Notes on a capitalist scandal…

Now don’t go thinking that headline suggests I am against capitalism full stop. You can’t  avoid capitalism, but it does come with a platform full of shoddy baggage.

Winston Churchill said that “democracy is the worst form of government, apart from all the others” – and it’s easy to adapt that famous quote as follows: capitalism is the worst form of ordering society, apart from all the others.

Here are two examples of something having gone very wrong, both linked to this fine city of York.

Shoddy capitalism example one: The boss of York-based builders Persimmon being paid a bonus of £110m.

Jeff Fairburn reportedly joined Persimmon as a trainee at 17, after leaving Fulford School in the city. Other than that, I know nothing about the man, except that he has done very well in life. Nothing wrong with people who do very well in life, as we need a few of them in society. But no one deserves such a gargantuan dollop of outrageous good fortune. How do you even go about spending £110m?

One suggestion, according to a report in Saturday’s Guardian, comes from people who work with the homeless in York. According to their calculations, Fairburn’s bonus could pay for 1,375 council homes. And a donation of £4.6m – small change to a man with bottomless pockets – could provide homes for all the 58 homeless families in York; dial that up to £60.8m and all the homeless people in Yorkshire and the Humber could be housed.

Well done to Rupert Neate, who has the odd-sounding job title of ‘wealth correspondent’, for linking all this together.

Vince Cable, the Lib-Dem leader, was born in York and is taking an interest in this story, saying “the scale of this bonus is obscene”. And so it is: you’re bang on the unearned money there, Vince.

Reports suggest that this bonus has been largely fuelled by the government’s help-to-buy scheme. I don’t recall George Osborne, who introduced the scheme, describing it as the ‘help to pay housing bosses a fortune’ scheme.

Shoddy capitalism example two: Transport Secretary Chris Grayling allowing Stagecoach and Virgin to bail out of their contract on the East Coast mainline. According to Andrew Adonis, who has resigned as chair of the government-backed national infrastructure commission, this bail-out is a “nakedly political manoeuvre” that  “will cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds, possibly billions”.

Here’s how capitalism works in this instance. Private companies brag that they can run the railways better than the state. They take over a line or service, pledging to improve everything, make untold billions and pay some of those untold billions back to the state. Then a few rattling miles down the line to York and Edinburgh, they discover that this is too difficult, and ask to be let off.

It seems that with the railways, privatisation only works with the generous support of taxpayers. And instead of taxpayers stumping up for the running of a national rail service, they stump up to fill the pockets of private companies.

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin and Stagecoach had jointly pledged to pay the government £3.3bn to run the service until 2023 – but now Grayling is letting them off the hook.

Incidentally – shoddy capitalism footnote – Virgin presumably wants out because the company is now intent on taking over more and more of the NHS, having last year won a record £1bn of NHS contracts as £3.1bn of health service contracts were privatised, even after the government pledged to reduce the proportion of care provided by private companies.

Instead, it seems to have raised the level of privatisation on the sly. Branson appears to see more money in health than railways, which at a guess is why he wants to hand back the train set.

Incidentally times two, Adonis resigned because of the government’s stance on Brexit. In his resignation letter, the former Labour minister called Mrs Maybe the “voice of Ukip” and described the way Brexit was shaping up as “a dangerous populist and nationalist spasm worthy of Donald Trump”.

I am not about to disagree with him there.

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