If you hand over your national assets, it can be almost impossible to get them back…
Occupied countries learn the hard lesson that when you lose something it can be difficult, and often impossible, to get it back later. The Greeks learnt that over the Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon 200 years ago. Lord Elgin did it with the authority of the Ottoman Empire, which was at the time the occupying power in Greece.
Like the Greeks we too have occupying rulers. Like the Greeks we have a ruling class that is negligent with our treasures. And like the Greeks we are in danger of allowing their theft from beneath our noses.
Unlike the Greeks we are not there yet. But the theft comes in many guises and the battle to keep what is ours is relentless.
British capitalism is moribund and weak. Instead of real wealth creation, it substitutes an illusion of growth. Attempts to sell off Britain at any cost are an indication the corruption of British capitalism and also of its terminal decline. It is anxious to squeeze as much profit as it can from what it sees as Britain’s dwindling assets.
British capitalism is divesting itself of its own industrial capital by continually transferring companies into foreign ownership. But it also transforms what was common property into private ownership, with the consequent possibility of foreign sale. This has profound consequences.
Everything must go
British capitalism has put up a large sign saying “Britain for sale: offers welcome. Everything must go.” This theft comes with an ideological attack on the idea of holding property in common for the common good.
To do that, assets have to be defined and isolated. Coherent, logical and efficient structures are broken up into disparate units, each ready to sell. Examples can be seen throughout the public sector and state industries including utilities, transport and local government. And nothing is ruled out from fragmentation and sale in future.
Nowhere better illustrates the current fire sale than the railways. British jobs have been destroyed; conditions of service and pay undermined. Huge subsidies attract foreign owners. Governments, including Labour, have welcomed this as “inward investment”. In truth government pays out excessive subsidies and passengers pay ever higher rail fares.
This economic madness is acceptable for the ruling class and its government, since their agenda is to destroy the concept of state industries and their accompanying trade unions.
‘This economic madness is acceptable for the ruling class.’
This ideological attack on an industry which should be run for the common good has not gone smoothly. The industry has not been modernised. Instead it has developed into a get rich quick, short term and underfinanced mishmash of companies with little incentive to invest for the long term.
Governments have thrown money at the problem, desperate to sell off these rail franchises to foreign owners. The majority are now foreign owned; more will soon follow. And this is on terms that encourage foreign companies to run British trains at little cost to themselves.
The government’s propaganda of liberating ownership from the dead hand of state control is a lie. These foreign companies are for the most part state-owned.
The three rolling stock companies have also come under foreign ownership. Their lack of investment and cynical practices have contributed further to the destruction of British train manufacture.
The age of rolling stock continues to rise. At the same time there is blatant profiteering. A parliamentary inquiry estimated the overcharge to be at least £100 million a year. That’s on top of generous profits guaranteed by no risk, long-term contracts.
Unable to wait for these companies to perform their allotted function, the government was forced to come to the rescue by ordering £1.6 billion of new rolling stock for the Thameslink upgrade. But that contract went to the German manufacturer Siemens.
After the outcry at this disregard for British jobs, the Canadian firm Bombardier was awarded the recent £1.6 billion Crossrail contract, keeping production in Britain at Derby. But the cost is three times the amount of the public contribution originally announced.
The transfer of assets abroad facilitates the attack on British workers. It is happening throughout the whole economy and not just rail or other former state industries.
In the last ten years £450 billion of private British companies have been sold into foreign ownership. Britain’s lax ownership regulations and tax laws make it attractive for foreign capital wishing to strip assets and make a quick return. The consequential loss of British jobs has been considerable.
Recently Pfizer was thwarted in its attempt to take over Astra Zeneca. The company’s workers and their allies
successfully forced the company to resist. The government would have stood by while the pharmaceutical industry, a true world leader and a beacon of Britain’s skills and ingenuity, faced a threat to its existence.
Capitalism is always ambitious to exploit its working class further. As well as taking possession of industries thrust into the open market by compliant governments, it now also seeks to go to the heart of public services and take them into private ownership.
Relinquishing national power has taken a new step with the EU grabbing sole negotiating rights for the trade treaties of member states. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP, see page 10) with the US is aimed at further opening up public services to private companies.
Rallies and action against privatisation of the NHS are focusing on that danger. Health workers striking over pay were also saying “we have demands that must be met and we will not allow privatisation of the NHS”. A fight for pay becomes a fight for the NHS itself.
‘British capitalists are no patriots. They have connived in sending production and jobs abroad.’
What does it matter? Is not one capitalist owner much like another?
British capitalists are no patriots. They have connived in sending production and jobs abroad. They have conspired with the EU to destroy our democracy and sovereignty, and colluded with international capital in attacking us, their working class.
Capitalist complicity in the sale of Britain is an expression of their weakness, which workers must exploit. Only the British working class has a vision for Britain that is in our interest and under our control. This vision can be built only by ourselves and not foreign hands.
We will not be like the Greeks, and be negligent of our treasures. We will remember that once lost these treasures may take a long time to return. We will not allow our long-fought-for advances to be stolen from beneath our noses. Let's throw off this occupation by capitalism and say “this is not yours to sell, it is our and our children’s heritage, so hard won by our mothers and fathers”.
There is no time to lose. Our message is clear: Britain is not for sale.
• This article is an edited version of the speech given at a CPBML meeting in London in 2014.