Note – I published this earlier with a title that didn’t really mean much, so I changed it.
A guy on Twitter last night was getting his knickers in a twist over George Osborne selling off “our” water to the Chinese (who bought into 8.68% of Thames Water – hardly a buy-out).
For openers, the basic premise isn’t just flawed, it’s about 30 years out of date. Thatcher sold off the family silver, privatising the publicly-owned utility companies, including water – it hasn’t been “our” water for a long time.
This BBC article does suggest that Osborne is directly responsible for the deal, but it normally takes weeks, or even months to set up such a transaction, not a few days, and for it to happen now it must surely have already been in the pipeline. However, if Osborne really is forcing through deals like this in a matter of days, that would be a gross misuse of his authority and would bear close investigation.
And why get uptight about the small Chinese investment in Thames Water anyway, when Northumbrian Water is already owned by a Hong Kong investment company? Indeed, foreign investment in, even ownership of, UK utilities is long-established, as this BBC web page from 1998 shows clearly.
While I, personally, feel that foreign ownership of utilities such as electricity, water, and gas, on which our very lives depend, is fundamentally wrong (see this article in Utilityweek ), it is very much a fait accompli.
So, the same guy on Twitter went on to say that we must renationalise, and failed utterly to understand, when I pointed out why this is one genii that cannot ever be put back in the bottle.
No government, now or in the future, could ever afford to take the privately-owned utilities – water, gas, electricity, railways – back into public ownership – there simply isn’t, nor will there ever be, sufficient spare cash to do so. Nor will it ever be feasible to take them back into public ownership without compensation, or at, say, 10p in the pound – those days of state piracy are gone, consigned to the history books where they belong. Not least because what was acceptable, say, half a century ago and more, would not now be tolerated, and the government would be embroiled in litigation pretty much forever.
Thatcher dropped the ball, and very badly, in not configuring the law to make privately-owned utilities non-profit organisations (or non-profit above a certain figure, thus allowing the buyers to recoup their investment and make it worth their while), but that ship too, has sailed. Those who bought the utility companies have bought cash cows at bargain prices.
We’re stuck with what we have now, though I would have little compunction about stripping foreign, state-owned, utilities of their UK holdings and taking those back into public ownership and screw compensation, a state-owned company being, I feel, better placed to stand the loss than a private company (being dependent on gas from Russia, for example, is insane, though as we are no longer self-sufficient, we’ll have to import it from somewhere but I just don’t trust Russia).
Almost inevitably, someone else said that we must also renationalise the NHS. I agree, but there is a massive problem, and it’s the same one that precludes the renationalisation of utilities – money, or the lack of it.
The changes to the NHS have gone too far to be reversed without a massive injection of cash to buy out those who have, quite legally, bought in, not to mention breach of contract liability. An article in the Guardian, a few days ago, suggested the changes have gone too far to be reversed at all, a view that I share – creating the NHS from scratch was far simpler than restoring it could ever be.
And, of course, renationalisation of the NHS pre-supposes a government willing to make that choice. Come 2015, the way things are going, we’re likely to get Cameron back with a majority. But even if we get Labour (the Greens might replace the Lib Dems as the third party, I doubt they’ve a hope in hell of a majority), under Ed Miliband they are simply Tory Lite – about as socialist as the government of Saudi Arabia.
I’m sorry to say it, but the NHS we’ve known is gone for good, for better or worse and, based on my experience in hospital exactly a year ago, dear god, it would be hard pressed to actually get worse!
I don’t yet know what the answer is to the problems of the NHS, I doubt anyone does, least of all Lansley, but I’m quite certain that restoring the status quo ante is not remotely feasible.