IS privatisation always bad? I can think of at least one example where it’s been a shit idea, but we’ll come to that in a moment.
The NHS Bill passed last week raises worries about the acceleration of health privatisation. There has always been private provision under the NHS umbrella, so fears about privatising ‘our NHS’ die away after a while, as the process is incremental and, from the outside, everything seems the same, even if it isn’t.
One difference now is that some members of the party in charge dislike our NHS and want a US-style insurance system. Lord Hannan has long been one such critic, and for a while used to be a regular on Fox News in the US, where he popped up to denigrate the NHS.
Some in the US see the NHS as ‘socialist’, whatever that means in this context, and the likes of Hannan pander to that prejudice.
Will Hutton, the Observer columnist and academic, has a better description, calling the NHS a “a fairness institution”, adding…
“Illness is a piece of brute bad luck – you can pre-empt some health risks, with exercise and not smoking, but the big diseases like cancer are really bad accidents which could fall on any of us.
“In this sense, the NHS is a ‘protect me from brute bad luck’ institution. In my view, that is not socialism.”
A sound defence, yet if you dip into the acrid chatter on right-wing Twitter accounts, where the crud collects like the grease off a kebab, a common theme is that the NHS hasn’t handled Covid-19 well and should be replaced with an insurance system, even though the US system is much less fair than our own.
As you may recall, the pro-Brexit brigade promised us £350m a week rebate for the NHS if we left Europe, a pledge that evaporated as quickly as an off-the-cuff lie does from Boris Johnson’s slippery tongue.
Johnson praises the NHS with one forked tongue and invents huge investment and phantom new hospitals with the other – all while overlooking the years of austerity his party imposed, leaving the NHS a relatively weak position when Covid-19 struck.
Anyone wondering whether privatisation is good or bad will eventually fall over Margaret Thatcher’s sell-off of the water industry. And anyone who knows me, or must endure my grumbles for family reasons, will know that I hate the unnecessary use of ‘literally’ that people drop into sentences literally all the time.
But I will allow myself this exception.
The privatisation of the water industry was literally a shit idea in that companies such as Southern Water now find it more profitable to pay a £90m fine for literally pumping shit into the literal sea than to invest in infrastructure.
Last week, Mr Justice Jeremy Johnson imposed that fine after the privatised water company admitted it had discharged raw sewage into some of the most delicate environments in the country.
It literally put literal shit in the sea because even that £90m fine was apparently a ‘better investment’ than spending money on sorting out how they dealt with our shit.
Since Thatcher privatised water, it is reported that firms have run up £48bn in debts to line the pockets of shareholders (analysis by Philip Inman, The Guardian, July 10, 2021).
To seemingly put shareholders above customers and the safety of the environment shows how privatising water was a terrible idea. And as it’s a monopoly, as you even can’t shop around for rival water.
That surely raises a concern that every time another part of the NHS is privatised or handed to an insurance company, there will be lines of shareholders who want their cut first. And queues of private companies looking to be indirectly propped up by taxpayers who fund these deals.
Has anyone ever totted up just how much privatisation has cost us all? And I haven’t even started on the railways.