Besides Pacific Quay, what else has been secretly privatised?


By Mark McNaught

Last week’s disclosure by NNS that the BBC Scotland Pacific Quay building is owned by murky investor partnerships, and taxpayers are paying exorbitant rent on what one would have assumed to be public property, leads us to an even larger question: what else has been secretly privatised? What other presumably public patrimony has been clandestinely securitised into collateralised debt obligations?

Since the Thatcher era the openly privatised swaths of the UK economy have had their successes, but mostly failures. British Airways seems to be doing well on its own. British Leyland has dissolved and the profitable bits have been sold off to foreign companies. British Steel has withered and merged with foreign companies. A privatised British Rail has been disastrous, especially the selling off of the entire UK rail infrastructure to Railtrack, which was somehow expected to maintain the entire system and invest in major improvement projects. It was re-nationalised in 2002.

British Gas, Telecom, Electricity, etc have all been sold off to investors, after which public monopolies, with some degree of accountability, become private monopolies with zero public accountability. Higher fares and poorer service ensued, with profits going to shareholders rather than to the public purse. This has contributed to a hollowing out of the once-great UK state.

What is arguably more noxious is this clandestine form of privatisation, like Pacific Quay.  Even that which should be directly paid for through high TV licence fees and become public property, is monetised. Taxpayers unwittingly become renters rather than owners, which invariably ends up costing more over the long term. How much more? We may never know, because so much is shrouded in secrecy.

How has it come to this, where good journalistic reporting by NNS discovers what should be a matter of public record? What else is privatised? NHS hospital buildings? School buildings? How can Scots even find out?

These pose interesting questions post 2014 in the event of a ‘yes’ vote. Presumably, the UK and the Scottish governments will be dividing up physical and financial assets. What happens when much of what was assumed to be publicly held goods, turn out to be privately held? Will Scotland have to pay off private investors to obtain what they thought was their fair share of the UK patrimony, which they had assumed they had bought and paid for through their taxes?

The full extent of privatisation in Scotland and the UK is one great Pandora’s box, that probably no one is fully aware of, even though Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling could probably give us some hints. This could be the most complex part of the independence negotiation, and potentially embarrassing for the UK government: how to equitably divide public goods when they are not even publicly owned.

This also makes the UK position that Scotland would not be a ‘successor state’ even more intriguing. Would that mean that upon independence, not only would Scotland not inherit its share of the national debt, but would be under no obligation to fulfil these secret contracts, because they were not signatories? Hmm.

Even before all is figured out and untangled in independence negotiations, Scots can plan for the future by incorporating in a written Scottish constitutions provisions that any future privatisations must be performed through public law and debate (not secret contracts), that there be a clear cost/benefit analysis open to scrutiny, an open and fair bidding process, and total transparency.

The monetisation of public goods is but one element of the conservative myopic neoliberal dogma, cooked up by corporate-funded think tanks, enacted by Tory and Labour governments alike. The agenda also includes the breaking of unions, the decline of industry, reduction of workers rights, and the slashing of welfare benefits. Taken collectively, these are major reasons why Scots are seeking independence. Only self-governance can protect Scotland from this free-market onslaught, which is not yet complete.

In an independent Scotland, measures must be taken so that decisions about public ownership are taken through the democratic process, not some secretive plutocratic cabal.

Mark McNaught is a member of the Constitutional Commission and an Associate Professor of US Civilisation at the University of Rennes 2 France. He also teaches US constitutional law at Sciences-Po Paris.