Privatisation, rather than ushering in an era of consumer power and open competition, has led to monopolistic stitch-ups against consumers and allowed fat cats to pay themselves silly money on the basis of “performance indicators” produced for their benefit. “The reality is that the faceless state bureaucrats of the old electricity boards have been replaced by the faceless (and better paid) private bureaucrats of the electricity companies.” The dream of free marketeers was to turn Britain into a nation of small shareholders. Before Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979, individuals held almost 40% of shares in UK companies. By 1981, it was less than 30% and by the time she died in 2013, it had slumped to under 12%.
As demolition jobs go, this can hardly be bettered. The absence of polemic makes the quietly withering prose all the more powerful. And yet in his understandable desire to provide a single narrative, Meek does not mention those industries whose privatisation could be deemed a success. Do we hark back with pride to the era of nationalised airlines? And what about our phones? There’s surely no nostalgia to be found in the old rickety GPO.
Most people, I would suggest, are agnostic about the means of ownership. What matters is what works. And as the author demonstrates beyond peradventure, many of the privatisations have failed in their core goals of delivering better services. To say so is not ideological; to deny the overwhelming evidence is.
This is why we need a better understand of marketplaces and the Government’s role in framing them.