Human Revenue Stream

James Meek

Against the tide of history: the Skye Bridge, nationalised in 2004

The privatisations are joining up. First it was gas. Then telecoms, oil, electricity, public housing, water, the railways, the airports. There are moves afoot to obliterate the concept of the council house; NHS hospitals are to be privately run, built and managed; now David Cameron wants to get private companies and foreign governments to 'invest' in Britain's roads. What does it all mean? The episodic character of privatisation – one sector being sold, then a pause, then another – has hidden a meta-privatisation that's passed the halfway point. The essential public good that Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and now Cameron sell is not power stations, or trains, or hospitals. It's the public itself. It's us.

The commodity that makes water and roads and airports valuable to an investor, foreign or otherwise, is the people who have no choice but to use them. We have no choice but to pay the price the toll keepers charge. We are human revenue stream; we are being made tenants in our own land, defined by the string of private fees we pay to exist here. If it's not obvious that we're being sold to investors, it's partly because the idea of privatisation is sold so hard to us, in a way that is hypnotically familiar. First, the denigration of the existing service, as if a universally accepted truth is being voiced: the schools/hospitals/roads are crumbling/failing/ second-class. Then, the rejection of government responsibility: we've no money/bureaucrats are incompetent. Finally, the solution: private investment.

And that investment does come, and things get shinier. Surely if the private sector weren't replacing our old sewers, and won't replace our old motorways and power stations, we'd need to pay higher taxes instead? The truth is that we already do pay higher taxes. They just aren't called taxes. Our water supply system is being upgraded because of a huge water tax increase. But it isn't called that. It's called 'the water bill'. As Chris Giles explained yesterday in the FT, water bills have gone up by nearly twice as much as inflation since privatisation. We pay a rail tax: it's called 'fare increases'. We pay an energy tax in the form of higher electricity bills, and so on.

By packaging British citizens up and selling them, sector by sector, as revenue stream to investors, the government makes it possible to keep traditional taxes low or even cut them. By moving from a system where public services are supported by general taxation to a system where they are supported exclusively by the fees people pay to use them, they move from a system where the rich are obliged to help the poor to a system where the less well-off enable services, like a road network, that the rich get for what is, to them, a trifling sum.

Will there be a revolt? There was one in the 1990s, on the Isle of Skye. Ostensibly, the private sector was going to build something the people of the island would not have had otherwise: a road bridge to the mainland, replacing the old ferry. The islanders understood what was actually happening. They were being sold as revenue stream. Instead of the bridge being built from a tiny fraction of the government budget, it was built by a private firm, which had been promised that it would be able to gouge the islanders with hefty tolls. Less general tax for British taxpayers: a huge private tax for Skye islanders. A long campaign of civil disobedience ended in victory for the islanders when in 2004, against the tide of history, the bridge was nationalised. Skye is a small island. Britain is a big one. The plan's the same. Let's see what happens.


  • 20 March 2012 at 9:47am
    Brian says:
    I see it, not so much as selling 'us', as retrieving a small part of 'our' heritage that the politicians have arrogated to themselves to spend as they think fit, not us.

    • 20 March 2012 at 11:42pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Brian
      I'm puzzled. How does the sale of public assets to (presumably) a very small number of moneyed "investors" qualify as "retrieval?"

  • 20 March 2012 at 9:55am
    Tim Diggles says:
    Yes! I couldn't agree more.

  • 20 March 2012 at 10:33am
    Fraser MacDonald says:
    Completely agree. Alas, the 'nationalisation' of the Skye Bridge meant buying out the BoA consortia to the tune of £27 million when the bridge itself only cost £7 million.

    Not for no reason did the protest group erect a warning sign at the approach to the bridge: "Bank of America cash machine ahead".

  • 20 March 2012 at 12:18pm
    Dougal Quixote says:
    Same with Inverness Airport. Funded through a PFI and in the end, we the people, have to buy it out at more than the original total cost, never mind the millions the investors have earnt in the meantime. Capitalism or total incompetence. The amount of our money, and borrowed or by taxes, it is not the politicians money, that has been wasted over the last twenty years is staggering. What is worse, those in power would seem not to have learned any lessons.

  • 20 March 2012 at 9:31pm
    bilejones says:
    It's the natural result of the politicians looting the taxpayers for decades and spending even more.
    As the State stole more and more resources, the economic condition of the Country got worse and worse. In the past century, the century of total government, involved in every aspect of daily life, the UK went from being the richest to one of the most indebted (on a per capita basis) counties in the world.
    This clown Meek seems to be unaware that the first decent roads in England since the Romans were privately built by Turnpike Trusts.

  • 21 March 2012 at 1:07am
    Bob Beck says:
    Even if you regard taxation as simply the State "stealing resources," merely to hand this function over to private enterprise hardly seems like an answer.

    As for the economic condition of the Country, other views are possible; e.g., that British prosperity -- always more or less unequally distributed, of course, but such is capitalism regardless of setting -- really took off only when turnpikes gave way to "open roads," and at least partly as a result of this change; or that said prosperity, also partly dependent on the exploitation of an Empire, never fully recovered from the loss of that Empire.

  • 22 March 2012 at 9:16am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    I'm lost on this one. You have a coalition government that said it would privatise and now it's doing it. It's been going on for years and yet the conservatives still got a majority which they look like keeping for another twenty years. So what can we do? We're heading for American conditions in which capitalism controls virtually all resources and the infrastructure is that of a third world country. And they spend their time arguing on how to stop government spending 'our' money. The system will explode and the usual suspects will grab their million bonuses and fly away. But where is the alternative, and how do I join?

    • 27 March 2012 at 1:28pm
      Bob Beck says: @ Geoff Roberts
      I don't know, but it's just occurred to me there's an old and well-established phrase for this process, one even more succInct than "human revenue stream": tax farming.

  • 1 April 2012 at 8:43pm
    rarevols says:
    Reading James Meek's blog, one irresistably concludes 't'was ever thus'. In 1892, in his account of a tour through the Russian provinces hit by famine, the Reuter's European correspondent, Brayley Hodgetts, wrote this : 'Thirty years ago the peasant was the cattle of the neighbouring gentleman, and as such was looked after by him, and kept from want because this was the gentleman's interest. For more than a generation [since emancipation] the peasant has ceased to be the property of the neighbouring gentleman; he has been converted into the property of the Government. So long as he remained in his herd or village commune, paid his taxes and kept quiet, that Government took no notice of him.' And - '[In Russia] every one seems to regard the country as a company promoter is supposed to regard the public in England - as something to plunder.' And, finally - '[The peasants] are regarded as units of revenue....'
    And in the same context it is interesting to note Gibert Denton's comment on tax farming - 'At various times in history, instead of appointing his own collectors, a King would sell the rights to the Customs duties for a fee, often substantial, to a merchant who would then undertake the collection with his own staff. This system of 'farming' was open to abuse, bribery and loss of revenue and was finally abandoned in 1671 when Charles II appointed his first Board of Commissioners.' The regression-led Tories have learned nothing from historical precedent.

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