Andreas Whittam Smith: Wholesale privatisation is not what people voted for

Lib Dem ministers haven’t any moral authority whatever to agree to measures that change the relationship between the citizen and the state

Share
Related Topics

A White Paper with a simple title that disguises a development of huge significance is due any day now. It will be called "Open Public Services". In reality it is a plan to privatise many government functions. And the question that arises is this: were the political parties that comprise the Coalition Government given a mandate to make such dramatic changes at the general election held only 10 months ago?

The key part of the legislation that the White Paper foreshadows would be the establishment of a presumption that public services should be open to a range of providers competing to offer a better service. In other words, any supplier that could show the Government that it could do a better job than the state would get the business. Only national security and the judiciary would be exempt from the possibility of privatisation.

Would it work like this? "Dear Health Minister. We are a group of brain surgeons that have secured funding for constructing a state-of-the art neurological hospital in outer London. We would like to take over all neurological procedures from the NHS in South-east England. Yours etc."

Or this? "Dear Minister for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The National Farmers' Union believes that it could more effectively support and develop British farming and encourage sustainable food production than your department and requests that it be commissioned to undertake this work. Yours etc."

Or even this? "Dear Minister for Work and Pensions. As Britain's leading insurance companies, we have many years of experience in providing pensions. We are prepared to form a special unit that would take over the delivery of the state pension. We would have available to us a long-established national network of offices staffed by professionally qualified people. We believe we can do a better job at lower cost than your department's pension service. Yours etc."

If my imaginary scenarios turn out to have any truth in them, and private companies do successfully invade the public sector, this would be satisfying to the author of The Shock Doctrine, the Canadian writer, Naomi Klein. Her book analysed the circumstances in which such dramatic changes would be made. She argued that the fundamentalist form of capitalism has always needed disasters to advance. In this case, the "disaster" that provides the opportunity is what the Coalition Government claims is out-of-control government spending.

Look across the Atlantic, and you see another example. First in Wisconsin, and now in Indiana and Ohio, Republican governors on the far right of the political spectrum are seeking to remove collective bargaining rights from public sector workers. Their excuse is the same – budget deficits that threaten solvency. These occur at the state level in the US and at the national level in the UK. In both situations this so-called disaster provides the opportunity for the private sector to gain ground at the expense of the public sector.

Now just because Ms Klein found an arresting title for her book and produced a neat analysis and because privatisation has become a dirty word in the UK, it doesn't mean the policy in the White Paper is wrong. That the state should provide only those essential services that the private sector either cannot supply efficiently, or which it would be inappropriate for it to do so, scarcely seems controversial. But that is not where we are.

We live in a mixed economy in which the state undertakes more tasks than are strictly necessary. But people are used to this. Many like it. Despite the inefficiencies of the public sector, people find it reassuring that the Government supplies a wide range of services on behalf of us all. It is more "We-are-all-in-this-together" than is widespread privatisation. Indeed what is at issue here is the citizen's relationship to the state. That means that the recommendations in the White Paper are essentially constitutional in nature.

Nonetheless these very important changes are being sprung on us, for they were not clearly signalled in the party manifestos published only a few months ago. The strongest statement that I can find in the Conservative Manifesto is this: "We need radical political reform. We need to change the whole way this country is run... the plans set out in this manifesto represent an unprecedented redistribution of power and control from the central to the local, from politicians and the bureaucracy to individuals, families and neighbourhoods."

I don't think this does the job. The warm phrases about transferring power from the centre to the local, from politicians to individual and families do not unambiguously point to wholesale privatisation. To read the manifesto, you would think that, yes, some services would be devolved from central government to local government and, yes, some services might even be privatised, but not that state provision was to be largely dismantled.

The Lib Dem manifesto made no references to the subject at all. So Lib Dem ministers haven't any moral authority whatever to agree to measures that change the relationship between citizen and state, as the White Paper will prescribe.



I also went back to the Coalition Agreement produced immediately after the General Election. It made the following assertions: "We share a conviction that the days of big government are over ... We believe that the time has come to disperse power more widely in Britain today. We will promote the radical devolution of power and greater financial autonomy to local government and community groups. This will include a review of local government finance. We will give public sector workers a new right to form employee-owned co-operatives and bid to take over the services they deliver. This will empower millions of public sector workers to become their own boss and help them to deliver better services." Apart from the fact that the Coalition Agreement was not presented to the electorate, was this fair warning? It is certainly nearer to what is now planned, but it withholds a lot.

The White Paper will generate a good deal of criticism, not least from the trades unions with members in the public services. But as with university tuition fees, the Government will continue on its course and move to legislation. If there are demonstrations, I should like to see two words written on the placards: No Mandate.



a.whittamsmith@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

£25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

Neil Pavier: Commercial Analyst

£50,000 - £55,000: Neil Pavier: Are you a professionally qualified commercial ...

Loren Hughes: Financial Accountant

£45,000 - £55,000: Loren Hughes: Are you looking for a new opportunity that wi...

Sheridan Maine: Finance Analyst

Circa £45,000-£50,000 + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a newly qualified ac...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I might be an MP, but that doesn't stop me fighting sexism with my breasts

Björt Ólafsdóttir
 

Daily catch-up: opening round in the election contest of the YouTube videos

John Rentoul
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor