Monday, April 07, 2008


Should we Re-embrace Nationalisation?

Will Hutton yesterday was justified in writing about nationalisation, given what has happened to Northern Rock; he adds an apposite quotation:

The chief executive of Deutsche Bank, Josef Ackermann, has announced that he no longer believes in 'the markets' self-healing power' and wants extensive government intervention. It was always true that companies, the market and the state are inextricably linked and that public action is crucial to a well functioning market economy. Now it is newly legitimate.

Hutton makes the valid point that Brown left it up to the very last moment before daring to re-enter the atavistic world of nationalisation. He goes on to claim that 'fears over public ownership' are 'silly'. Why fear the 'n' word, he says, when so much of the nation's infrastructure- essential to business success- has been set up by the state in the first place? He goes on to suggest that nationalised enterprises were anyway more successful than we are led to believe and that a more 'arm's length' relationship, as adopted by France, would have made them even more so.

I have no doubt as to the value of state investment in a wide range of areas and that the occasional, if short term embrace of ailing concerns might be advantageous for all concerned. However, my memories of state-ownership is not good and I rather welcomed New Labour's deliberate amnesia regarding promises to renationalise those privatised industries. I can also say that I worked for a nationalised industry for a while: British Railways, as they then were, as a porter 1963-4.

This experience proved to me that the 'socialism' bit of nationalisation was a chimera. The lads did not give a toss about the 'people'(see picture) for whom they notionally worked; the BR management was loathed just as venomously as that which had preceded it. Later on, in the seventies, I recall enlisting the support of the electricity and gas boards for installations and repairs.

It was common practice to be asked if one wanted the work done 'by the Board' or 'as a foreigner'- the term used to describe the officially overlooked moonlighting whereby fitters would arrive early to work effectively privately and leave early in the afternoon to do the same for someone else. This was, in effect sanctioned corruption and I was never surprised to hear both concerns were running at substantial losses. Northern Rock is a temporary necessity but- to my mind- we still need to beware the notion of state control of business activities.

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