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Independent Green Voice

PUBLIC OWNERSHIP: A Position Statement

Alistair McConnachie writes: We believe that people should be encouraged to think positively about not-for-profit services in the public domain but we do not make a fetish of "public ownership" or "private ownership" -- as do some on the Left and Right.

People who rigidly adhere to one or the other forms of ownership are working purely from dogmatic ideology.

Some people don't like the idea of "public ownership" because it smacks of "state control" which they associate with tyranny. While a state monopoly of the "means of production" -- as in Communism -- would be a disaster, that does not mean that an element of state control, per se, is wrong.

State control simply means public-ownership, which means, theoretically at least, it is controlled by, and accountable to, the public who elect the government -- that's us!

There's nothing wrong with that in principle!

However, during the 1970s, when there was a great deal of havoc in state-controlled industries, the very prefix "British" -- as in British Leyland, or British Coal, or British Rail -- became synonymous, for some, with inefficiency, left-wing militancy and poor management.

The word "British" became synonymous with something to be avoided rather than something positive, in which to invest national pride. Public ownership was given a bad name!

Let us consider both Public Services, and Publicly-owned Industries.

The main argument for Public Services is that they are not run as profit-making ventures.

Consequently, it can be argued that because there is no competition for profits, more money can be spent ensuring high standards of public safety. It can be argued that the competition for profit in the private sector, risks cutting corners to the detriment of public safety -- that private companies may minimise quality of provision in their efforts for market profit.

On the other hand, it can be argued that private ownership can improve safety, as different companies improve their standards in the effort to compete -- although this can lead to duplication of bureaucracy and other non-productive features. For example, take gas, where there is only one network of pipes and one supply of the item, but numerous companies calling themselves "suppliers"!

Further, it can be argued that the public sector is more accountable to the public, although it has to be said that private companies are also accountable to the law -- although international law which favours corporations, is a growing issue.

So there is no cut and dried formula which works in every case, and the lesson is to avoid dogmatism.

We advocate a balance between public and private ownership, in contrast to the polarisation between some on the Left who want to take everything into public ownership, and some on the Right who want everything to be privatised.

Such dogmatic ideology gives a bad name to the concepts of public and private ownership alike!

Here is a set of principles from which to judge each case and from which to make the appropriate decision.


    We ask: Is it the public sector or private sector, in this particular instance, which is best able to deliver long-term provision for all the people of the country, with the minimum of external dependence?
    Does it meet our PASS standard? That is, which method is most Productive, Accountable, Safe, and Sustainable
    We encourage a positive ethos of public service, just as we encourage private initiative.
    We keep under public ownership those assets related to vital national infrastructure and security and those areas which require the highest safety standards. These include: Police, Armed Forces, Water, the Roads ("the Queen's Highway"), Nuclear Power, Sewage Systems, the Electric Grid.

Guided by these principles we apply them as follows:

All citizens should have access to high-quality public health care and education. But there is no reason why all health care, or education, should be public, just as it would be wrong for it all to be privatised.

And lest anyone presume this argument has been settled, there is a move underway in the Scottish Parliament to deprive private schools of their charitable status, in order to undermine them financially.

For the regressive class-warrior dogmatists who infest Scottish public life, it is never about building up to high standards, but about dragging high standards down -- all because of their dogmatic and highly backward approach to public ownership.

Similarly, we should all have access to high-quality public transport. However, we are not opposed to private companies who wish to compete, where practical, with a fully-subsidised and integrated public transport network.

Elements of energy production can be privatised without harm to the public good, although some will point out with justification that solar, wind, waves, oil and coal, are all "nature's gifts, offered freely to all" and should therefore be under public control and not subject to private exploitation for profit.

In that regard, while we have no objection to private companies selling energy to the grid, the grid must be public. The grid -- the core strategic backbone of our energy infrastructure -- must be publicly-owned.

"State-owned industries lead to inefficiency because they don't need to compete and so they stagnate, and the workers think they have jobs for life so don't make an effort."
In the effort to remedy this, we need to be careful not to destroy our industries altogether! We should be guided by the principle of National Self-Reliance rather than abandoning everything to the global economy. The economy is here to serve the people. We are not here to serve the economy!

"State-owned services and industries can be playgrounds for mini-Stalins to flex their power and indulge their hostile class-warrior fantasies."
This does not mean that public ownership per se is a bad thing. Rather, in order to protect the integrity of public ownership, there is a case for union laws which restrict mini-Stalins using core public sectors, destructively, as their fiefdoms.

We have to be aware that some union leaders are militant Marxists/Trotskyites. For them, the workers and the industry alike are just a temporary and exploitable, but ultimately disposable, means to a greater revolutionary end. Their own power and the "class war" and "workers' world revolution" are more important to them than the future of the industry they represent, much less the interests of the country or the workers they claim to lead.

Therefore, union laws should be judged by the extent to which they strengthen the integrity of public ownership, rather than the extent to which they strengthen the union, or the mini-Stalin.

That is, any union law must benefit the long-term viability of the public sector in question, as measured by its PASS standards -- its productivity, accountability, safety and sustainability.

If it will merely empower some mini-Stalin to wreck the industry with impunity, then it is a bad law and will destroy the integrity of public ownership in the long-term.

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