Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: foot and mouth

The Blair Years Part Three

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday, November 3 2016. The title given was Privatisation’s Disastrous Route.

Colman's Column3

We have seen in previous articles how Blair failed to put in place structures that would make a practical reality out of the grand visions he hoped would be his legacy. New Labour did nothing to reverse the disruption caused by Tory privatisation of public utilities and transport. Blair’s own lack of attention to detail led to failures in the areas of energy policy, transport and agriculture.



The New Labour manifesto for the 1997 election promised “an effective and integrated transport policy at national, regional and local level …” However, According to Cabinet Secretary Andrew Turnbull, “no-one ever really looked after transport. It was a very low priority in the first term.”

John Major is remembered fondly by some, but I will always remember him for doing to the British rail network what he did to Edwina Currie. Conscious of being in the shadow of Thatcher, he wanted his share of the privatisation glory. Rail was the only major area left so Major was determined to privatise it, even though it led to fragmentation, chaos and death. Operations were broken up and sold off, with regulatory functions transferred to the Rail Regulator. Railtrack took over the infrastructure and track maintenance became the responsibility of 13 different companies. Three rolling stock operating companies (ROSCOs) took over passenger trains with the stock being leased out to passenger train operating companies (TOCs) which were awarded contracts through rail franchising.

Nobody wanted rail privatisation except Tory ideologues and those who stood to make a fat profit at the taxpayers’ expense. After a series of rail disasters with many fatalities, there was a growing consensus that maintenance work was not being done properly and splitting of the railways into 25 different companies was a horrendous mistake. After the Paddington rail crash, in October 1999, a Guardian/ICM poll found that 73% of all voters would support re-nationalizing Railtrack. Blair did not accede to the people’s wishes.

Privatisation was meant to bring business savvy into public utilities, but, in reality, it allowed foreign governments and their state-owned operators to make vast profits out of the UK. In one two-year period, Dutch company Abellio took dividends of £20 million from their UK operations; French company Keolis made £37.9 million; German company Arriva made £15 million.

Hatfield, the morning after the train crash. Investigators and Police at the scene of the crash. The remains of the crash. New parts of the track waiting to be put on the tracy which was used by the Kings Cross to Leeds train yesterday which crashed. October 20, 2012. Photo by Andrew Parsons/i-Images.

Hatfield, the morning after the train crash. 

The Hatfield rail crash in 2000 led to severe financial difficulties for Railtrack which was put into a special kind of insolvency by the British High Court. On October 17 2000, four passengers died and dozens were injured because a faulty rail hadn’t been replaced: the rail crumbled under the friction of the 12.10 from King’s Cross to Leeds and threw the train from the tracks. Blair did not take the opportunity to re-nationalise the railways but nevertheless pumped in taxpayers’ money. In 2002 a new organisation, Network Rail, bought Railtrack PLC. Network Rail had no shareholders but was nominally in the private sector but its borrowing was guaranteed by the government. In 2004, Network Rail took back direct control of the maintenance of the track, signalling and overhead lines.

Instead of sorting out the chaos in the national rail network, the Blair government went ahead with plans to mess up the Tube. Although chancellor Gordon Brown was resolutely opposed to any hint of privatisation in the NHS (except in building hospitals) and banned use of the word ‘choice’, he was obsessed with using PFI (Private Finance Initiative) to revitalise the underground network. In practice, PFI is a bad deal for taxpayers and involves a hidden privatisation of public services. The UK Accounting Standards Board called PFI an “an off-balance-sheet fiddle” because the government can move the cost of public works out of the public sector borrowing requirement and by sleight of hand reduce the deficit. PFI can only be implemented through an anti-competitive process which inevitably leads to corruption. The big corporations would not be interested if it were otherwise. For a small investment, companies can be sure of long-term profit guaranteed by the taxpayer.

The government announced in February 2002 that it was going ahead with plans for part-privatisation of the London Underground despite wide-spread opposition. Opponents insisted that the plan was fundamentally flawed on both financial and safety grounds. Brown and Blair left the detail to deputy prime minister John Prescott who soon lost control to a group of businessmen, lawyers and consultants whose fees reached £1 billion. The final bill for the project was about £30 billion. Blair supported his chancellor’s hubristic scheme “as the only way to get massive investment into the ailing network”.

Energy and Fuel

Energy provides another example of Blair’s inability to maintain a consistent position and to trust his ministers to implement a policy. As a means of reducing energy costs and the incidence of fuel poverty, a new programme of grants for cavity wall and loft insulation and for draught proofing was quickly launched, with some 670,000 homes taking up the scheme. This scheme was later abandoned and the number of those suffering from the cold increased. Steep price rises and possible power blackouts, that we are so familiar with in Sri Lanka, were a grim possibility.

Germany was driving the EU to increase the proportion of energy supplied by renewables to 20%. Only 1.6 of Britain’s energy needs was being generated by renewables and Merkel’s policy would cost Britain’s consumers £7.9 billion extra every year and would wreck its energy market. Industry representatives doubted whether the prime minister and his advisers understood either the costs or the complications. When Alistair Darling told Blair that he was mad to agree to Merkel’s plans, Blair said “I got confused”.  In Broken Vows, Tom Bower writes: “As so often, although their conversation lasted only a few seconds, his eyes wandered.”  William Rickett, an energy expert working in the Cabinet Office, commented: “That’s not the sort of behaviour you expect from a prime minister. He’s wasted eighteen months of work and it’s delayed anything happening on the ground while we go back to the drawing board”.


Petrol Revolt


An avoidable crisis brought the UK to the brink of anarchy and almost toppled the government. “The great petrol revolt of 2000” led to hospitals cancelling non-vital surgery and funeral directors warned that they would not be able to bury the dead. It reminded me of James Callaghan’s winter of discontent when I sat in a Manchester cinema with rats running over my feet because the local authority could not collect the garbage. By 2000, fuel prices in the UK had risen from being amongst the cheapest in Europe to being the most expensive. By 2000, tax accounted for 81.5% of the total cost of petrol, up from 72.8% in 1993.  Because of demonstrations against increased fuel tax, a stage was reached where nine out of ten petrol stations had no fuel to sell. There was panic buying and supermarket shelves were empty. One minister warned: “There would be no food. The health service was going to collapse. We were twenty-four hours away from meltdown”.


After being initially slow to focus on the problem, Blair went energetically into action, working the phones to influential people in the oil and haulage businesses. He was not successful and shouted “For f***’s sake, they gave me assurances”. One of the oil executives resented Blair’s attitude.  “We are not nationalised industries. We are globalised companies with, on the whole, more influence around the world than the British Government”. Blair said, “I have to show I am leading”. Sending in the army was considered but the generals were reluctant. Polls showed that as many as 94% supported the protesters. As Andrew Rawnsley put it: “The petrol shortages might be a pain, but the people seemed ready to endure them so long as the torture inflicted on the Prime Minister was greater”.


Foot in Mouth


The army was called upon to help in another crisis which Blair mishandled – the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001. With up to 93,000 animals per week being slaughtered, Agriculture Ministry officials were assisted by units from the British Army. The bureaucracy failed abysmally, politicians were unfocused, then panicked and scientists and self-interested farmers issued confused predictions. Thousands of farmers faced financial devastation because the Rural Payments Agency had collapsed. The Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, would be officially criticised for contributing to a blunder that cost over £1 billion in compensation but was rewarded with promotion to the Foreign Office. Blair admitted: “We were mired by scandal and controversy and then I did a reshuffle which was the worst of all worlds”.


Next week, Blair goes to war – in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq – and with the Treasury.


A Cow Is Just a Cow

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday November 20 2011

It is now over ten years since I tried to convert the editor of the Catholic Herald to Buddhism.

I have never been a great fan of the London Daily Telegraph but I want to recommend one of their columnists to Lakbima News readers. Cristina Odone currently blogs at the right-wing Telegraph. She gets reactions: “You are a horrible, vile, vindictive little woman who really shouldn’t be writing in any national newspaper.”

Previously she was deputy editor of the left-wing New Statesman and a regular columnist for the liberal-left Observer. She was editor of the Catholic Herald from 1991-1995. She is a research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, a right-wing think tank (founded by Margaret Thatcher and her batty guru Sir Keith Joseph). Ms Odone is American. She is a Catholic, although she is married to a divorced man. Generally speaking , her Catholicism is a pick-and-mix kind of faith but she seems to be strongly against abortion and euthanasia and strongly for faith-based education, creationism.

Andrew Brown wrote about her time at the Catholic Herald: “Few can be the amusing writers who have not been approached by a whirlwind of flirtatious energy and propositioned to write something for absurdly small sums of money. Most have accepted, sometimes with noisy results.”

She recently sprang again into my consciousness for her comments on a peripheral matter relating to the Murdoch investigation. A news item about Louise Mensch MP caused Ms Odone to exclaim that although she had lived in England for thirty years and was married to an Englishman, “every now and then something crops up which makes me feel as alien as if I were on Mars”. According to Ms Odone, this was because of the reaction when Mensch told an interviewer she was anxious to look good for her husband Peter Mensch, the American rock band manager (Jimmy Page, Metallica and Red Hot Chilli Peppers).

What was worrying about Mensch was not that she wanted to please her husband (she also sort of confessed to having a face-lift before being given the chance to grill the Murdochs in parliament) but that she was behaving like an air-head, posh-totty variety. Some found her impressive at the Murdoch hearings but others were amused by her saying she had to leave early to pick up her children. Guardian women’s editor Jane Martinson :“The question is, what on earth was Louise Mensch up to yesterday? Was she striking a blow for women in Westminster, putting the issue of childcare centre stage? Or was this, as Martinson suggests, “the worst kind of display parenting”?

Odone’s unfavourable view of the English compared with Johnny Foreigner would probably be bolstered by that. The English just don’t like children as much as those warm-hearted Italians.

Odone is apt to make these sweeping generalisations. I noticed her having a swipe at the English about their attitudes to animals back in 2001. .

“It is the usual hyperbole the British go in for when they talk of four-legged, fanged or furred beings. Ever since it became primarily an industrialised, rather than agricultural, country, Britain has lost all perspective on animals.”

I wrote to her about that article. Here is an edited version.

“The main thrust of your argument can be summarised as follows: ‘There is a hierarchy of beings. Man stands at the top. God made all creatures, but only man in his image. Man ranks above other animals because he has a soul. This entitles man to exploit animals for his own ends. Animals are an economic investment. They can be allowed to suffer if that suffering leads to the cure of ‘even one child’. It is sentimental anthropomorphism to take any other view. To recognise the sentience of animals or to argue that they have rights as a result of their sentience belittles human dignity and ‘defiles the memory of human suffering.’

There is a thin line between espousing a hierarchy of species and seeing hierarchies within species. It’s OK to eat a pig (unless you are a Jew or a Muslim) but not to eat a guinea pig (unless you are a Peruvian) or a dog (unless you are a Korean). Some people think it is OK to abuse ‘inferior’ races or people with disabilities. It has been argued that some other humans lack rationality or a soul and therefore can be exploited with impunity. The United States was founded on genocide and developed by treating human beings as property. It did not matter what cruelties were inflicted on Native Americans or African slaves and their descendants because the advantages to be gained from their exploitation prevented consideration of their sentience or their rights. Women’s alleged lower ranking in the divine order was an argument for withholding the vote. There is a hierarchy of nations. The USA stands at the top. This entitles its President and his cronies from the energy industries to pollute the planet – it would be sentimental to put the future of the human race before their investment.

It is easy to scoff at anthropomorphism. I have often done so myself. It is clearly ridiculous to think of real animals being cuddly and benevolent. Each of our cats (thrust upon us not bought) has a clearly distinguishable character, usually appealing, but respect for the rights of pigmy shrews or birds is lacking. It is ridiculous to think of Mr and Mrs Pigmy Shrew building a little home for their young ones, paying a mortgage, worrying about their education, hoping they will find suitable spouses. Ridiculous, but it might have a point if induces empathy.

Does a lack of reason or speech or a soul justify inflicting pain? Voltaire was no sentimentalist but he was outraged at the animal experimenters of his day. ‘There are barbarians who seize the dog, who so greatly surpasses man in fidelity and friendship, and nail him down to a table and dissect him alive, to show you the mesaraic veins! You discover in him all the same organs of feeling as in yourself. Answer me, mechanist, has Nature arranged all the springs of feeling in this animal to the end that he might not feel’?’   Jeremy Bentham wrote ‘The question is not can they reason? Nor can they talk? But Can they suffer?’ He denounced man’s dominion over animals as ‘tyranny’ rather than ‘legitimate government’.

In the Thomist universe charity does not extend to animals because, according to Aquinas, irrational creatures are not competent to possess good, this being proper to rational creatures; we have no fellow feeling with them, and charity is based on the fellowship of everlasting happiness, to which the irrational creature cannot attain.

Can the idea that man was created in the divine image in order to have dominion over other species survive the findings of Darwin? Surely, the idea of evolution is pretty widely accepted – even by Christians apart from a few fundamentalists? The publication of the human genetic code showed that humans carry little more genetic information than mice, and barely twice as much as tiny fruit flies or a simple worm. Hundreds of genes have been smuggled into human chromosomes by bacteria. The dog is 85% identical to a human in terms of genetic sequence and many of the 380 inherited diseases in dogs are very similar to human diseases. We are animals too. I do not find this thought depressing. There is a spiritual dimension to awareness that we are all part of what E. O. Wilson called ‘the delicate web of reciprocity’.”

Life is tough for Odone: “For most of us ‘squeezed’ middle-class parents, our little treasure’s education will set us back £30,000 a year (the average boarding school bill). For many of us this means not only giving up on luxuries such as exotic holidays and theatre outings, but also remortgaging our home, going begging to the in-laws, and moonlighting and other small humiliations.” Sad, no? In recent writings, she has been attacking the Lib Dems for favouring euthanasia and abortion, attacking Irish comedian Sean Hughes for condemning child abuse by Catholic priests, and Richard Dawkins for being an atheist. “Catholic schoolchildren used to pray for the conversion of England; nowadays, I’d settle for the conversion of Richard Dawkins”. Odone has seemed quite happy to disobey her church’s teaching on contraception. A more serious Catholic, Caroline Fallows, wrote: “As a high profile and influential Catholic, Cristina Odone risks reinforcing existing error as well as leading people into sin. Sometimes I wish we could have more authentic female catholic voices in the media and not just the privileged catholic aristocracy”

In a debate with Odone, Dawkins asked: “So why stick with it? Why call yourself a Catholic when you don’t do what Catholics are supposed to?”

Go read. Have a laugh.

I did not convert Odone to Buddhism but she did send me a postcard from the New statesman saying she would try to be more compassionate. Ten years on, the promise is unfulfilled.

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