Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Connections, connections, connections.....

Sooner or later any discussion about 'She who is being buried today' will turn to coal mines and coal miners. I was born and brought up in a mining area in South Wales and can clearly remember a sign like the above along the road leading to our pit. "This colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people" it said and it was put in place when the coal mines were taken into public ownership. Given that the current mantra is 'private = good and public = bad', I found it useful to remind myself why privately owned industries were nationalised in the first place.

Let's not forget that, before nationalisation, pits were grim.  Thousands of miners’ lives had been lost due to lung disease (one of whom was my grandfather, Norman Bowyer), gas explosions and cave-ins. The miners’ unions had been forced by recalcitrant owners to engage in some of the most prolonged and bitterly contested industrial conflicts in British history. But at last, after a century-and-a-half of constant struggle, "Vesting Day" – when the proprietary interest in Britain’s coal industry was prised from the fingers of its private owners and vested in public hands – had dawned (1st January 1947). I don't think that it's an exaggeration to say that ordinary people (yes, the working classes) had invested enormous hopes in the nationalisation programme of the Labour Party. But what for? What was nationalisation/socialisation supposed to achieve?

At the most basic level it was intended to lift the burden of private ownership from the shoulders of the men and women who laboured in its service. Returning a healthy dividend to their shareholders all-too-often obliged the owners to extract more effort from their employees for less reward. Health and safety considerations were similarly subordinated to the owners’ over-riding imperative to increase the rate of return on capital. Public ownership was – at the very least – intended to construct a solid platform for the workers’ wages and conditions. But that was just the beginning.

The workers in nationalised industries also hoped to play a central role in their management. To "socialise" production was to break down the boundaries separating those who made the decisions from those who carried them out. Socialisation was also intended to broaden radically the definition of who held a legitimate interest in the nation’s mines, factories, warehouses, shops and offices. "Stakeholders" in these enterprises were said to include not only the workers, their families, and the local community, but also those who worked in the wider community which sustained them. Nationalisation would allow democracy, hitherto reserved for the ballot-box, to flow into the workplace, where, the socialists insisted, it had always been needed most.

Sadly, and some would say inevitably, the historical experience of nationalisation fell well short of the high hopes of the 1940s. Only the most basic expectations of the process were fulfilled. Because, although the State generally proved to be a better employer than the private capitalist, it opted to run the nationalised industries in exactly the same fashion. The strict division between "the bosses" and "the workers" endured, and the latter’s vast store of knowledge about the enterprise’s operations remained as under-utilised in the state-owned industries as it did in the private sector.

The post-war wave of nationalisations was taken apart by the countervailing forces of the neoliberal revolution promoted by the Lady in Question and her ilk. In due course, all of our publicly-owned entities were privatised. The neoliberal justification for privatising state-owned industries has always been that the private sector, on balance, is more productive and more profitable. And who better to benefit from the profits than the capitalists? And perish the thought that the citizenry (ie those who provide the money in the first place) would have any say in the way these enterprises were run in the future. Nationalisation was not meant to turn out this way. Was its demise due to a failure of philosophy or politics? You pays your money and you takes your choice! I go with the latter but I would say that, wouldn't I? But that doesn't make me wrong! 

A final observation: the Guardian yesterday published details of a recent YouGov survey which showed that, on the whole, the British public supported the view that the state has sweeping societal responsibilities.  Wouldn't it be supremely ironic if one of the consequences of the publicity attracted by the Lady in Question is that people are reminded of her political philosophy? And in so doing decide that they actually don't agree with 'private = good and public = bad'. Perhaps we'll see signs like the following popping up all over the place. Maybe even Posh Dave will realise who he should be running the country for. 


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