Norman Tebbit, once Margaret Thatcher's Chingford Skinhead, is not everyone's idea of a guru.
Calm serenity was never his style; compassion never his hallmark. But in Tory circles his lordship's populist instincts generally command respect. When he gives warning, the smarter whippersnappers pay heed.
It was striking, then, to see the now aged Mr Tebbit on Channel 4 News the other night as he passed judgment on Royal Mail privatisation. As history records, even Mrs Thatcher drew the line at this. Anything that wasn't nailed down could be flogged off, but the image of the Queen's head was not a bauble to be traded. Mr Tebbit has not forgotten that, nor the potency of symbolism.
So he placed his own preferred limits on those market forces he has otherwise worked to liberate. Royal Mail, he told Channel 4, must on no account pass into foreign ownership. Mr Tebbit, you sensed, had heard a rumbling in the Shires, with worse to follow should an overseas operator demean an institution with the word royal attached. Then he said some-thing that was still more interesting.
Whatever happens, he argued, the universal service obligation must remain. At a stroke, he contradicted several of his most cherished principles. Why insist that any buyer of Royal Mail should be forced to give exactly the same labour-intensive service and delivery commitment to every corner of these islands, urban and rural, at exactly the same price?
A proper free-market Tory would have said it was unfair to expect the private sector to maintain thousands of inherently unprofitable delivery routes. An Iain Duncan Smith would probably have called it a spare country cottage subsidy. If the logic of privatisation was being applied, by Mr Tebbit or today's ministers, words like realistic, unaffordable and competitive would have settled every argument.
Where Royal Mail is concerned, Mrs Thatcher's old lieutenant knows better. Rural Tories have not been enthralled by David Cameron's government. What they understand as their way of life has not been well served. So they join with 70% of the wider public in saying that £3 billion from a sale does not begin to match the value of what is being put at risk. Among voters, the lessons of previous privatisations have been learned.
Ministerial attempts at reassurance are short of reassuring. Michael Fallon, a business minister, says there are "no plans" to dispense with the service obligation. His promise will be backed, he says, by an act of Parliament. But those, by definition, come and go. Equally, a private company is itself obliged to get the best return possible for its shareholders. How would the board forever justify delivering granny's Christmas card at a loss to the wrong end of a glen?
Mr Fallon is keen to talk, meanwhile, about a privatised mail service gaining access to capital markets and the ability to "invest in the future". He fails to explain that a state-backed enterprise can always borrow more cheaply than a private firm. The minister advertises the successes of privatisation in Germany and Austria. He forgets to mention the high and ever-rising cost of a stamp in those countries.
Mr Fallon also overlooks the privatisation experience in the Netherlands, where PostNL is now demanding the right to cut deliveries to three days a week. The minister also forgets to explain that the United States, bastion of the free market, has rejected privatisation out of hand. US Postal Service is a big loss-maker, unlike the Royal Mail, but a "free-market solution" is not acceptable. Why would that be?
In the year to April, Britain's service made a profit of £403 million. The days when Tories could deride a basket case dependent on state support are gone. The art of letter-writing might be dying, but other forms of mail - junk, if you prefer - are doing pretty well. Above all, online retailing and its needs provide a guaranteed and growing source of income. As to "access to capital", there is no reason why Royal Mail should not be granted the same rights as Network Rail, which borrows freely despite its chequered history.
Somehow, nevertheless, a profitable delivery service must be privatised while the loss-making Post Office Ltd - "counters", in the jargon - remains in public hands. As with the railways, in other words, the scheme of genius is split apart an integrated operation. So what happens to your local post office, beloved of rural Tories and others besides? Mr Fallon talks of a 10-year contract between the private side and the public. And after a decade?
You can probably guess. You can guess what will happen to an "uneconomic" network of sorting depots and ponder the lesson while you drive miles to pick up a parcel. You can guess what will happen to the service obligation if the privatised Royal Mail ever risks a loss. You can guess what will happen to pay and conditions, poor enough to begin with, for postal workers.
The only thing you need not worry over is the pensions legacy of Royal Mail. George Osborne, the Chancellor, has taken care of that while avoiding any suggestion that he was interfering with market forces. Had he not helped himself to £28bn of pension assets while hiding £38bn of liabilities within the state system, no sale would have been possible. Now free enterprise can truly thrive.
As business secretary, Vince Cable has given his blessing to all of this. Liberal Democrats gathered in Glasgow might care to ponder that. A profitable service the public wants to keep in public hands is to be floated - in the middle of strike action, too - at vast social cost, all for the sake of £3bn. Dr Cable is fine with that, just as Mr Fallon is fine with that. Norman Tebbit is meanwhile uneasy, yet the coalition does not pause.
Soon enough, someone will claim that the privatisation must go ahead because of EU directives obliging member nations to open up their postal markets to competition. This was Labour's excuse when Peter Mandelson toyed with privatisation. It is, at best, a half truth. As most other European countries have demonstrated, competition does not lead inevitably to the dismantling of a state service.
As with so many things, not least the railways, Labour is evasive on the possibility of re-nationalisation for the Royal Mail. It has mastered the principles of opposition where the exercise is concerned. It understands the public mood as well as anyone. It grasps that a service is at stake. But it is struck mute by timidity when the obvious conclusions have to be drawn.
The evidence says that customers will be ill-served, that prices will go up, that irreplaceable infrastructure will be lost, and that profits and revenues will be lost. For the likes of Mr Fallon and Mr Osborne, ideological imperatives are in play, even if the game has to be rigged to allow privatisation to proceed. Those liable to benefit will be few in number and, pace Mr Tebbit, unlikely to be British.
This time, at least, we are being spared Sid and any nonsense about the emergence of a share-owning democracy. This time, the public are not fooled. But no-one in government is paying the slightest attention to their opinions, far less to their wishes or needs.
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