FOR those of us inclined to believe that the world is going to hell in a handcart there is no need to look any further than the sad saga of the Royal Mail.
That it has been in a sorry state for many moons is hardly news. To the advertising slogan telling us that "the post office does many things" the natural retort is: "but how many of them does it do well?"
It has long seemed to me that successive Westminster governments have made it their business to promote the dereliction of a service that was once an international model in order eventually to wrest it from doomed public ownership and hand it over for rescue to the altruists in the private sector.
You may call that cynical and I would not disagree with you. As I write, shares in Royal Mail are being gobbled up, primarily by big institutional investors such as pension funds, which would be daft to look a gift horse in the mouth. Individuals can also buy shares and many have undoubtedly done so. But I wish they had not, for it seems to me bizarre that you should invest in something that, until now, you owned. Such, however, is the increasingly crazy situation in which we find ourselves.
Yesterday I popped into my local post office. Not so long ago it occupied a handsome Victorian building which exuded authority. There, when you passed over a parcel, you felt it would arrive safely and timeously at its destination. One felt confident not only in the professionalism of the staff but the solidity of the building in which they worked. But a few years ago, when this country was in a hypnotic trance induced by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, that post office, which had operated continuously for the best part of a century, was closed.
Let me try and describe its successor. It is situated at the rear of a budget shop called Pound Plus. To draw your pension or to despatch a package you must negotiate aisles replete with tat. At present, Pound Plus has gone overboard on Halloween, though the turnip lanterns on sale are plastic. You know you've reached the corner of the store devoted to the post office by the queue in which you must wait until one of the two assistants at the three windows is free. Then, in full view and hearing of everyone, you can transact your business.
Of course, there is no point in railing against those personnel who must deal directly with the public. Like bank tellers, they are innocent of all charges. Similarly, it is futile to point to the men and women who deliver the mail for perceived failings in the system.
I know my postman quite well and I am in awe at the speed and courtesy with which he does his round. But how long will he last? Not very if the experience of his predecessors is anything to go by. One of them told me he'd previously been on duty in Iraq but it had been a holiday, he said, compared to working for Royal Mail.
His former colleagues are considering whether to go on strike over privatisation. In order to pre-empt them they have been offered £2000-worth of shares in the new company which they will be unable to sell for three years.
This seems to me the kind of blatant bribe that's crying out to be rejected and I trust it will be. For these are the employees who've helped turn the Royal Mail into a highly profitable company. Just last year, for example, it made £440m.
Quite why anyone would want to sell such a moneyspinner seems to me mad. But I'm not Warren Buffet or George Osborne. If all goes to plan the sale will reap the Government more than £3bn. Sure, it's a windfall but managed well the Royal Mail could make that much and more in a few years. With the honourable exception of First Minister Alex Salmond, few politicians see any future in public ownership for this much-cherished institution. One of its illustrious servants was the great Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope, who introduced the pillar box to Britain. Indeed, it would take a Trollope to explain the rationale behind the current scheme. After all, it's the way we live now.
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