At the beginning of the 1970s, the British government owned the travel agent Thomas Cook and all the pubs in Carlisle. It still owns an ancient aqueduct in Rome, the Tobermory garage, and Pauline Bonaparte’s palace in Paris. Oh, and, among 10,000 other works of art, a photograph by Ryan Gander entitled A Very BIG Bean I thought to myself, currently hanging in the Ministry of Justice.
What governments possess is naturally going to come to mind when a country finds itself on its uppers. Like one of those daytime shows where contestants are invited to hawk their dusty gewgaws to the auction house, governments in dire need are going to start thinking this: do we need this or that island? Why do we have that very expensive house? What are we doing, spending money on a rail network when we could sell it to the Chinese?
The latest and most urgent of these sell-offs is currently proceeding in Greece. No one can say they don’t need the money. Their debt was 165.3 per cent of nominal gross domestic product in 2011, reduced through restructuring to a mere 132.4 per cent of GDP in the first quarter of 2012. No wonder they are casting round, and wondering what they possess, and what could be sold off to rich foreigners. There might be a game show here – a not very amusing one, if you happen to be Greek. The name of the game show is “Cash in the Attic”.
There’s a Holland Park townhouse for sale, among a lot more consular property, and the royal palace of Tatoi in Greece. There’s an office block in Brussels, and 8,000sq m of land in Cyprus. Only €1.8bn has been raised until now through a required asset sales programme. That sounds like quite a lot, but Greece is committed to realise €50bn from state assets by 2020. The requirement was tied to foreign aid of €240bn over the past two years.
The selling off of state property is not a new thing, or necessarily a particularly radical one any longer. But successful sell-offs in the past have been driven not by need, but by principle: recent sales, indeed, have had a doubtful result for the public purse. The privatised railways in the UK cost more to the taxpayer now than the nationalised ones did. The apparently massive windfall of the 3G spectrum auction, raising €22.5bn in 2000, had a damaging effect on the industry, and the crash had its own implications for the public purse. Sell-offs in search of money are permanent, and the money, unlike a point of principle, can prove elusive.
Still, Greece’s creditors are going to wonder why a foreign government should possess a magnificent palace in Holland Park when communications now mean that everything could be easily run from Athens, with perhaps a floor of office space in Acton. Why not sell consular property, at least? It’s true that not even the most magnificent of it will go far; it’s true that it will involve a nation in terrible humiliation. But every little helps.
Is it at all likely to meet much of the Greek debt? What happens next time round when the debt rises, and there’s no longer a townhouse in Holland Park to toss into the maw? Nobody knows. A state can’t go on selling off its haphazardly acquired property indefinitely, and should only do so calmly, out of principle, not expecting to clear its obligations through the auction house.
Ten years ago, the Greeks were demanding the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum, and many people thought they had justice on their side. Now, the demand must be dead in the water. Nobody wants to give back the Parthenon marbles, and find 10 years down the line that the creditors have insisted that they go to Sotheby’s, ultimately to adorn some magnificent private dacha near Moscow. Greek state property is a rich resource; the sale of it is a desperate measure, not repeatable, and is not going to meet anyone’s demands, or address the country’s terrible problems.
Let’s turn this shouting match into an attraction
The Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, is alleged to have shouted at police officers at the gates of Downing Street. “Open this gate, I’m the Chief Whip,” The Sun says he said. “I’m telling you – I’m the Chief Whip and I’m coming through these gates.” Outrage followed.
Well, manners in public life have become much more delicate and sensitive, but have we really reached the point where the Chief Whip cannot yell at the police? Some of the most rebarbative human beings ever to have lived have been whips. I dare say that members of the Metropolitan Police, in the past, have had the experience of being verbally abused, before they took up a tranquil existence at the Downing Street gates. Some manufactured anger was expressed on behalf of some nameless tourists, who were said to be shocked. (Perhaps they were on their first day in London.)
The only solution is to transform this unremarkable episode into a picturesque tourist experience, like the Changing of the Guard. The Chief Whip issues his traditional command: “You f—-ing stupid c——.” The policeman makes his traditional response: “You can’t talk to me like that, I don’t care if you’re the Prime Minister.” It could happen every day at 12 noon. Actually, come to think of it, it probably already does.