This past few days has seen one of the most illuminating news cycles of recent times for anyone remotely concerned with the workings of the British state.
Last week it emerged that N:Power was raising prices for energy and gas more than 10%.
On Monday we learned, having known anyway for a while, that the Westminster government has agreed a French-led, Chinese-backed deal to build a new nuclear power plant in Somerset.
Wednesday saw the news that the Grangemouth Refinery’s owners, Ineos -a group whose free-market bona fides would give even John Major cause for concern – are planning to close the facility with the loss of 1500 jobs, because workers were unwilling to accept a minimum 3-year pay freeze amongst other similarly wretched assaults on their livelihoods.
Each piece of news represents the final stages-final in the sense of complete, not imminently ending-of Britain’s willing and enthusiastic slide into privatisation. A refinery on the east coast is bought by a company whose track record is a testament to debt-fuelled capitalist practices addled by the desire to make money in the most negative fashion imaginable. The government saw what was happening in Grangemouth, but was unperturbed, gleefully opening the door to foreign ownership of an energy infrastructure whose very existence ought to be a stain on the conscience of any area which could use alternatives (Scotland, people, I’m talking about Scotland.) Home fuel bills are ramped up, again, at the beginning of winter. Even Mr. Major, ex-PM and the last person to lead the Conservatives to an election victory, suggested that something needed to be done to counter the apparently unfettered greed of private companies, perhaps in the form of a tax, no less.
Nobody in a position of influence seems to be asking the real question here:
“Why are we willing to tolerate any opportunity for an essential service’s provision to be levied against financial gain?”
In privatising something which we cannot live without we are, by definition, sanctioning the exploitation of ourselves for the potential of stock ownership in that same corruption. There can be no legitimate argument, fiscal or moral, for the privatisation of such services-the very fact that a commodity is essential to modern life means it must be bought-whether there are 4 providers of it or 20 is irrelevant, because when you know that your product must be bought there is no incentive to lower your price below whatever is currently the lowest level.
In the response to events at Grangemouth we see the extent to which the British political landscape has shifted, irrevocably, away from the interests of ‘its’ people in Scotland. Local MP, Michael Connarty (Labour), “It confirms to me that they have a very callous view of their commitment to Scotland and to the people who work from them.” Really, Mike? Really? A multinational company which has in 15 years become one of the world’s leading petrochemical providers through some of the most high-risk, debt-financed ventures in a sector not known for its aversion to queeziness has a callous view of their commitment to Scotland.
It’s more like they never had one-and in this perhaps Ed Davey, Energy Secretary at Westminster, has a point when he says “While respecting Ineos’ right to make this decision…I continue to work very closely with the Scottish Government, and other colleagues across government, to share information with them.” Subtext: “CC me in on this guys, I’m going to lunch with some of those vile communists-something about a waste repository.”
Labour’s primary contribution to Grangemouth’s citizenry over the past few months seems to have been having a very public fight about its union membership policies, and subsequently strategising a way to have their swing-vote overlords in the Midlands believe they are in no way affiliated with the concerns of workers anywhere. Not that they need to spend the time-the unions have, for years, been steadily losing influence. Now the people at Grangemouth have to deal with the unsettling reality that there really isn’t anyone who has their interests at heart. Seen in isolation one could read events there as being an unfortunate side-effect of the inevitable rise of globalisation. When viewed in the context of these other developments though it becomes clear that, even if the Grangemouth plant is underperforming, for whatever reason, it is the biggest casualty of a long-running process, far from inevitable, which has seen a vital component of our modern life traded shamelessly for the profits of the few.
Depressingly enough it looks as if the SNP’s response to this is to find another private buyer for the plant. Nobody appears to be realistically considering nationalisation, despite the repeated assertions of Grangemouth’s vitality and importance to the Scottish economy. Earlier this month we heard that the Scottish Government is looking into the possibility of buying Prestwick airport. Evidently nationalisation is not as unthinkable a concept here as it is at Westminster. As someone who is not an expert in the global petrochemical industry I do not know either how or if a nationalisation of Grangemouth might be possible-or even desirable. It might be that even if it were possible it would be a mistake-although even if that were the case we would still be left to question why any government would allow a doomed plant’s workforce to be gambled on in this way.
Any one instance of nationalisation would be limited in its impact, but only because the scale of what has gone before it is so immense. Perhaps in time, after the people of Grangemouth have discussed with their families what their future holds, we can talk about the wider political ramifications this needs to have to prevent it from happening in the future. At any rate we have to consider what role an independent Scotland’s government will play in its most essential markets.”