Mortgaging Democracy

“Will the Tamar Bridge be sold?” That was the question posed by the Western Morning News earlier this month. And not just the bridge. Torquay’s Torre Abbey was mentioned too, though in both cases the relevant local councils denied any sale plans.

Gordon Brown’s announcement that he plans to sell off our public assets was, the paper told us, treated with derision by the councils. It went on to note that “while not able to directly force local authorities to sell their assets, fears have been voiced that the Government could slash the annual grant awarded to each council”, leaving them little option but to sell. While the report described such a move as “sinister”, the editorial went on to back the strategy. Well, it would. We’re talking about the Northcliffe press here, owners of the Daily Mail (the paper that backed the Blackshirts).

Sinister indeed. Which is why local communities in Wessex may well ask what the Government thinks it’s doing targeting local public services for cutbacks now that it’s spent all its money on bailing out the City of London. The real culprits in all of this are laughing literally all the way to the bank. Whether the public sector is a willing seller or an unwilling one, the deal only works if there’s a willing buyer. And there’s no shortage of them apparently. Financial institutions are always awash with money to buy whatever government offers for sale at knockdown prices. So where’s the banking crisis?

Or the budget crisis? There’s always money to fight needless wars, even if doled out so grudgingly that soldiers’ lives are even more needlessly put at risk. And Labour and the Tories are agreed that overseas aid should be protected – and increased. Not to put too fine a point on it, public services in this country are being cut so that those in other countries can be expanded. At our involuntary expense. King Alfred the Great famously sent alms to India in fulfilment of a vow taken when besieging the Danes in London. India today has no need of alms, having nuclear weapons, a space programme and even a foreign aid budget of its own. Yet need or no, it is one of the beneficiaries of our largesse.

Asset sales don’t make sense if you end up renting the asset back for ever and a day. They aren’t about keeping taxes down. They’re about keeping democracy down. Labour claims to be the party of modernisation, the party that refuses to let the present be controlled by the past. It would be truer to see it as the party that lets the present be controlled by the future, as debt slavery constrains the options of generations yet unborn.

For the Conservatives no less than for Labour, the idea of local authorities that own next to nothing is an attractive one. It’s their people who will benefit from the consultants’ reports, the legal fees, the management buy-outs. The issue for regionalists and other decentralists is that local assets, once sold, cannot be guaranteed to remain locally controlled. Bus services run from the Town Hall are answerable to the electorate of the town. Bus services run from a head office in Northumbria or Scotland are answerable to shareholders who may never have even heard of the place being served. The case for local or regional public ownership of the so-called ‘natural monopolies’ is partly about preventing the abuse of a dominant economic position for private profit. But these days it also forms a powerful component of opposition to globalisation, a strong pair of hands resisting the magnet of corporate concentration. No wonder the WTO makes privatisation its primary goal.

Councils that are nothing but bundles of contracts can’t see the point of vital democracy. No-one needs to hear the views of councillors any more because if they’re not in the small print already they can’t be made to count. (Poor service has to be tolerated until the contract is renewed.) If it’s not about debate but only about deals, the councillors are redundant. Step forward elected mayors to do the powerbroker thing, to talk tough with big business and big government. Elected mayors are not a sign of strong local democracy but the very opposite. They are what happens when a community signs its civic life away for a fistful of empty promises.

Happy King Alfred’s Day.