Why We Can’t Just ‘Let the Private Sector Get on With It’

This week, Boris Johnson said it was time for the state to "stand back and let the private sector get on with it." But that is exactly what Britain has done for 40 years – and it has led to disaster.

Following this week’s Conservative Party conference speech by Boris Johnson, it is hard to shake the feelings of déjà vu no doubt felt by many on the left a decade ago, as the punitive contours of the Conservative approach to the global financial crisis became increasingly clear.

Amidst the usual kaleidoscopic bluster of a Johnson speech, a few lines in particular stuck out, warranting deeper analysis and reflection. “We must not draw,” Johnson argued, “the wrong economic conclusion from this crisis.” Instead, “we must be clear that there comes a moment when the state must stand back and let the private sector get on with it.”

As in 2010 – as, so disastrously, in the dark days of early March, when obsequious journalists accused their readers of undertaking ‘hipster analysis’ for questioning the government’s lacklustre approach – it is becoming increasingly clear that the UK response to this crisis is set to be an international outlier amongst the most developed countries.

The key fact here – which ought to be blindingly obvious, even to the most splenetic of Thatcherites – is that the economic policies pursued by the UK, not just in responding to this crisis, but for the last four decades, have been an exercise in forcing the state to stand back and letting the private sector get on with it. This ‘moment’ of which Johnson speaks has long passed – it has shaped our lives for decades.

Putting aside the fact that letting the private sector get on with it in the here and now has been an unmitigated disaster, delivering a series of farcical episodes, ranging from PPE stockpiles – managed by US healthcare subsidiary Movianto – being stored in warehouses containing asbestos, to Deloitte losing tests at Chessington World of Adventures, to the ongoing disaster that is Serco’s management of the test and trace system, what is so striking about Johnson’s statement is how incongruously it sits with the wider political economy of the UK.

Nowhere went as far or as fast in the process of privatisation as the United Kingdom. Government figures brandished proudly by the Blair-era Treasury prove as much: between 1980 and 1996, the UK accounted for a mammoth 40% of all privatisations undertaken by OECD countries.

The volume of direct privatisations has decreased in recent years: not so much a result of ideology as simple arithmetic. ‘There was simply less to privatise by the 2000s,’ a House of Commons Library document bluntly notes, ‘since so many government assets that could realistically be sold had already been privatised’.

As the New Statesman recently noted: ‘No other major Western country has allowed so many of its strategic industries, assets and pre-eminent companies to fall into foreign ownership.’ Indeed, in many cases the UK’s privatisation bonanza simply resulted in the de facto nationalisation of formerly state-owned enterprises by other countries: in the case of electricity, ‘France in effect renationalised the industry its neighbour had so painstakingly privatised. Renationalised it, that is, for France.’

Four decades of the state being emaciated, underfunded, directly or indirectly privatised, and opened up to private competition have taken a heavy toll, as this crisis is painfully demonstrating. Now – it should not need stating – would be an appropriate time to begin rebuilding state capacity, at the central and local level.

Yet the UK is evidently heading down a different path. Johnson’s calls for a “a dynamic recovery that is led not by the state but by free enterprise” run counter to calls from the IMF – hardly avowed radicals – for heightened public investment, which could:

Help revive economic activity from the sharpest and deepest global economic collapse in contemporary history. It could also create millions of jobs directly in the short term and millions more indirectly over a longer period.

Coupled to the derisory offers emerging from Sunak’s treasury – job coaches rather than employment programmes; a Job Support Scheme where the government pays a measly 22% of salaries; cuts to Universal Credit taking unemployment support to its lowest real-terms levels since 1990-91 – we can begin to trace out the contours of an emergent post-covid economic agenda of punitive clientelism. The direction of travel is clear – the state offering a generous safety net: but for favoured firms, not for families; for certain corporations, not for communities; and for rentiers, not for renters.

The reality of the UK’s political economy is that there is little left to privatise – unless we start flogging off Ordnance Survey and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the state has little space to ‘stand back’ any further. Johnson’s preferred role for the state appears to be as little more than a conduit channelling lucrative contracts to favoured suppliers.

Perhaps the starkest demonstration of this is found in a recent National Audit Office report, which shows that 5 of the top UK banks have made £1 billion through the government’s Bounce Back Loans scheme – as Christine Berry has noted, ‘the state is literally paying banks for small businesses to fail, rather than paying the businesses themselves to stay open.’

The favoured response of Starmerism – to argue these developments are a sign of incompetence – appears to miss the wood for the trees. As with our late lockdown, and with the scale and self-inflected nature of austerity, a Conservative government is once again taking an axe to our collective futures, in order to benefit a few favoured firms, hoping that a supine press, sops to the red wall and a ramping up of culture war rhetoric can keep together their electoral coalition.

The task incumbent upon the left is not just to set out an alternative, but to make clear the extent to which this approach represents a coherent political programme, rather than mere incompetence, which is – once again – an international outlier.