By Sadie Robinson
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‘Privatisation has shifted tax burden onto poorest’ says writer James Meek

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Issue 2422

The Campaign for Real Poverty is what privatisation should be called, argues author James Meek.

He spoke to Socialist Worker about his new book Private Island. It brings together his essays on privatisation of the NHS, housing, utilities, the post and railways.

“When you look at the series of privatisations as a whole, a greater picture starts to emerge,” he said.

“They have meant a big shift in the tax burden from the richest people in society to the poorest.”

Meek writes vividly about the impact of privatisation.

His piece about the selloff of Royal Mail begins with a postal worker in the Netherlands who has 62 mail crates stacked up in her home when he visits.

She has to work for two mail firms to make ends meet—but she can’t cope with the workload. Privatisation has driven down wages as firms compete to cut costs.

Examining the NHS, Meek describes his shock at hearing surgeons talk about operations in terms of cost and losses. Every procedure, from a birth to a heart replacement, has a code and a price.

“I felt as if I’d somehow jumped forwards in time,” he wrote. “Had the NHS been privatised one day while I was sleeping?”


Meek argued that there has been “a consistent programme for commercialising the NHS that is independent of political platforms”.

The book gets across the devastating and absurd effects of privatisation. But for Meek there is more on sale than services.

As he put it in his piece on electricity, “What is being sold is not infrastructure, but bill-paying citizens. What is being privatised is not electricity, but taxation”.

Meek says “the market has failed”, but he openly admits isn’t sure how to challenge it.

He isn’t always against nationalisation, but argues that there are alternatives to private and state ownership.

“We’ve seen two semi-state entities on the railways recently and they’ve both done alright,” he said. “You can run something on commercial lines, but it doesn’t have to be privatised.”

But he knows that any challenge to the status quo would have consequences.

“The Scottish referendum has shown in miniature what it would be like if a genuinely radical, reforming government came in,” he said.

“What if Ed Miliband said, we are going to turn the water and electricity companies into non-profit making trusts? You can’t imagine him doing that. But if he did there would be a volcanic eruption.”

Meek’s book is a powerful testimony to the privatisation disaster. Many, including Socialist Worker, will disagree with him about the solutions.

But today the privateers dominate—and the more voices that speak out against them, the better.

States profiting from privatisation

One thing that for Meek exposes the hypocrisy of privatisation is that it’s not always private firms who buy up services.

Proponents of privatisation try to justify selloffs with the idea that private firms will be more efficient.

Yet state-run, state-owned and state-backed firms are among those leading the race.

“If you use water in London, you are compelled to pay a tax to China,” said Meek.

“That’s because the Chinese government is a shareholder in Thames Water.”

The main beneficiary of Britain’s electricity selloff has been EDF, owned by the French state.

Meek said he is “hostile” to this “not because I’m hostile to the French. “But it shows the absurdity of privatisation in the first place.”

“Public services are now not simply private, but control over them is removed and far away. There’s a sense of powerlessness.”

For Meek there was a bigger project at work

“Behind Margaret Thatcher were a whole set of economic ideologues,” he said. “They had a vision of the kind of Britain they wanted and the kind of global economy they wanted.”

He uses the example of council housing. “There was one constant underlying theme. ‘Why should the well off people pay for other people to have a house?’ What it comes down to is, let the poor be poor.”

Private Island: Why Britain Belongs to Someone Else 
by James Meek, Published by Verso, £14.99 
Available from Bookmarks the socialist 
bookshop: 0207 637 1848 or

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