ON a cold October morning, the BBC's Robert Peston has been bending a few vowels over the demand for Royal Mail shares.
He talks of "a wall of investors' money" in hot pursuit of this public asset. The only surprise is that the correspondent sounds even slightly surprised.
The offer is, in essence, a gift to those who can borrow their betting money at the lowest possible interest rates, all at your expense. Thanks to the Bank of England, the cost of funding a punt on Royal Mail is far less than, say, paying the average electricity bill.
Energy firm SSE, which has its headquarters in Perth, reckons that only an 8.2% rise will do for one of those, come November. The company has said it is very sorry. It blames "conditions", the Government, green obligations and something called "the world". It takes the view that there is no choice in the matter.
Last week's announcement was illuminating, for all that. Neither the government nor the opposition managed to say a useful word. Ed Miliband made rousing statements to the Labour Party conference, promising to cap such bills for a while. Yet here was his answer, almost a rude gesture, with an increase that made talk of inflation a joke. The other power firms will follow suit: this you can guarantee.
Absent from all the comment was an ugly fact: People will die this winter because of SSE's increase. The company will no doubt insist, with due indignation, that it takes every possible step to assist the needy. That's not how things work in "the world". The old and the vulnerable, in lives where pennies matter, will only hear "8.2%" and leave the heating off. This, too, you can guarantee.
When did that version of reality become forgotten? On TV, as I write, the talking heads are excited because 78 million Royal Mail shares have been shifted in a few hours. No-one is asking what privatisation of the company will truly mean. More to the point, no-one is asking where all the buying power came from in a country that is alleged to be broke. Suddenly, billions of pounds are being conjured up.
The privatisation, like the price rise, brings to mind an old question: "Who runs Britain?" Ted Heath posed that one when he wanted us to believe that miners were a threat to national order. In a version of ironic contrast, we know that Britain is run by the big six power companies, by those who hawk shares in public property, by those who demand bonuses while imposing austerity on the rest, and by a supporting cast of cartoon characters.
Their confidence is a little startling. SSE did not imagine that anyone, least of all the Government, would intervene. The possibility that a minister would step up and declare the price rise a forbidden outrage was too silly for words. There was not even an attempt to analyse the fun sums used to achieve an 8.2% result. Instead, we got Vince Cable wittering about a lack of competition. Someone should introduce Dr Vince to the word "cartel".
In this version of the world, the general population exists to be taxed. Put aside the coalition's economic voodoo and the proposition is simple: You will have your wages reduced and your taxes increased until the profits from fractional reserve banking and other fascinating pursuits return to levels that suit "investors". Meantime, anything that isn't nailed down will be sold off.
I live on Scotland's east coast, just above the Border. Last week, I was in Wigtown, almost exactly parallel, off in the west. Both exist in a vulnerable state that is not immediately obvious. If either loses the connections afforded by the Royal Mail we used to know, they will be diminished once again. If either has a hard winter, 8.2% will be more than just a number.
What ought to be clear is that Britain is being run for the benefit of a very few people. The point is no longer party political, since the Westminster parties no longer challenge the claims of the elite. Those very few got away with the great banking scam and obliged the rest of us to pick up the bill. They ought to have been chastened. Instead, they were emboldened. Royal Mail would be a conspicuous example.
Patently, the few do not pause to wonder if their actions might have consequences. An electorate so bovine it will hold itself to blame for the crimes of international banking is liable to swallow anything. When it is told that there is no alternative to falling wages, rising prices, youth unemployment and the destruction of communities, the chances are that it will nod, collectively and mutely.
The first reaction is political apathy; the second private despair. In these islands, weirdly, individual self-harm has become a substitute for collective action. There might be "social unrest" in due course but I wouldn't book your riot just yet. When the likes of SSE says "8.2% or else" the reaction is a weary sigh from people who just want to do the right thing. For the elite, this is ideal.
Alex Salmond says he will renationalise Royal Mail if he wins his version of independence. I admire his spirit, but I'd like to check his numbers. One feature of these privatisations has to do with putting assets beyond the public's reach. If the markets understand anything, they understand essential value.
As I write, the shares are still being traded. Meanwhile, there is no suggestion that SSE should go off and think again about its price rise. "The world" proceeds serenely. Some people will die because of 8.2%; some places will cease to be when the mail no longer comes.
The Royal Mail as it was depended on one of those great pieces of found poetry, a bureaucrat's accidental eloquence. It was an attempt to define the idea that you got your post regardless of geography or class, weather, price or any other circumstance. The idea was caught in the phrase "universal service obligation".
Coalition ministers say that this obligation will be preserved after privatisation. I don't believe them. The clumsy words are a description - or an epitaph - for a Britain that is passing away. There is no profit in service or obligation, least of all when you wish these things to be universal. There is profit in 8.2% in a market arranged for the benefit of the seller.
I've never bought a share in my life. I have taken steps, in fact, to ensure that no shares can ever be bought on my behalf, even by proxy. I have the wrong attitude entirely, so they tell me. But I prefer to regard it as an obligation.
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