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.
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.