Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Suffering at Wars’ Ends


This article was published in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation on December 11 2011 but has disappeared from their website.


War is hell and the suffering goes on after war’s end.


Over the past few years, there have been many books describing what happened at the end of the Second World War. The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War by Ben Shephard was published in April 2010. After the Reich: The Brutal History of the Allied Occupation by Giles McDonogh was published in July 2007. The Struggle for Europe by William Hitchcock was published in January 2003. Walter Laqueur’s books on post-war Europe came out in 1992. John Roberts, Norman Davies, Mark Mazower and Richard Vinen, David Calleo, and last but not least, the late, great Tony Judt,  have produced  strong analytical work examining Europe’s future in the light of what its 20th-century past reveals.


Scholars have had 67 years to assess the six years of World War 2. Sri Lanka has only had just over two years to come to terms with nearly 30 years of internal war.


In 1945, the Allies had to deal with  10 to 15 million DPs (displaced persons) –  concentration camp victims, foreign workers and slave laborers and  destitute Germans. The UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) was set up to deal with DPs. Shephard is sympathetic but also describes incompetence and political manipulation. Some UNRRA functionaries made mistresses of Polish DPs. Others engaged in crime.


One thing for DPs to do after years of deprivation was to get blind drunk. Two thousand people died from alcohol poisoning  in two months after war’s end. Many DPs reacted to freedom with sexual abandon. At Wildflecken DP Camp in Bavaria, the Virgin Mary in the “Holy Manger” Christmas show had gonorrhoea. The birth rate in DP camps rocketed.


Not everyone was ready to debauch. Richard Wollheim, later a distinguished philosopher, was tasked with organising  a dance party for British soldiers and female survivors in Bergen-Belsen. The party ended in mayhem, with panicking women expecting nothing but more torment from uniformed men


“Resettlement” was not an easy task. Shephard describes American soldiers dragging terrified Russians and Ukrainians to assembly points. They were often being sent in open cattle trucks to their deaths in Russia or Yugoslavia. British soldiers, sometimes with tears in their eyes, had to force about 70,000 people who had, in many cases already suffered terribly under the Germans, to go back to a more horrendous  fate.


McDonogh describes the rape and pillage that went with Red Army “liberation” of  Eastern Europe. Native populations turned on ethnic Germans with frightening ferocity. Whole  communities of Germans, up to 16 million, who had lived outside the Reich for generations, were violently uprooted. Old men, women, and children were forced to march westward, or crammed into cattle cars in which they sometimes froze to death. The most conservative estimate that  600,000 German civilians were killed at this time is still high. The savagery was comparable to what the Nazis had inflicted. Schools and public buildings became torture centres. Up to 15,000 Germans were held at Strahov soccer stadium in Prague, where  the guards amused themselves by forcing thousands to run for their lives and then machine-gunning them.


The Americans set up PWTEs (Prisoner of War Temporary Enclosures) which make Menik Farm seem like Club Med.  In the spring of 1945, some 40,000 prisoners died of hunger and exposure in the twelve open camps containing a million men. The Americans had burned their kit, so they had nothing to protect them from the elements.


The British and Americans also set up Direct Interrogation Centres to find major war criminals or  subversive activity. Their function soon changed to gathering intelligence against the Russians. Prisoners were tortured by guards with scores to settle. Methods are familiar today from their use in Northern Ireland, Iraq and Afghanistan and CIA centres all over the world: savage beatings, starvation, deprivation of sleep, and removal of clothing. Men were kept standing for hours. Many never came out alive.


At Schwäbish Hall, near Stuttgart, Americans used methods similar to  those employed by the SS in Dachau. Prisoners endured  long periods in solitary confinement. Men were led off in hoods and  lifted off the ground to convince them they were about to hang.  When the Americans set up a commission of inquiry, they found that, of the 139 cases they examined, 137 had “had their testicles permanently destroyed by kicks received from the American War Crimes Investigation team.”


NGOs such as Human Rights Watch were strongly critical of GOSL’s  decision to keep civilians in IDP camps. More extreme sections of the Tamil Diaspora accused the government of having a genocidal agenda and referred to extermination camps. David Begg, leader of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, took time off from watching his members lose jobs and welfare benefits as the Irish economy went  rapidly downhill, to take  an interest in far-away Sri Lanka. He claimed that 1,000 people were dying every week in concentration camps.


The UN Refugee Agency reported that there were around 16 million refugees and 26 million IDPs in the world at the end of 2008. In recent years it has been increasingly tasked under the UN’s humanitarian reform process with assisting IDPs.


War is hell and the suffering goes on after war’s end. Some wars just do not end.


Today, 63 years after the foundation of the state of Israel, five million Palestine refugees are eligible for UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency) services.


This article was published in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation on December 19 2011.

One reads a lot about the democratic deficit in Sri Lanka.  Sri Lankan, as well as western commentators,  bemoan the weakness of the Sri Lankan opposition and the gathering of power to the executive through the 18th amendment and the use of urgent bills and gazette notices. We read about the inspiring hunger for democracy in nations like Libya, Egypt and Syria, where people are prepared to die (and kill) for democracy.

I thought it might be instructive to see how that democracy thing is working out in some of those countries that have had it for a long time.

First let us attempt an analysis of the concept itself. According to Raymond Williams in Keywords, democracy is an old word, but its meanings  have always been complex. The word first entered the English language in the 16th century, as a translation from the Greek demos – people, and kratos – rule. Of course, it all depends on what you mean by “people” and what you mean by “rule”.

Aristotle wrote that “a democracy is a state where the freemen and the poor, being in the majority, are invested with the power of the state”. What does “power of the state” actually mean? Socrates, according to Plato, said, ”democracy comes into being after the poor have conquered their opponents , slaughtering some and banishing some, while to the remainder they give an equal share of freedom and power”.

Aristotle’s disciple, St Thomas Aquinas, did not see democracy as a good thing. He defined democracy as popular power, where the ordinary people, by force of numbers oppressed the rich. Democracy was a form of tyranny. In my schoolboy study of American history, I noted the fear in the early days of independence of the canaille (pack of dogs),  the mob.

According to Raymond Williams, the most striking historical fact about the word democracy is that it was, until the 19th century, generally a highly derogatory term and it has only been since the early 20th century that most western political parties have felt the need to pay lip service to it.

The first constitution to use the word democracy was that of Rhode Island in 1641. What democracy meant in that document was that the people,  in “orderly assembly” made the laws and ministers “faithfully executed” them. Alexander Hamilton, in 1777, saw this as recipe for anarchy. He favoured representative democracy “where the right of election is well secured and regulated, and the exercise of the legislative executive and judicial authorities is vested in select persons”.

Today, Hamilton’s concept is all we are left with. Anyone who argues for the original idea of direct democracy might be seen as a dangerous radical. So the voter opts for a particular candidate and in doing so leaves  that candidate to make his or her own decisions. A majority of voters might be in favour of capital punishment but that counts as nothing against the opinion of the elected representative. A majority might be against the invasion of Iraq, but in a representative democracy their views have no standing. In a further twist, the views of the elected representatives do not count when balanced against the views of the Cabinet. The views of the Cabinet do not count against the views of the prime minister. In guarding against the tyranny of the mob, representative democracy gives tyrannical powers to one man who gets his way by lying.

Representative democracy, in effect, gives little power to the voter. The voter makes a choice on the basis of the party manifesto, the personality and record of a particular candidate. The only control over the candidate’s performance is to vote for someone else at the next election , which may be five years away. The candidate/representative may break every promise in the manifesto and may even change party but still stay in parliament without consulting the voters.

Rauf Hakeem said, way back in 2007, (I don’t recall which party he was supporting at the time): “The subject of political morality is a relative thing. The current electoral system does not give any government the confidence to try and deliver on the commitments made during the polls.” Hakeem is echoing the American philosopher Richard Rorty, who wrote: “Language is just human beings using marks and noises to get what they want.”

John Stuart Mill ran for the British parliament in 1865. His campaign was very unlike a modern one. He refused to spend any money. When he was asked by a raucous working class crowd if he had written that the working class were habitually liars, he had no hesitation in saying “yes”. The audience  cheered and one of their number stood up to announce that the workers needed friends not flatterers

One definition of democracy is “government of the people by the people”. What do we mean by “people”? Throughout history suffrage has been limited to certain groups – freemen, whites, property-owners, the educated, the mature in years. It may not be generally realised that Switzerland, often thought of as an ancient democracy (more of that in a later article) did not grant the vote to women in all elections until 1991.Women got the vote in Ceylon  in 1931.

“Democracy” is often seen as synonymous with liberal democracy, which is expected to  include elements such as political pluralism and equality before the law. Majority rule is often listed as a characteristic of democracy, but it is possible for a party or candidate to rule with a numerical minority of votes. See Bush v Gore.

Economists have found fault with democracy in general on the grounds that voters are uninformed about many issues, especially relating to economics. Democracy is criticised for not offering enough political stability or continuity. Pareto argued that democracy masked the reality that elite oligarchy is the unbendable law of human society, and that democratic institutions would do no more than shift the exercise of power from oppression to manipulation.

Pareto’s view is borne out by what we see in the world today. JS Mill would get nowhere. In the USA, no candidate can get elected without huge funding. This  allows corporate interests to call the shots. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the human rights of “persons” when it comes to campaign contributions.

Classical liberal theory sees capitalism and democracy as independent systems with disparate goals. Democracy restricts economic processes only to protect basic rights and does not limit wealth. Capitalism creates a large, wage-dependent class lacking the political power of the wealthy. Unrestricted global capitalism has created multi-national, non-democratic bodies with the impunity to override the environmental or labour laws passed by sovereign legislatures.

The EU has accrued many powers which allow it to override the wishes of voters in previously sovereign  nations. The crisis of global capitalism has not brought punishment on the perpetrators, who have been bailed out and given new power. Austerity measures and failed neo-liberal policies of privatisation, reduction in public services  and deregulation are being forced on individual governments by the troika of the EU, the ECB and the IMF. Look at Greece, often thought of as the birthplace of democracy. George Papandreou sought the views of his demos with a referendum and brought on his head the fury of Merkel and Sarkozy who had exacerbated the crisis. Papandreou was replaced by Lucas Papademos, a former vice-president of the European Central Bank, who promptly installed in the government a far-right group banned since the military government lost power in 1974. In Italy, the ludicrous (but elected) Berlusconi was replaced by ex-Goldman Sachs executive Mario Monti. The decision was made by the Italian president without consulting the voters. The next election is in 2013. In Ireland,  the voters did get the chance to throw out the corrupt scoundrels who got the nation in a mess, but now the Irish economy is being supervised by 15 unelected officials from Brussels, and even the (elected) cabinet is kept in the dark.

Is this version of democracy any better than the Sri Lankan one?

Commentators assert that the Sri Lankan parliament is populated by drug barons, rapists and murderers. It seems that European democracies are now ruled by the very banksters who toppled the economies.

The Devil’s Excrement

This article appeared in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation but has disappeared from their website.


In his treatise Petroleo y Dependencia, Dr. Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonzo, principle architect of OPEC, wrote: “Oil will bring us ruin. It’s the devil’s excrement. We are drowning in the devil’s excrement.”


Sri Lankan hopes of oil finds

Once again,  fantasies of Sri Lanka becoming oil-rich are bubbling to the greasy surface.

Sri Lanka imports nearly 30 million barrels of oil, which is used to generate electricity as well as for transport, every year. This used to cost around $800 million a year. In 2005 it cost $1.64 billion. In 2006 higher international prices took the bill to $2.2 billion. Add to this, $19 million per month in subsidies, the knock-on effect of transport costs on prices and the never-ending cost of war and reconstruction and one can see why the government would like to have its own oil.

India started exploring the Cauvery Basin in the Palk Strait as long ago as 1954, drilling 100 test wells. From 2000, India started production from fields close to Sri Lanka at the rate of 1,000 barrels per day. In the late 1970s, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, assisted by US and Russian companies, drilled seven test wells on and offshore in the Gulf of Mannar Basin without success. India’s success encouraged Sri Lanka to try again. The Cauvery and Gulf of Mannar basins are said to be associated with rift complexes of the Late-Jurassic-Cretaceous Age and have the potential to yield 100 million barrels.


An oil bonanza cannot be confidently predicted without drilling. Offshore wells require more than $10 million each and the investor loses it all if the well is dry. It will be at least five years before there is any return on the investment.


The Director General of Petroleum Resources, Dr Neil R de Silva said in January 2007 that the picture was still ‘fuzzy’ about how viable the fields were. “One of the requirements oil companies would be expected to meet in getting a licence for oil exploration would be a benefits plan – this would ensure employment for Sri Lankans and enable Sri Lankan manufacturers and service providers to take part on a competitive basis to supply goods and services.” He added that they must be competitive, efficient and trained. How can that work? He conceded that there was a serious shortage of  professionals to work in the field and that the industry needs to train  a certified labour force. There are no petroleum professionals coming through the education system.

The number of local people employed after the construction phase of the Chad-Cameroon pipeline was negligible in Cameroon and around 350 in Chad. In Ecuador, 50,000 new jobs a month were promised; there have been only 9,000 new jobs so far, mostly unskilled and temporary.

De Silva gave the Sunday Observer an update in March 2011. He did not sound very positive to me: “with the available data it is not possible to estimate the amount of oil in the Mannar Basin confidently… At the beginning of the oil production process the Sri Lankan Government’s share would be 15% and Cairn Lanka’s 85% … As the years go by, Sri Lanka’s share will increase to … 85% while Cairn Lanka’s share will come down to …15%”.



Oil and Corruption

As long ago as 2004, Transparency International estimated that billions of dollars were lost to bribery in public purchasing and oil seemed to guarantee corruption. Oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Angola, Azerbaijan, Chad, Ecuador, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya, Nigeria, Russia, Sudan, Venezuela and Yemen were highly corrupt. Public contracting in the oil sector is plagued by vanishing revenues.



Even if Sri Lanka’s oil exploration is successful, it is unlikely that many citizens  will benefit. Venezuela is to some extent an exception in that government policy has been to  use oil to improve the lot of the people as a whole. Even with Chavez’s reforms, problems persist and Caracas is one of the three most violent cities in the world.


Prof. Michael Ross of UCLA  produced a chart mapping  oil sales against literacy and malnutrition. Every  5% rise in oil exports was matched by a three-month fall in life-expectancy and a one-point rise in childhood malnutrition. Sri Lanka currently enjoys good WHO indicators, but child malnutrition figures are causing concern. This could get worse with the “benefits” of oil.


Terrorism and Environment


Spillages from sabotage sometimes occur. In Colombia  and Nigeria guerrillas persistently targeted pipelines. In 1995 the LTTE attacked CPC refinery and oil storage installations in Colombo causing several deaths and massive fires in the storage areas. Security fears undermine human rights. In more recent times the LTTE air force targeted oil installations.

The seismic vibrations generated by drilling can adversely affect buildings and the chemicals used can also deplete aquatic life in rivers and streams. Pollution can occur because of human error, sudden rupture of pipelines, or instrument failures.


So, does Sri Lanka want to be a nation where foreigners call the shots – a polluted nation, plagued by poverty and  inequality; where corruption, dynastic elites and nepotism compromise good governance and erode human rights?


Does Sri Lanka deserve the blessing of oil?


Ethical Dilemmas in the Gift Relationship

This article appeared in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation on November 6 but it has disappeared from their website.



Sophocles: “An enemy’s gift is ruinous and no gift”.

At its annual Berlin Humanitarian Congress, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) discussed  some of the ethical dilemmas it has faced over the past 40 years. The report, published this month,  is entitled  Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed: The MSF Experience.

Dutch journalist Linda Polman argued in her book War Games that humanitarianism has become a massive industry that, along with the global media, forms an unholy alliance with warmongers. She cites a damning catalogue of examples in which humanitarian aid has helped prolong wars, or rewarded the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing and genocide rather than the victims. Polman believes aid enabled the interhamwe, Rwandan  Hutu extremists, from the security of the UNHCR camps in Goma,  to continue their attempt to exterminate  Tutsis.

A number of people from the NGO world rushed to attack Polman but they failed to address substantively her central thesis. The May 2010 issue of Opinion, the journal of the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute, carried a long article by Matthew Foley intended to be a rebuttal of Polman’s book. Foley  complains:We tell donors that they’re not giving enough, while simultaneously telling ourselves that giving too much creates aid dependency… A lack of contextual knowledge, plus cultural insensitivity, often lead to inappropriate, unwanted or unsustainable projects. Displaced people are still herded into massive camps because delivering aid is easier and cheaper when they are in one place, despite evidence that camps are often incubators of disease and crime, and often develop into more-or-less permanent communities. At higher policy levels, we worry that humanitarian aid may become a substitute for the state, freeing governments of their responsibility to their own people.”

Fabrice Weissman, one of the co-authors of the MSF book was quoted as saying:

“In Sri Lanka in 2009, the government rounded up some 270,000 people it suspected of supporting Tamil rebels and then gave aid groups the job of providing the basic services. We did not want to be supporting a vast prison for an innocent civilian population which the state was unjustly labelling criminals, but we were also concerned about what would happen to the civilians if we didn’t assist them.”

Where did that crazy idea come from?! MSF adopted a more reasonable attitude on their website on September 24, 2009:


“The Sri Lankan Ministry of Health have mobilized significant resources from all over the country to provide health care in the camps; deploying doctors and nurses in 24 health structures, and therefore considers MSF medical assistance in the camps unnecessary. Some primary health care facilities have been set up in camp zones and a referral system has been implemented gradually since February. MSF teams are currently working in three hospitals outside the camps… Two of the Ministry of Health hospitals, Vavuniya General Hospital and Pompaimadu Hospital, are supported by MSF with extra human resources and some equipment. .. However, despite significant effort, the needs of a population trapped in conflict for so many years remain substantial and concerning. MSF is ready to scale up its activities to assist the Ministry of Health in their efforts to provide quality health care in the camps and during the resettlement process.”

When Henri Dunant set up the Red Cross, he was keen to stay neutral in any conflict. He wished to ease the suffering of all victims of war, which at that time were mostly soldiers. These days civilians are usually caught up, and even used as human shields, in conflicts. Dunant was opposed by Florence Nightingale who argued that Dunant’s compassionate vision was a charter for prolonging war. Linda Polman agrees with Nightingale that neutrality is as much of a problem as taking sides.

Humanitarianism is a multi-billion-dollar business – at least $18 billion in 2008. NGOs  are huge corporate businesses and they offer a career structure. NGO workers can build up an image of saintliness as well as developing a lucrative CV.

During the Sri Lankan conflict  there were many accusations of NGOs supporting the LTTE rebels beyond a reasonable boundary of humanitarian neutrality. Two employees of Care International were arrested and charged with plotting to assassinate defence minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. It  is interesting to note that Care is based in Atlanta, Georgia but in its mission statement specifically excludes itself from doing any poverty alleviation work in the USA. Is there no poverty in the USA? Athens-Clarke County in Georgia, home of REM, has 28.6% of its population living below the poverty line.

Giving humanitarian assistance directly to armed groups is another topic tackled in the MSF book. “Combatants are also human beings and sometimes they need humanitarian assistance more than civilians,” Weissman said. “When combatants are wounded we no longer consider them combatants.”

Considering the comments about the IDP camps, one wonders whether MSF were neutral when it came to those combatants known as the Tamil Tigers. Is Weissman expressing personal views or has the MSF, since September 2009, altered its stance and added to  the chorus of western lies about Sri Lanka?

I intend to write more later on the topic of aid.

The Irish Presidential Election

This article appeared in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation on 30 October 2011  but has now disappeared from their website.


It has just been announced that Michael D Higgins, a beaming little leprechaun, endorsed by  Martin Sheen is the new President of the Republic of Ireland. Higgins is a poet who has been minister of culture.

The Áras an Uachtaráin is not an executive presidency. Although it is mainly a ceremonial office strong personalities have been able to use it cannily. Eamon de Valera used his freedom fighter status (and his newspaper empire) to maintain the  totalitarian rule of the Catholic church. Mary Robinson used her international reputation, mighty intellect and even mightier charm to nudge Ireland into the modern world.

Contenders have come and gone and come back again. At one time there was speculation that Bob Geldof would put himself forward. In one of his more printable comments the ex-Boomtown Rat spoke of boom and bust. “The overwhelming feeling I have is one of sadness for the country – and of anger for the incompetence beyond measure, the sheer stupidity and the clear venality which has Ireland where it is now”. Saint Bob early decided it was not worth running.

There was pressure on Martin Sheen to use his experience of pretending to be a president on The West Wing to have a go at running a real country. He has Irish citizenship as well as a Master’s in philosophy from the University of Galway.

Fianna Fáil,  the party that has dominate Irish politics for decades. did not run an official candidate. but Sean Gallagher, although rejecting accusations that he  embraced his Fianna Fail past but denied the  Fianna Fail present, said on his own website: “Seán has been a sporadic member of Fianna Fáil over many years”.  Gallagher was front-runner at the end of the campaign. Businessman Hugh Morgan, alleged Mr Gallagher personally collected a €5,000 cheque from him on behalf of Fianna Fáil.

Rosemary Scallon (born Rosemary Brown in 1951 in Derry) achieved international fame as Dana, when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 with the song All Kinds of Everything. Squabbles over money from her US earnings peddling religious music have escalated into nastier accusations. Dana’s brother, John Brown, was a member of her election team. Dana’s sister, Susan, has accused Brown of sexually molesting her, Susan’s, daughter and is repeating the allegations now. She concealed the fact that she was a US citizen and therefore constitutionally barred from contesting for the presidency of Ireland.

The contest is open to natives of Northern Ireland even though they are UK citizens. Like Dana, Martin McGuinness is a native of Derry. (I once had dinner with Chris Patten and he told me he had got into hot water with the Reverend Ian Paisley for saying “Derry” instead of “Londonderry”). McGuinness, who has given up his job  in the Stormont government in Belfast to run in the Republic’s presidential election. He is having to field a lot of criticism about his terrorist past as Commandant of the Derry brigade of the Provisional IRA. He claims that he left the IRA in 1974 but others dispute this. Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe snarked at McGuinness’s  commitment to draw the average industrial wage if elected. “Why would you need your salary when you have the proceeds of the Northern Bank at your disposal,” Mr Kehoe said. The IRA stole £26.5 million from the Northern Bank in 2004.

My friend, the Reverend Harold Good is not naive about the horrors of terrorism, but counts McGuinness as a friend following their partnership in the Northern Ireland peace process. Harold told me: “If elected he would be a circumspect, respectful and statesmanlike President… he would leave a gap in our Stormont administration where he is doing a very good job. The media and his opponents are indeed focussing on his past rather than his present. However, as I understand it … he and Sinn Fein see this as an opportunity to ask the Irish electorate to give a strong endorsement to the road they have taken … as distinct from the ‘dissidents’ . They feel a strong vote , whatever the outcome, will send this message.”


McGuinness made a less than helpful intervention in Sri Lankan affairs when he came here in 2006 and talked with LTTE leaders. He may have meant well  but was over-optimistic in seeing parallels with the Irish situation. In Ireland,  most parties were exhausted enough to give up conflict and to talk. “The reality is that, just as in Ireland, there can be no military victory and that the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue, negotiations and accommodation”.


He was clearly mistaken.


McGuiness criticized the European Union for banning the Tamil Tigers as a Terrorist Organization. He said that “it was a huge mistake for EU leaders to demonize the LTTE and the political leaders of the Tamil people.”


We knew well enough that some were demons.


Although it is possible to learn lessons from history, the road to hell is paved with false analogies.






Privatisation – Provider Profits, Public Pays

This article appeared in the Sri Lankan newspaper The Nation in November 2011 but seems to have disappeared from their website.


In 1977,  J.R. Jayawardene cried, ‘Let the robber barons come!’  Peter Mandelson said New Labour had no problems about people being seriously rich. “Liberalisation” of the economy made some people seriously rich.

It has been claimed that the term “privatisation” was first used in the 1930s by The Economist to describe Nazi economic policy. In my lifetime, it has generally been seen as a right-wing kind of concept.

One of the foundation myths of Thatcherism is that the Iron Lady  banged down a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty and declared “this is what we believe”. However, Hayek was no Thatcherite.  He wrote: “probably nothing has done so much harm to the liberal cause as the wooden insistence of some liberals on certain rules of thumb, above all of the principle of laissez-faire capitalism.”

Despite the nostalgia of some on the left, nationalised industries were not easy to love. I tried hard, snoozing over the works of Ralph Miliband (father of David and Ed) in Manchester Central Reference Library, but I did not learn to love British Gas or British Steel.

After privatisation, UK public utilities  initially became more efficient and customer-friendly. A customer service ethos briefly crept into public services previously noted for their surly sloth. The man on the Clapham omnibus bought shares and was encouraged to offload  them instantly to make a quick profit. Controlling blocks of shares were snapped up big institutions, many of them foreign. The cliché changed  from “a nation of shareholders” to “selling off the family silver”.

I was a management consultant in the NHS in the early days of the health service “reforms”, which aimed to introduce market discipline. Imposing artificial distinctions between providers and purchasers on a sensitive area like health care seemed to me a crazy idea even then. Dr Hamish Meldrum told a BMA conference: “End the ludicrous, divisive, expensive experiment of the market in healthcare in England. Never has there been a better time to abandon the wasteful bureaucracy of the market”.

It was unfortunate for the UK and the NHS in particular that Blair and Brown were fixated on the idea of PFI (Public Private Finance Initiative). Let Carlisle NHS Trust Hospital stand as an emblem of PFI in the NHS. Reports told of  sewage bubbling out of theatre sinks when nurses were scrubbing up. Sir Stuart Lipton, head of the government’s Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, said: “The present round of PFI is effectively sub-contracted obligations. It is not that the buildings are being built inefficiently, but the contractor has got nothing to do with the medical process – they are two separate functions, which effectively should be one”.

When the conservative government was ousted, the Blair government pursued PFI with even greater zeal. In the UK, the partnership has been one-sided – the provider profits, the public pays. Despite propaganda about the risk-taking adventurous spirit of the private entrepreneur, the private side of the public-private partnership cannily avoids risk. The government, or rather the taxpayer, carries the risk.

The British Empire imposed western institutions and Christianity on the savages. In recent times the Bretton Woods institutions have imposed the voodoo economics of neo-liberalist orthodoxy on the “developing” world. Because debtor governments are in a relatively weak position and international banks, backed by the World Bank and the IMF, in a much stronger one, complex currency deals invariably produce knock-down sales of state assets to foreigners

World Bank documents recognised that re-building the damaged Sri Lankan infrastructure after the tsunami “may strain public finances” and suggested that governments consider privatisation. “For certain investments,” noted the bank’s tsunami-response plan, “it may be appropriate to utilise private financing.” So money donated nominally to help tsunami victims was actually used to inflict a “second tsunami” on them, handing over their land to foreign corporations and ending their historic lifestyles for ever.

Neo-liberal imperialism leads to the assumption  that poor countries cannot modernize without foreign help. In the 1990s this “help” meant blackmailing developing countries into accepting the Washington Consensus – deregulation and liberalisation of markets, privatisation and severe cuts in the public sector and undermining sovereignty. Health and education are cut  and essential utilities like water are handed over to foreign entrepreneurs. These policies have been imposed without concern for the social effects on the target economies and has left the Bank open to charges that its main objective is to further US interests.

It is bizarre that, in spite of  the crash, some people are still calling for more deregulation and privatisation. In India, the Planning Commission’s Approach Paper to the Twelfth Plan claims to have consulted civil society organisations for six years, but seems to have been deaf to reason. PV Rajagopal, president of Ekta Parshad,  a Gandhian social movement struggling for the rights of landless and economically marginalized people, told the Chennai magazine  Frontline that the slant in the Approach Paper towards more privatisation and PPP was not what he had in mind when he participated. Bill Clinton has been criticising Obama’s financial policies. Although the Clinton years were prosperous, he  helped precipitate the present crisis by deregulating banks and encouraging the mortgage binge.

It surely was not too much regulation or not enough privatisation that caused the world’s financial woes.

Julie MacLusky

- Author and Blogger -


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