JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 20.7.12
PICTURE, IF YOU WILL, the scene in the Scotsman office, late on a Thursday afternoon. The comment editor is at his desk, expecting the imminent arrival of columns from the contributors of the day; but instead, from me, he receives a polite email, explaining that I have found myself unable to marshal the required physical and intellectual resources to write the piece, and am instead sending something shorter, which will not fill the space available.
Despite this abject failure, though, I express every confidence that he will not cancel my fee, or indeed sack me on the spot, with my professional reputation in tatters. Instead, I expect a friendly statement asserting that I have been jolly honourable in confessing to my inability to do what is required; even if it is only five minutes to deadllne, and I have been delivering misleading reports of my progress, all day long.
Well, in my dreams: for I am a self-employed writer, on pretty average earnings, and for us, when we mess up on the job, few allowances are – or should be – made. Things are apparently different, though, for the likes of the giant security corporation G4S, which last week confessed, just 16 days before the opening ceremony, to making a complete mess of delivering on its contract to provide security for the 2012 Olympics. The Home Secretary was obliged to draft in the army to fill the gaps; but the Sports Secretary Jeremy Hunt could not find it in his heart to be cross. It was all fine, he said; and it’s almost touching to imagine the intensity of the thank-you message he must have had from G4S’s beleaguered £1 million-a-year boss, the aptly-named Nick Buckles.
The point of all this, though, is that although mocking Britain’s government-contract fat-cats has become easy, in recent years, actually removing their snouts from the trough seems all but impossible; and G4S’s intimate relationship with government – across a whole contnuing range of contracts, from policing and prisons to welfare-to-work schemes – raises profound questions about the growing involvement of the private sector in delivering what were once, in the UK, exclusively public services. In England, even some aspects of front-line policing are about to be put out to contract; the delivery of the English NHS budget into the hands of the private healthcare industry is already well advanced. And this is a change which has, to a very large extent, slipped through without much public debate; driven by private-sector lobbyists, and by ministers of both parties who have been heavily persuaded that privatisation equals “reform”, they have rarely been subjected to the level of public debate they require, and demand.
For in truth, the drive towards the outsourcing of major publc services rases at least three sets of questions, none of which has ever been adequately answered. The first is about competence, and exactly what sanctions can or will be applied to companies which land these immensely lucrative contracts, and then fail to deliver on them. One glance at G4S’s failure over the Olympics, or the multiple administrative disasters presided over by Capita (the company immortalised in Private Eye as “Crapita”), or the shocking story of the colossal £12 billion failure of IT company CSC’s effort to create an NHS records system for England, makes it crystal clear that we have no effective remedy against these failures; every one of these companies are still in existence, and still blssfully coining it at the taxpayer’s expense.
Then secondly, in a culture where corporate earnings have soared beyond any level with which public salaries can compete, the close relationship between governments departments and private contractors raises serious questions about the probity of relations between companies, ministers, and civil servants; indeed the revolving door between such companies and Whitehall departments has become one of the most notorious aspects of British government. To put it bluntly, it costs these companies mere peanuts – in their own terms – to buy the loyalty and enthusiasm of British politicians and public servants with hints of lucrative future jobs and directorships; in a world where people like former Labour Home Secretary John Reid now sit on the board of G4S, at substantial non-Executive salaries.
And then finally, there is the question of what it does to a nation’s soul, to take functions that used to be carried out by the state on behalf of the people, and to make them once again the province of private profit. Even Margaret Thatcher famously hesitated to privatise the service known as the Royal Mail; and when I consider the selling off and visible prostituting of what were once glorious British public buildings, during my adult lifetime, it is genuinely difficult not to feel that the loss of places like the BBC’s Bush House, or London’s County Hall, or the mighty central post offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow, is in some way symbolic of a decline in the nation’s collective strength, and in its sense of itself as a proud and effective community.
It may be true, of course, as Conservatives argue, that the British state in the postwar years tried to do too much, too directly. What is clear, though, is that whatever size of state we have, it is scarcely worth having one at all, if it cannot preserve sufficient integrity and independence to legislate in the interests of the people as a whole, to regulate commerce with some firmness and justice, and to stand properly aloof from the large commercial interests that would woo and corrupt it.
And insofar as a state whch can no longer do these things becomes a mere symbol of national decline, it has to be said that the British state is beginning to look pretty far gone. Which might be good news for the SNP, here in Scotland; if only it did not share so many of the Britsh state’s obsequious attitudes to the might of big business; and did not seem so vague, and so lacking in intellectual radicalism, about the model of 21st-century state and government it has in mind, for the new Scotland of which it dreams.