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Public Disgrace: Why Britain is now a private island

By explaining the privatisation of our mail, railways, water, electricity, health and homes, Meek demonstrates that Britain now belongs to someone else

Like the frog swimming in the saucepan of water on the stove, it’s often difficult for us to see how we got to where we are and, more importantly, where things are heading. A comfortable temperature soon becomes unbearable. Very quickly, it’s too late to get out.

James Meek’s new book takes up the story as the water begins a rolling boil. Meek is primarily known as a novelist, but his non-fiction essays in the London Review of Books have a knack of capturing a moment. Alongside another LRB contributor John Lanchester, and Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty (both of whom have blurbed for this book), his essays have helped articulate the impact of a growing and quickening gap in equality that has emerged over the past two decades.

After the London riots, Meek wrote a blog post ‘On Broadway Market’ that encapsulated the ‘two worlds’ writ large in London’s districts that become gentrified areas, and his essay on housing ‘Where Will We Live’ brought him to many new readers. It was an unlikely internet phenomenon − the several-thousand-word essay that goes viral. The piece told the story of the sorry state of the UK’s − and the South East and London in particular − housing market, or rather, its sorry state from the point of view of anyone who may want to live in a home that doesn’t require them to earn twice the national household income.

The housing essay was a good example of the space Meek describes as the ‘obscure realms of events that are too fresh for history, too old for journalism’, an under-explored but rewarding seam. Five further essays explore the postal service, the railways, water, electricity and healthcare in the UK that together form a damning picture of how privatisation has transformed our everyday lives and our body politic.

‘The salesman thinks more often of making a sale than the consumer thinks he is being sold to; the lobbyist thinks more often of the loophole than the politician of closing it’

Meek has a knack for weaving through descriptions of the complex contractual and legislative minutiae that are the handmaidens to untold privatisations, regulator agreements, holding companies and pension funds with very real personal anecdotes. In a foresight of what may soon become a commonplace in the poorer districts of English cities, he takes us round the apartment of a Dutch postal worker. She delivers for two private mail companies. Unfettered by regulations that require sorting to happen on their sites − as the Royal Mail is required to do so − her employer Selektmail would twice a week deliver three or four crates of letters, for her to sort and deliver. She had a backlog, and her tiny flat was overflowing with unsorted mail. At one point she had 97 unsorted boxes in her small flat. Much of the mail would be delivered late, some would be lost. She gets approximately €5 an hour, no holiday or sick pay and no pension.

In his chapter on the NHS he pinpoints the difficulty state-run companies face when they deal with private institutions, referencing Stendhal, ‘the salesman thinks more often of making a sale than the consumer thinks he is being sold to; the lobbyist thinks more often of the loophole than the politician of closing it’.

In this book Meek has distilled several decades of incremental temperature increases − to go back to our frog − and rendered them vividly, in an easy-to-comprehend manner, threaded through six compelling tales. Having all this in one place is provocative enough. Meek doesn’t stop there. His argument is that there has been a sort of meta-privatisation afoot. By handing over essential services to private companies, Meek argues, the state has outsourced its taxation obligations. Cutting income taxes while handing over ‘taxation’ to utility companies has made for an increase in regressive taxation, quickening the transfer of wealth from the many to the few. This process is made the more corrosive by the lack of accountability that the diffusion of capital has made for.

The pensioner in the bungalow, the family in the tower block and the student working weekend shifts; these people are no longer citizens, they are assets, from whom liquidity and surplus value can be extracted. It doesn’t have to be like that, and being able to understand the problem is the first step in combating it. For that reason − and for the excellent prose within − you should buy this book.

Private Island: Why Britain now Belongs to Someone Else

Author: James Meek
Publisher: Verso
Price: £12.99

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