Margaret Thatcher boasted about her privatisation “crusade” when she was prime minister. She wanted to try and buy people off, claiming owning shares would give workers a stake in the system.
She called it “popular capitalism” and declared she was “giving power to the people”. This is the big lie the Tories are repeating today. People are being offered a chance to buy a small part of something—Royal Mail—that they already wholly own.
Privatisation is not about empowering ordinary people. It isn’t even about making sections of the economy more efficient. Recent years have shown that in the railways, for example, competition has meant less efficient delivery of services.
It is simply about allowing the market into areas it has been excluded from. In the 1980s Thatcher ensured that big business could once again make profits from everyday necessities like providing fuel and energy, as well as manufacturing.
Even she balked at privatising the post but David Cameron is driving it through. He wants his fat cat friends to get a chance to make profits from every part of our lives. Royal Mail is a big set piece sell-off, while in the NHS privatisation has been pushed by stealth over a longer period.
Most ordinary people don’t have the chance to buy into the system. The small investors the media are getting excited about are only a small percentage of buyers. Big institutions will buy the bulk and quickly hoover up many of the small shares from people who want or need to cash in fast.
Even those who do keep a few shares will not become mini capitalists who suddenly feel their interests coincide with the bosses, bankers and big business. They will have no ability to control or shape the postal service or how it is run.
After Thatcher many politicians, in particular Tony Blair, swallowed the myth that she had changed Britain fundamentally and forever. They said Britain had become a nation of homeowners and shareholders now bound ideologically to the system.
But today’s anger about the lack of affordable housing, rip off energy firms and attacks on the NHS show that this isn’t true. The economic crisis has shown the chaos and instability of the market—and bosses’ hypocrisy.
When private firms fail, states use public money to bail them out. State intervention is suddenly acceptable. The only society where everyone really had a stake would be a socialist society driven by need not profit. This would be run by the vast majority of ordinary people in the interests of the vast majority—not just a few city fat cats.