Whatever the outcome of the A4e affair, it is a symptom of virtually everything that has gone wrong with British political life since 1979 – and especially of the worst thing, the privatisation of the state and its functions. The decision to hand over so many of the state’s responsibilities – and not only in Britain – to the private sector or voluntary associations or charities has had several terrible consequences. First there is the loss of expertise. The state has built up historically a huge fund of knowledge and experience which is simply not available to voluntary associations, however enthusiastic they are. The result is notorious wherever the Big Society is found. The contracted bodies do the easy bits while passing back the difficult and more important bits, like finding jobs for the unqualified unemployed, back to the state. It is exactly the same as with the PFI projects: the profits are privatised while the risks remain with the taxpayer. That is why the history of the welfare state is the history of the decline of private welfare. It was, among other things, never up to the job.
Such privatisations are also profoundly undemocratic. The state might bully you or its agents be rude, but at least as a citizen you can claim legitimate rights in dealing with it. It stands for a democratic bargain. There is no democratic bargain with the privatised employment agencies or schools. As a citizen you have no legitimate or democratic claims on them. You are a social inferior who wants favours and you are expected to behave appropriately. They are there to reinforce social hierarchies and are more important to those who run them than to those they are supposed to serve. The rhetoric of social engagement, community spirit, all-in participation, is designed to conceal the reality of privatised welfare both from those who practise it and those who are subject to it. That is another reason why an increasingly democratic state once, but no longer, turned its face against private charity.
The privatisation of the state has had a profound effect on the social structure of Britain. From the moment the great privatisations of the Thatcher era occurred a whole new social class was created. They are the bankers, lawyers, consultants and lobbyists who arranged the sale of state assets and simultaneously enriched themselves. The same riches are now being showered on the innumerable private firms to which have been contracted the state’s functions, there now being few assets left to sell, whether it is prisons or employment agencies. There is little or no evidence they do what they do better than the state but they are, nevertheless, paid huge amounts for doing it. There is now a powerful social stratum that has no obvious useful social purpose but is parasitic on the state, its assets and functions, and has almost inexhaustible demands. So powerful, however, is the ideology that justifies all this and so well entrenched is it among all parties that it is impervious to the fact that private social welfare does not work and has socially malign effects. Furthermore, there will always be people naive or ignorant enough to mistake the official purpose of the privatised society, which is to add to the social good, for its actual consequence, which is to make a comparatively small number of people very rich at the expense of the rest of us.