Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Re-nationalisation edges onto the national agenda: will Labour please take note?

A poll on the website of one national newspaper gives 92 per cent backing to what might seem the revolutionary idea of taking British Gas back into public ownership.
Admittedly, the paper in question is not the Mail, the Sun or the Telegraph - but it's not the Communist Morning Star, either. In fact, it's Britain's third-biggest selling daily.
So perhaps a notion that gets that level of support isn't so far off the public radar as we might have thought. Which is rather encouraging.
And then there’s the declaration by Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, that he will re-nationalise the Royal Mail if Scots vote for independence in next year’s referendum. Which is by no means the first thing in Scottish politics that has made me quite fancy the idea of upping sticks and moving north of the border.
In the week the company announced price hikes of around 10 per cent, Chris Weston, the managing director of British Gas’s parent company Centrica (where do big firms get these meaningless names?), has refused to give up any of his £2million bonus.
But then he would, wouldn’t he? Because what used to be a public service until Margaret Thatcher flogged it off in 1986 is now a private company. And private companies exist for one reason only – not to benefit their customers, but to make as much money as they can for themselves.
This is capitalism.
And this is why the privatisation of such vital utilities as gas, electricity, water and telecoms was a Bad Thing.
And why the hawking of railways, health services, universities, colleges and schools – and yes, the postal service – is a truly rotten idea.
The fact that the Royal Mail shot up so far so fast on the Stock Market as soon as it was traded showed very clearly that it had been shockingly under-valued by the government.
It showed equally blatantly that it should never have been considered for selling off in the first place. It should be continuing to make money for the government – as it was doing – rather than putting it in private pockets.
The markets know a good thing when they see one. And – weirdly, almost surreally, for a country still nominally Communist – the people who seem to play the markets best these days are the Chinese.
If the mail, like the nuclear industry so gleefully handed to China by George Osborne last week, ends up being controlled from Beijing, I will not be at all surprised.
In fact, if China were to call in all its debts tomorrow, we might suddenly find that Britain, America and most of the capitalist West was owned lock, stock and smokeless barrel by the National People’s Congress. But that is another story.
This one is about the fact that re-nationalising industries scandalously sold off by the Tories appears to be creeping onto the political agenda. And about time too.
It may be early days to hail this as a real change in public perception. But it’s worth giving at least a cautious welcome.
The Labour Party, which has been a sadly timid beast ever since Thatcher moved the political goalposts so effectively around 30 years ago, should take note.
Ed Miliband scored something of an own goal with his recent promise, if elected, to freeze energy prices. The almost inevitable consequence is that energy companies will ensure prices are as high as they think they can get away with before he comes to power.
Perhaps what he should do is take a leaf out of Salmond’s book – and declare that every state asset sold into private hands under the Tory-led coalition will be re-nationalised under Labour.
At least then we would know that the next election would give us a genuine choice over how the country should be run.
As it is now: for the fat cats by their friends. Or as it should be: by the people for the people.


My brother, whose wife was born and raised there, and who has spent a lot of time there himself, knows rather more about rural India than I do.
So I take seriously his response to the piece I wrote here last week, in which I mentioned a possible conflict of interest between western conservationists and Indian villagers.
He told me: “Tigers do cause human deaths in India – but very, very few. Thugs employed by rich industrialists cause far, far more.
“The ordinary rural poor don’t worry much about tigers – they’re far more worried about being thrown off their land to make room for an opencast mine, a factory… or a tiger reserve. They’d rather share their land with a tiger than not have any land.
“My parents-in-laws’ village is called Baghdharia – literally, ‘Tiger’s place’. It was, 50 years ago,  and no one ever worried about it.
“It’s still shared with sloth bears, cobras, kraits... all dangerous, but much less so than motor vehicles.”

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