By Will Hutton,
The Observer, Sunday 6th April 2007
Even 12 months ago nationalisation seemed a quaint notion from yesteryear - as remote from today's concerns as big band music, ration coupons and nylons. Nobody who wanted to be taken seriously by mainstream opinion could ever champion the self-evidently economically wasteful and amoral act of nationalisation.
But a credit crisis that has forced the reluctant nationalisation of one bank in Britain, Northern Rock, and the socialisation of some £15bn of loans of another in America, Bear Stearns, is forcing mainstream opinion to think the unthinkable. The chief executive of Deutsche Bank, Josef Ackermann, has announced that he no longer believes in 'the markets' self-healing power' and wants extensive government intervention. It was always true that companies, the market and the state are inextricably linked and that public action is crucial to a well functioning market economy. Now it is newly legitimate.
It is an important moment. Most of the electorate accepted the argument that a period of public stewardship for Northern Rock represented the best pragmatic deal for the taxpayer while safeguarding the financial system. If there was any complaint it was that the government had been too slow to act rather than that it was returning to the dark days of statist socialism - however hard the Conservative party tried to press home the attack.
Pragmatism and nationalisation may seem to modern eyes mutually exclusive, but, as I have discovered in exploring postwar nationalisation for a documentary, they have always been closely intertwined. There has been a mutual conspiracy of right and left to portray nationalisation as the ultra-ideological attempt to 'secure the full fruit of the workers' industry by hand or by brain through organising the common ownership of the means of production' as the now abolished Clause 4 of the Labour party constitution declared. It suited the left as proof that socialism was happening, and it suited the right as proof that privatisation dismantled socialism.
The sound and fury, though, disguised a more complex reality. In both Britain and France the coalition in favour of nationalisation after the war extended well beyond the left-wing parties and the trade unions. British Conservatives and French Gaullists, along with businesspeople and professionals, were strongly in favour for the same pragmatic reasons that lay behind the nationalisation of Northern Rock. In the circumstances of 1945, the idea that private companies, who had only survived the Thirties via trade protection and price-fixing cartels, and who, in France, had collaborated with the Nazis, were going spontaneously to spearhead the reconstruction of devastated war-torn economies was risible. The propositions of a Thatcher or Milton Friedman would have been met with gales of derision. The state had won the war. It now had to win the peace by mounting programmes of investment and modernisation that were beyond the capacities of the private sector.
The voices from the time are inspiring. The last train of Great Western Railways swept through Reading station on New Year's Eve 1947, its new owners the British people, and the station manager waved in his pleasure. Miners hoped that public ownership would open up the chance for more teamwork and partnership to create the profits that would give them the same living standards as other workers. Hope was in the air. The homecoming heroes, as Tony Benn says of his troop ship in 1945, were unprepared to return to the conditions of the Thirties. And they were right.
Nor were their hopes quite so comprehensively trashed as our folklore has it. The LSE's Professor David Stevenson told me that close examination of the data shows that throughout the Fifties and Sixties the performance of the nationalised industries in terms of productivity and growth matched or exceeded their private-sector counterparts. It was in the inflationary Seventies, when the Heath, Wilson and Callaghan governments compelled the nationalised industries to hold down their prices, and thus their profits, as core parts of ill-considered prices and incomes policies, that things began to go seriously wrong.
These industries needed to be more arm's length from government, rather as the BBC is today. Then they would have had a better chance of sustaining their earlier success. But, amazingly, when nationalisation was being implemented in 1945 there was no worked-out plan to hand. The default option was to run the newly nationalised industries as de facto arms of central government, so that in the Seventies they became locked into public investment cuts and price controls with such disastrous results.
France had thought through the practicalities of nationalisation more carefully. It was evident that the postwar French private sector needed support in every way - with finance, markets and capacity-building - that only careful state planning could provide. Planning was the pragmatic response to French capitalism's chronic weakness.
In this age of globalisation, the symbiotic relationship between the state and private companies remains, even if more subtly than in the Forties. It is not just that companies need the skills and public infrastructure that the state provides, it is that important parts of how they do business are also licensed or helped by the state, as is inevitable in a democracy. Margaret Thatcher used this power when, for example, she gave the radio spectrum to mobile phone operator Vodafone for free; but banks, retailers, oil companies, drug and defence companies are helped similarly. Nationalisation is but an extreme example of this more general truth.
In Britain we refuse to accept the proposition, chasing after the chimera of 100 per cent private-sector solutions and regarding nationalisation as a prohibited taboo. As a result we have never invested in making public ownership work, despite its necessity. After all, Northern Rock was preceded by the renationalisation of the railway infrastructure and the nationalisation of one of London Underground's contractors, Metronet. If we want the best from our public utilities and infrastructure, these may well be the pragmatic precursors of more. How much better to try to do public ownership well, rather than follow the British fiction that it should not be done at all.
· Nationalise It is broadcast on Radio 4 on Monday 7 April at 8pm