Listen to this article
About 10 years ago, in the wake of the fire at the Momart art storage warehouse that destroyed a museum’s worth of late 20th-century British paintings and sculpture, I sat down with the artist Michael Craig-Martin to talk about it. Craig-Martin, who’d lost work in the fire himself, reflected on the change in the British art world – the advent of the big money Saatchi era, the commodification of art – since he arrived in London from the United States as a young man in 1966.
Craig-Martin made a good witness to change. He was an artist of the 1960s and 70s who’d taught artists of the 90s such as Damien Hirst. Our conversation roamed beyond art to the state of Britain as a whole. He told me something about his adopted nation that intrigued me. “The country I came to in the 60s has disappeared,” he said. “It’s very strange.”
I’m 20 years younger than him, but I felt I knew what he meant. Since returning to Britain from Moscow in 1999, after eight years away, I’d come to feel some grand existential alteration had taken place in the country where I grew up.
It was hard to pin down the nature of the process. It wasn’t simply Thatcherism, or globalisation, or neo-liberalism, or consumerism, although these currents fed into it. Nor was it the death of socialism, although socialism as a theory in action was, for sure, pretty much dead. Instead, it seemed to me, to adapt the phrase coined by the Nobel prize-winning writer JM Coetzee in his 1983 novel Life and Times of Michael K, that a meaning had taken up residence in the system without becoming a term in it. I wondered if it had. I wondered whether I might be bold enough to call it.
The perception of change is a treacherous field. Perhaps Craig-Martin and I were merely getting older. I was in the cusp of midlife when the Momart warehouse burned. “Things ain’t what they used to be,” is hardly an insight. Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker had the same anxiety in the 18th century. Was the world, he asks, “always as contemptible as it appears to me at present?”
Smollett has Clinker quote Horace, a reminder that the middle-aged have been moaning about things getting worse for thousands of years. “If the morals of mankind have not contracted an extraordinary degree of depravity within these 30 years,” says Clinker, “then I must be infected with the common vice of old men, difficilis, querulus, laudator temporis acti [tiresome, complaining, a praiser of past times]; or, which is more probable, the impetuous pursuits and avocations of youth have formerly hindered me from observing those rotten parts of human nature, which now appear offensively to my observation.”
But you can be disappointed in the present without idealising the past. And Craig-Martin had an advantageous perspective. He belonged to two countries – America and his adopted Britain. Of the two, he had seen absolute transformation in only one: Britain. On the surface, the US had changed radically, he told me. But, underneath it was, he said, barely altered. When he visited, it was still the same place it was mid-century, when he was a boy.
What we think of as our perception of change in society tends to be the noticing of differences: things used to be a certain way, now they are another way. Often the difference involves technology – “I haven’t used a typewriter for so long” – or changes in government policy – “Can you believe we used to smoke on planes?”
To put those differences together to attain the cumulative significance of change over decades you have just lived through – a period too distant for journalism, too recent for history – is harder. We noticed when Margaret Thatcher began privatising council houses, and remember when a lot more people lived in council houses than they do now. We notice rocketing house prices, and remember when they were lower. We notice how in London more and more people are sharing smaller and smaller spaces.
These are the differences. But the generational change that encompasses them, since Thatcher, has been a large increase in the population of Britain without a corresponding increase in the number of homes, due to housing market failure and the abdication of responsibility by the state to do anything about it. It is simple but it is not obvious.
I don’t think it’s coincidence that it was around the time of that conversation with Craig-Martin, when I was hitting my early forties, that I became fascinated by the generational arc of the signature policy of the post-1979 Conservatives, privatisation; the way this extraordinary change wasn’t a set of straightforward, one-off acts – “You’re nationalised, boom, you’re privatised, the end” – but an unfolding series of steps and consequences whose shape is still emerging decades after shares in water or electricity companies first went on the market.
To perceive such shapes you need that much-maligned sixth sense, hindsight. Hindsight, the sense that may generate grumpy old men and sentimental affection for a non-existent past idyll but is also a prerequisite for wisdom, is the only sense we aren’t born with, and the only sense that grows sharper with age.
When you climb a hill out of town, at first you can only see the individual buildings around you. Gradually, as you gain height, it becomes possible to see the entire town. So it is as you climb through the years. It becomes possible to see not just individual events but the shape a series of events makes through time. You remember a wedding, children, rows, holidays, estrangement; eventually, you may perceive the shape of a failed marriage. You remember the privatisation of the railways, annoyances at ticket barriers, accidents, chaos; eventually, with effort, you may perceive the shape of a failed policy.
Not long ago I visited a coal power station at Cottam in Nottinghamshire. It had been privatised in 1991, along with the state organisation that built and ran it, the Central Electricity Generating Board. It was built where it was to be close to the coalfields that fed it. All but one had since closed. The coal I watched streaming in on conveyor belts came from abroad.
None of this was surprising. Margaret Thatcher took on the miners in the mid-1980s and beat them; the plant was privatised more than two decades ago; end of story. It was pretty much over for Britain’s coalminers by the 1990s. Terribly old news, and a bit fresh for the history books.
But when I visited I saw there was something else going on at Cottam – something that mocked the “privatisation” of 1991. The event of privatisation had seemingly occurred but, in fact, new privatisation events were still taking place, and the true shape of electricity privatisation through time was, is, still emerging.
For Cottam had been renationalised, but by the French government not the British. In 2000 it was acquired by the French state concern Electricité de France, which also owns a huge chunk of the rest of Britain’s electricity industry, including all its nuclear plants. There, in Nottinghamshire, all the supposed goals of privatisation – to dismantle state control over industry, to give ordinary Brits a financial stake in its success, to show inefficient, socialistic European state companies how much more successful privatised, entrepreneurial British executives would be – were being defeated, day by day, hour by hour.
Over the past decade, between writing novels, I’ve poked around in the British privatisation story. I looked at the privatisation of the British postal service, which is far from over, and can’t be separated from the much earlier privatisation of its Dutch equivalent; at the water industry, first privatised then, much later, alienated; at the privatisation of council houses, still trickling on after decades. In doing so, I’ve seen a gap emerge between what privatisation was supposed to be and what it has actually become over time. This suggests the Coetzean missing term for what has happened to Britain since 1979 is an expanded concept of “privatisation”.
The meaning that has taken up residence in the system describes not only privatisations in the narrow sense but subsequent developments such as government outsourcing, the delocalisation of Premier League football and the demutualisation of building societies.
This isn’t privatisation as a narrow financial-political exercise, but privatisation as the dispersal of control over national economies of democracies away from the nations in which they are manifest towards tax havens, multiple jurisdictions, super-rich families and authoritarian states.
Despite Craig-Martin’s perception of changelessness, what is happening in the US now shows how an economy that already seems overwhelmingly in private hands can still experience a form of privatisation. Tax inversion, whereby large, publicly quoted US corporations shape-shift from American firms with an overseas subsidiary to overseas firms with an American subsidiary, doesn’t, on the face of it, appear to have anything to do with privatisation as traditionally understood. Yet by labelling the tax-dodging strategy “unpatriotic”, President Obama and his fellow Democrats have made it clear they believe the American nation still has some transcendental claim over the likes of Burger King, Walgreens and Pfizer.
With hindsight, it was always likely that, if the government of a country like Britain constantly broadcast an anti-government message – that its own employees were a danger to prosperity, that salvation lay with private enterprise – mere flotation on the stock market couldn’t be the end of privatisation; it would have to go further, be more private, more set apart. Publicly quoted companies must become private equity companies, and private equity companies must become multi-jurisdictional entities, based everywhere and nowhere. That which was supposed to be private with respect to a government becomes private with respect to a people.
Hindsight is of little practical use without its counterpart, foresight. Yet in a way that, too, is being privatised. I interviewed a wealth management expert in London, a woman who specialised in advising extremely rich families how to protect and expand their treasure. I asked her how far ahead a wise family would plan. “A hundred years,” she said.
Not being wealthy enough to have sought her services, this was a revelation. It was one thing to know that the fourth dimension of the economy, the dimension of time, mattered. But this was being dragged to the brink of the well of economic time and obliged to look into its dizzying depths. How, I wondered, could democratic governments, with their rodent-class lifespan of four to seven years, hope to keep up with jurisdiction-hopping billionaire clans shuffling their assets to a century-long schedule? Or, indeed, with the generational strategies of big commercial corporations, or the sovereign wealth funds of authoritarian states like China and Russia?
The few hundred British politicians who represent the interests of non-billionaires do have help as they flit in and out of power. Civil servants are society’s wealth manager. We pay them to have foresight. But, in the view of Margaret Thatcher’s heirs, society doesn’t need wealth managers; ordinary citizens are served by the free market, individual choice and enlightened self-interest. State-sponsored foresight smacks of central planning, and central planning is a Soviet relic, or worse.
Earlier this year a Conservative minister, Francis Maude, reacted to the “discovery” of an internal Whitehall job spec for mandarins, which pointed out that the long-term concerns of bureaucrats and the short-term wants of politicians were bound to conflict, as if it were the amber light for a putsch.
Tesco is thinking more than five years ahead. So is Electricité de France, and Siemens, and the Chinese government, and Exxon, and Google. They apply the wisdom of hindsight, and they look generations ahead. In the real world, when you strip the state of its duty to make long-term plans, or denigrate the practice, you don’t liberate citizens from planning. You make them subject to the private plans of others.
James Meek’s is the author of ‘Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else’ (Verso) £12.99
Photographs: Sarah Rose; Rex
Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published