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selling off britain

Thatcher may be gone, but the serial privatisers are still in full flow - so it's up to us to stop them, writes NEIL CLARK

Twenty-thirteen was the year which saw the death of Margaret Thatcher, the politician who first unleashed privatisation on Britain on coming to power in 1979.

It was also the year when Thatcher's disciples in the Westminster coalition sold off national assets and services that even the Iron Lady ruled out privatising - showing just how far down the neoliberal road we have travelled.

In March, just as the RAF search and rescue service was being praised for the heroic work it had done to help people marooned or caught out in heavy snow in north Wales, the coalition announced that the very same search and rescue service was being privatised.

A 10-year contract worth £1.6 billion was awarded to the US firm Bristow to run the services which for over half a century had been carried out brilliantly by the RAF and Royal Navy.

Those phoney neoliberal "patriots" who like to wrap themselves up in the Union Jack at any photo opportunity were silent as our search and rescue operations were handed over to a Texas-based company.

We were told that the Duke of Cambridge, who has worked as a search and rescue pilot, had "privately lobbied" David Cameron not to privatise the service but that he was rebuffed.

The serial privatisers don't just ignore the British public but also, it seems, members of the royal family too.

In July the government sold the state-owned NHS blood plasma supplier to a US private equity firm co-founded by the neocon Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase "vampire capitalism."

"Is there no limit to what and how this coalition government will privatise?" asked Lord (Dr David) Owen, the former foreign secretary.

The good doctor clearly hadn't been following closely what the privatisation-crazy coalition had been doing since coming to power in 2010.


In October, Royal Mail, in public ownership since its inception in 1516, was sold off, despite widespread public opposition.

If selling off the national postal service was bad enough, the price it was sold for was quite simply scandalous.

The government valued the business at just £3.3bn, yet the shares jumped 38 per cent on the first day of trading, and this week were trading around 561p - 70 per cent higher than their original price, showing once again that the British taxpayer had been massively short-changed by privatisation.

As for Business Secretary Vince Cable's promise that only "responsible, long-term institutional investors" would be allowed to buy Royal Mail shares - it was revealed a few days after the sale that Lansdowne Partners, one of the world's biggest hedge funds and whose co-head of development markets strategy Peter Davies was the best man at Chancellor George Osborne's wedding, had bought up a £50 million stake in the company.

Meanwhile, the gradual privatisation of the NHS and its services continued.

There are now over 350 GP services run by Virgin Care and over 100 companies have been licensed to provide NHS community services.

The government knew that it'd never be able to get away with privatising the NHS is one go, but its Health and Social Care Act, which came into force in April 2013, is all about destroying the service bit by bit.

In 2014 there will no let-up in the coalition's drive to "shrink the state" and privatise those remaining assets and services which remain in public ownership.

Before Christmas, Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander announced that he had doubled the coalition's target for the sale of state assets to £20bn over the next six years.

Earlier this week the government announced its new "right to contest" scheme, which will allow "communities and businesses" to submit a proposal for any of Britain's £330bn-worth of land and property which remains in public ownership.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph, Mark Russell, the man in charge of state-owned businesses, discussed what was likely to be sold this year.

There's the student loan book, which is likely to be sold in "tranches."

There's Urenco, the nuclear fuel group co-owned by the governments of Britain, Germany and the Netherlands.

There's also the sale of between £2.5bn to £3bn-worth of illiquid assets from the Royal Mail pension fund.

Also earmarked for sale in 2014 is the East Coast Mainline, Britain's most efficient rail franchise.

The line paid more back to the taxpayer than any other previous franchisee in the period 2009-12, and last year customer satisfaction with the service reached a record high of 92 per cent. Yet the coalition is still hell-bent on privatising it this year.

We can't have the British state owning our railways, but our neoliberal elite are more than happy to have state-owned companies from other European countries running railway franchises in Britain - 65 per cent of our rail franchises are now operated by foreign state-owned companies.

And that figure could get bigger in 2014 as among the bidders for the East Coast line are Eurostar and Keolis, both majority-owned by the French state railway company SNCF.

The British government has already said that it is selling its profitable 40 per cent stake in Eurostar.

Other publicly owned businesses in danger include the Ordnance Survey, the national mapping agency, the Met Office and the Royal Mint.

For public ownership campaigners, the big problem is that even though privatisation has never been more unpopular, our three main parties are still, to a greater or lesser extent, wedded to the flawed neoliberal model.

The Conservative Party, which supported a mixed economy for a large part of the postwar period, is dominated by uber-Thatcherites.

The Liberal Democrats, who pledged to renationalise the railways in 2005, are now run by "Orange Book" Lib Dems, who have broken with the party's long-standing support for social democracy.


Labour too, despite edging away from Blairism since 2007, is still a long way from the position on public ownership adopted by the party from 1945 until the 1990s.

On the railways, the Labour leadership, despite conference resolutions and the views of its members, has failed to give a commitment to renationalise.

It hasn't ruled it out - but it hasn't ruled it in either.

Supporters of public ownership who believe that the return of a Labour government will automatically mark the end of the privatisation era are likely to be cruelly disappointed, unless enough popular pressure can be put on the front bench of the party to change course.

The financial crash of 2008 should have marked the end of the neoliberal era, but it didn't.

Instead neoliberals have used "austerity" as an excuse to embark on a new wave of privatisations.

Thatcher may be dead, but in 2014 Thatcherism continues, in a new and even more extreme form.

Despite public opinion being against them and the arguments for privatisation being more discredited than ever, the serial privatisers march on.

But we should not allow ourselves to become demoralised.

We have all the arguments on our side as well as the support of the vast majority of the public.

It's true that 2013 was a year of disappointments, but that should only make us redouble our efforts in 2014 to bring the privatisation era to an end.

The only way we will get change at Westminster is if we make it clear that we will not support or vote for any politicians or political parties which do not support public ownership and a return to the mixed economy model which served Britain so well during the period 1945-79.

If you don't like privatisation, then don't vote for it. It really is as simple as that.


Neil Clark is director of the Campaign For Public Ownership ( You can follow Neil Clark and the campaign on Twitter (@NeilClark66 and @PublicOwnership).


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