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Give us our country back

tap waterIn a land now largely owned and leased back from corporations, the role of the state could not be in more doubt.

From Thatcher to Major to Blair to Brown, the transfer of our public services to private enterprise has proceeded unabated for over 30 years. It is likely to continue, whoever wins on 6th May. But is it really important who serves us? So long as we get what we need, does it matter if the water we drink is contaminated with greed?

At the dawn of capitalism, a business was a market trader, a carpenter, a house builder, a cotton manufacturer. Citizens would sell their skill and their knowledge to make a living, and for some, a tidy profit.

Today, at capitalism’s zenith of dissemination, corporations provide the water we must drink to live. They build the hospitals that keep us healthy. They warm our homes. They take us from A to B. They sponsor our schools. They collect our rubbish. They fund our wars.

Transferred from the state to private control in 1989, far from capitalism’s roots, Britain’s water companies did not start out selling water at a market stall. They did not build the water pipes that supply our homes. They were gifted everything: an unchallenged monopoly.

No-one has a choice of water supplier. No-one can choose to buy water from somewhere else. Our only other choice is to dehydrate in dirty clothes. And now water companies are some of the most profitable in the UK. In 2008-09, the organisations supplying our most basic of human needs made pre-tax profits of £1.8billion. In the same year, Ofwat figures show 1,200 billion litres of water was lost from leaking pipes.

When Severn Trent announced a 13 percent fall in profits from £192million to £168million in 2009, the FTSE100 company blamed a drop in demand. Outraged that so many people had turned their taps off, they increased water bills by five percent. And as reward for his ingenuity, for displaying such extraordinary entrepreneurial skill in finding new ways to leak water and rip-off his customers, Severn Trent’s chief executive Tony Wray was paid £773,000.

Like any other large private enterprise, this is clearly an organisation looking after its shareholders first and its customers last. If Severn Trent were selling something other than the key to life on Earth, I would be marginally less outraged.

For innovation, for technological advancement, for finding new ways to enhance our lives, corporations are useful. But a line must be drawn. The line is need and want.

Once upon a time, the line was there. Our basic needs were provided by the state. Water, electricity, warmth, transport, sanitation. We would be charged, of course, but only to cover the cost of the service. The intention was not to make money, but to make sure everyone had the basic means to live.

On the wrong side of this line, your right to life is someone else’s path to extortionate wealth. Our need to drink and wash is someone else’s profit. The more we need these things, the better. Severn Trent’s aim is not to keep us hydrated and healthy. Their aim is to make us thirsty and dirty. Because that is when we must pay them more.

Water is the worst offender. But there are many more. The issues are the same. Take transport: It costs three times as much to travel by train to Edinburgh from London as it does by plane. Because it costs more to run a train service, to maintain the track and build the infrastructure, corporations charge us more to travel this way. This would be fine if flying had no negative impact on the environment and people’s daily lives, but corporations do not account for this in their books.

Of the companies listed on the FTSE100, six are either water, gas or utility firms. Another six dig up fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Two more sell oil ‘equipment’. Five are banks. Eight sell other financial services. One sells medical equipment to the NHS. Three sell drugs. Five own our land. Three make weapons. No less than eleven make their profits from mining: digging up our countryside. One goes on strike every week and occasionally flies people to exotic places, such as Newcastle.

In other words, more than half of the UK‘s ‘best performing’ companies make their money from other people’s misery. From climate change, from our ill-health, from war, from destroying our countryside, from gambling our money; they get rich. There are supposed to be laws protecting us from companies like these, but they either don’t exist or don’t work. Corporations employ entire departments to avoid complying with them.

These industries should not be in private hands. They profit from life and death. If we didn’t have computers, we would be worse off, but we wouldn’t die. Without water, without warmth, without clean air, without good health; we couldn’t live. In 2008, the financial services industry proved it was incapable of looking after our money. It too should be nationalised.

Ever since Margaret Thatcher rose up from Hell in 1979, every successive government has continued her programme of privatisation. Most recently, New Labour has taken it to further extremes using the ‘Private Finance Initiative’ (PFI). Corporations have now spread their tentacles into the once sacred sectors of health and education. Since the government began building hospitals using private money in 1999, the number of NHS beds available in England has dropped from 186,000 to 160,000. Of course, to the private sector, hospital beds are a financial burden rather than a life-saving necessity.

Money is capitalism’s only measure of success. Using this, governments cry progress. But look outside and you’ll see little evidence of it. The result of privatisation – essentially, the sale of our country – is environmental degradation, exploitation, climate change, poor public transport, expensive utilities, a disproportionate spread of wealth. Inequality.

The irony is that, today, not even under the measure of money itself could privatisation be called a success. It is argued ‘the private sector is more efficient’ yet the private sector is efficient only for the private sector. The public sector still pays.

To be exact, 667 PFI projects valued at £55billion will cost taxpayers £195billion over the next 25 years, according to the Treasury’s own figures. And our government is virtually bankrupt. Private industry, after all, has proven that it cannot run these services any better than the state.

And yet, at this year’s general election, the three leading parties propose maintaining the status quo. The Conservative Party’s mantra of ‘change’ is more fallacious than an oil company’s promise to protect the environment. The future of this country is still in the hands of those who took us to the brink of collapse in 2008. This is UK plc.

I want my country back.


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