Dr Jenny Gale – Senior LEcturer, STaffordshire Business SChool
One of the initial objectives of the incoming Conservative government in 1979 was to reduce the size (cost) of the public sector through a major privatisation programme. This included British Telecom in 1984, British Gas in 1986, British Steel in 1988, Water in 1989, and Electricity in 1990 to 1991. However, reducing the size and cost of the public services presented a more difficult challenge. As well as contributing to social stability, public services that are free at the point of delivery are politically sensitive, due to their value and importance in the eyes of the British electorate. Disposing of a free public good through wholesale privatisation would evoke too much hostility, risking serious social and political consequences. Furthermore, unlike other tangible products, public services cannot be stored, making the prospect of disruption of services highly undesirable. Consequently, attention turned to neo-liberalism including the ‘marketisation’ of the public services, as a way of reducing their cost and drain on the UK economy.
The above is an abridged excerpt from my PhD, completed in 2008. I revisited it recently during my personal reflections after a year of social restrictions and unprecedented government intervention to shore up businesses and peoples’ working lives. At the time I wrote my thesis I harboured that familiar feeling of unease that something was lurking in our future. Something that would force a re-think of these ideas and about how we should work and live particularly with regards to climate change and our provisions for managing future health crises.
The debates relating to the value of public services-vs-being a drain on the economy, particularly with regard to health has been thrust back into the spotlight in a way that was, actually, not hard to imagine and was in fact predicted (but not really acted on). Sure, there was always the possibility of a pandemic, after all they have happened before and during a time when the NHS didn’t even exist. However, the 21st century, characterised by a complex technological and geographical inter-connectedness has intensified the pursuit of economic wealth accompanied by the sheer speed of capital, people (and viruses) moving around the globe. The pursuit of wealth and its continuing concentration into fewer, ever more powerful hands, was already argued to be a glaring betrayal of the needs of humanity – ‘Profit over People’ to quote the title of a publication by Noam Chomsky.
In the UK, the media, public service employees and their unions have highlighted the lack of investment (often disputed by government ministers) in the NHS – OK, whatever. However, neither austerity nor any supposed investment prepared us for COVID. Like many people, I am now reflecting on certain questions. Will the investment in scientific endeavour as a way of improving human health, equality and the planet increasingly morph into meaningful international cooperation on a grand scale? Are governments going to press on with neo-liberal, free-market policies and consumerism despite their inability to build a prosperous and fair global society for most people? Or, will we see a return to the Big State long-term and if so, what other problems would that create and for who?
Alternatively, are we heading towards a ‘Great Reset’ of capitalism (circa 2030) where, apparently, ‘you will own nothing and you will be happy’, because you will rent everything from those who do? Note that the wealthy and powerful proposing this ‘alternative’ at the World Economic Forum did not say ‘we will have nothing, and we will be happy’. Such a ‘Great Reset’ could further increase dependency on fewer but bigger and more powerful players providing our commodities – is this a solution, or a magnification of the existing problem?
Anyway, our current political spectrum is unlikely to produce the necessary vision for business, health or the environment particularly while those with vested interests in the status quo keep calling the shots. If the combined crises of a pandemic and global warming are not enough for us all to really ‘wake up’ and work collaboratively towards a new vision, nothing ever will be (apart from maybe an alien invasion or a very large meteorite!).