoconservative era, the wars have never ended.
In 2011, as we prepared to go to war again (this time against Libya), at a time of austerity and cuts in public services at home, Andrew Murray of the Stop the War Coalition reflected: “The calibration of a state big enough to impose its military will on the Middle East but too small to keep the local library open is a study in the contradictions of neoconservatism worth pondering as David Cameron brings the ‘big society’ to Benghazi with a bang.”
Theresa May’s new Bill is really the logical conclusion of all that’s been going on for the past 36 years.
A state that won’t provide us with affordable trains or provide our gas, electricity or water, and that’s too small to keep public libraries open or properly funded, will, however, be watching our every move and branding us “extremists” if we dare to step out of line.
How ironic it all is when we consider the old cold war propaganda. As the Morning Star said on Thursday in its editorial on the Edward Snowden revelations about mass state surveillance: “The idea that every detail of your personal life, the contents of every message you send and the words of every phone call made could be listened to was shocking — indeed it used to be a stock accusation the ‘liberal’ West threw at socialist countries, particularly East Germany.”
The police, who should be protecting the public from criminals, have seen their role change radically.
In the summer, the head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council warned the public that they should not expect to see a police officer after a burglary or after what she called “traditional crimes.”
Cuts, we are told, are going to reduce the number of “bobbies on the beat,” but you can sure that if you’re on an anti-government, anti-war or anti-capitalist demonstration, there will still be plenty of police around.
Today it’s clear that the British state is designed to serve elite interests — and not the majority of citizens as it did in 1975.
The combination of privatisation (expect roads to be next big one) and increased state surveillance and greater police powers suits the neoliberals and neocons who rule over us perfectly.
They and their friends can get richer on the sell-offs and the taxpayer subsidies and use the blowback from the wars they launch and profit from as an excuse to increase their control over our daily lives — using the information they get from snooping to clamp down on legitimate dissent and free speech.
The Big Brother state that George Orwell envisaged has arrived, and it’s not socialism or communism that’s brought us here, but corrupt crony capitalism.
• Neil Clark is the director of the Campaign for Public Ownership, on Twitter: @NeilClark66 and @PublicOwnership.