Public services, such as fire, police, health and education are a manifestation of society's duty of care towards its citizens. Under investment or privatisation are acts of irresponsibility by politicians who are either bigoted or have a wish to evade their proper duties.
Britain has a somewhat troubled history of investment and of competence in the running and development of public services. In the 1950's and 1960's, the main purpose of such great industries as health and the utilities seemed to be the power and betterment of their employees rather than their clients or customers. The net result of decades of trouble and strife was inefficiency and gross underinvestment.
Then in the 1970's a new era began to dawn and with it a new conviction. Forcible injection of private sector and market disciplines would bring new energy and focus on the needs of customers and as a bonus, break the stranglehold of powerful Trades Unions. Britain entered an era of privatisation of public services unparalleled in the world. The effects are there for all to see if they have an eye to see with.
British Airways was one of the first privatisations - and seemed to work brilliantly. But what nobody saw was that British Airways (almost uniquely) competed in a world market that was intensely competitive. The rest of the public service and utility sector was supplied by oligopolies or local monopolies - not subject easily to market disciplines.
Undeterred, the government privatised electricity suppliers and a complex of regulations were created to enforce unnatural competition. One of the rules of the false market was that UK utilities could not re-combine. Result - most of the electricity industry is owned by French and German companies. Was this what the privatisation zealots envisaged??
Next came Water, with the same results, plus huge problems of investment. Not much change here from their previous state, except that the companies pass on their price increases directly to the defenceless consumer, rather than through the public purse.
Transport - especially the railways - are a national disaster with a hugely complex and fragmented industry struggling unsuccessfully to cope with price and growth pressures and provide good service. To add insult to injury, they are also heavily subsidised by the taxpayer.
The health service has been reformed more times than a repentant alcoholic. The first disaster was the idea of letting market forces loose through the setting up of a purchaser/ provider internal market. Result? Huge increases in costs incurred in setting up elaborate and eventually grossly bureaucratic false market mechanisms.
Some basic truths.
- The private sector is nowhere as good as some dewy-eyed politicians seem to believe. The performances of Britain's 100 largest companies since 1983, when the FTSE 100 was established, is not good. Profit and Sales growth has struggled to keep up with GDP growth, investment has fallen, productivity is poor and many industries, especially financial services and banking, have ripped off their customers wholesale. The only big growth items have been Mergers and acquisitions by foreign companies, top executive pay and dividends to investors.
Hardly what you wish to hear if you want such companies to provide good public services.
- Private sector companies' directors have a primary duty to satisfy the needs of their owners, assumed to be mainly institutional investors. They are not noted for their commitment to public service. Not a good start, a bit like asking a foreign country to provide your defence forces.
- Most public services are forever - not subject to the forces inherent in competitive markets. The private sector for a whole raft of reasons is subject to huge short-term pressures - truly bad news for long-term and complex organisations.
- The US health-care sector is a high-cost and extremely perfect system if the perspective is to provide quality healthcare for all. Instead, it provides high-quality very expensive healthcare for the rich and virtually nothing for a large number of poorer people. So one of the most powerful models of privatisation for UK politicians is only great if seen through the eyes of the rich and privileged.
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for public services in the UK. The problems of providing a total and integrated transportation infrastructure for a small and extremely crowded set of islands is totally different to that of developing and implementing a national energy strategy. The problems of providing efficient high-quality healthcare are different again.
So rather than expecting such fixes as 'choice' and privatisation to do the job, why not start to ask the sensible questions about what we want and expect and what strategies and operational actions might deliver them over realistic timescales like 10 to 20 years. Alas, the complexity of such thinking seems to be beyond our political system and the people that inhabit it. And as for 10 to 20 years......