Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: privatisations

Out of Control Freaks

This article was published in Ceylon Today on November 4 2019. They took a long time to fit it in so it has been rather overtaken by events. Some of it is still relevant.


I stayed up late on Saturday night, October 19, to watch the Commons debate on the ‘new deal’ that prime minister Boris Johnson had struck with the EU. There were appalling scenes as the government showed its utter contempt for parliament and the British people. Tory MPs walked out as Joanna Cherry of the SNP began to speak. At one point, the speaker was having to answer questions that ministers should be answering. The Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, walked out of the chamber rather than answer questions. Instead of backing Johnson’s agreement in a “meaningful vote”, MPs passed an amendment tabled by a cross-party group of MPs led by Oliver Letwin (a senior Tory and former minister who was recently booted out of the party by Johnson) by 322 votes to 306 – a majority of 16.

Shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, (who should be leader of the Labour Party) vehemently rejected Johnson’s arguments using his skill as a lawyer to demonstrate that this new deal was worse than Theresa May’s deal, particularly because of the absence of legal guarantees on workers’ rights.

Johnson appealed to the House to respect democracy and support the deal, support the will of the people as expressed in the 2016 referendum. He bloviates about democracy while defying the will of Parliament, breaking the law on prorogation and strongly hinting that he intends to defy the Benn Burt Act.

The will of the people was tainted by lies and dark money. There was much chicanery about ‘Taking back sovereignty’ which was a respectable cover for xenophobia.

Giving away Sovereignty

Trump had the rallying cry of “Make America Great Again”. In the UK, the Leave campaign wanted to “Take Back Control”. William Keegan writes that it took British economy to recover from the banking crisis of 2007-09, “As is being increasingly recognised, recovery was stifled by an ill-conceived austerity programme whose deleterious effects played no small role in the outcome of the 2016 referendum.” The game plan was to blame the EU for all the ills that beset the UK in June 2016. Most of those ills could be blamed on the austerity programme of the Conservative government. It is ironic that austerity has now been abandoned and a Magic Money Tree has been found by Boris Johnson which will enable him to bribe the voters and the DUP. Voters may wonder why they suffered so much for so many years if fiscal responsibility can be tossed aside so cavalierly.

Other persistent problems were caused by the madness of outsourcing and privatisation policies followed by all governments from Thatcher’s onwards. Control of the UK economy was not taken from Britain by the EU, it was handed over to foreign companies by British governments. Foreign governments are making hundreds of millions of pounds a year running British public services. Conservative and Labour governments have been selling the family silver to foreigners for decades.


The national, integrated rail system of the UK used to belong to the British state. A voodoo political philosophy led to it being broken up and sold off to the nationalized state railways of foreign nations. In 2014, The Independent calculated that 20 national train lines were run or owned by foreign state-owned or controlled companies. Huge companies like Arriva UK Trains, Abellio and Govia run several operators. There are now few purely private operators left on UK railways. Virgin Trains will lose its long-standing West Coast franchise in December. It will be replaced by First Trenitalia which has been awarded the franchise until 2031. First Trenitalia is Trenitalia (Italy’s state railway), which holds 30 per cent and First Group which holds 70 per cent.

Govia runs Thameslink, Southern, Great Northern and Gatwick Express. The firm is a joint venture between Go-Ahead group and French company Keolis, which itself is 70 per cent owned by the French National Railways Corporation. Greater Anglia, Stansted Express and Scotrail are all operated by Abellio. Abellio is run by Netherlands Rail whose only shareholder is the Dutch government. Arriva UK Trains is behind the operators, Chiltern, CrossCountry, London Overground, Grand Central, and Northern. In total it runs around a quarter of all British train operating companies, and is part of German firm Deutsche Bahn, in which the German state is the biggest shareholder.


Even though water was privatised in England and Wales in 1989, a quarter of England’s water provision is publicly-owned – it is just that, like with transport, it is owned by foreign governments in the form of public sector workers’ pension funds (mostly overseas), or foreign governments’ investment funds. In 2006, Thames Water was bought by a consortium which included the Australian investment group Macquarie and a Chinese wealth fund. Yorkshire Water, which now supplies 4.7 million people, was snapped up in 2007 by another consortium, this time made up of Citigroup, HSBC, and the Singaporean sovereign wealth fund GIC. Northumbria Water was also bought in 2011 by the Hong Kong-based company Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings.


British Gas is the oldest energy company in the UK, having been founded in 1812 as the Gas Light and Coke Company (GLCC) before taking the name British Gas in 1973. The parent company, Centrica, is a multinational. EDF is one of the largest distribution network operators in the UK after taking control of the UK nuclear generator, British Energy. It is owned by the French state. One of Germany’s leading energy companies owns npower which is one of the UK’s big six energy companies. Another big six supplier, Powergen, was purchased by German energy company E.ON in 2002 and its headquarters are in Dusseldorf. ScottishPower may have its headquarters in Glasgow but, since 2006, it has been a subsidiary of Spanish utility company Iberdrola.

Approximately 60% of the UK energy supply comes from abroad: from countries including Russia, Norway, Qatar, Sweden and the Netherlands, among many more. Around 60% of the UK’s natural gas imports come from Norway, and 30% of it comes from Qatar. Around half of the UK’s crude oil imports come from Norway, and just over 30% comes from OPEC.


An analysis done by The Independent in 2014, showed that in the previous two years, overseas taxpayers took dividends of nearly £1bn from companies which make their profits from UK households and passengers while UK customers struggle with increasing fares and bills and are powerless to improve services. Mick Cash, general secretary of the rail workers trade union, said: “The true scale of the way the railways here in Britain are being used as a cash-cow to hold down fares and improve services across the rest of Europe will shock passengers.” British firms have minimal presence in overseas utilities markets.

London is a place where world capitalism does business – no longer the city where British capitalism does the world’s business. The property market is dominated by Russian crooks and Saudi princes. Ordinary people cannot afford to rent or buy.

None of this has anything to do with membership of the EU.

Incompetent and venal ministers have been discombobulated as people who actually run successful businesses in the real world try to explain the basics of how the real-world economy works and what a disaster Brexit will be. British industry, agriculture and society are still on hold. Billions are being spent on Brexit (to make it less awful) and on unsuccessfully bribing the DUP, which could have been spent on something useful. All they have to offer is nostalgia for an empire and commonwealth that only exist in their imagination and an empty optimism. Top civil servants told business people who had appointments with former trade minister Liam Fox to give him a positive message or he will end meetings early. See how optimism works out when they try to sell their souls to Trump’s America. Look where trusting him got the Kurds.



Reconciliation in Haiti Part 3

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday May 12 2013

Titid – Le Petit Aristide – was hugely popular with poor Haitians and hated by the elite. The case against him has been put by Peter Dailey in the New York Review of Books, Andre Linard and Maurice Lemoine in Le Monde diplomatique. Kim Ives has demolished Dailey’s NYRB articles. My virtual friend, who calls herself Zen Haitian, has challenged Le Monde diplomatique. Paul Farmer has made the case for Aristide in London Review of Books and been supported by Peter Hallward and Brian Concannon.

Linard wrote of Aristide: “He was attacked for setting up an anti-democratic regime and accused of enriching himself through illicit trafficking. The public was divided between three explanations. Some feel they were conned by Aristide in 1990. A slightly less widely shared view is that he was changed by the 1991 coup that ousted him, his exile in the US and return to power in 1994. There are those who saw him as a victim of constraints: ‘se pa fôt li (it’s not his fault)’, they say in Creole, preferring to blame both his entourage and the international community”.

Dailey’s assertion that the “Aristide government’s increasingly authoritarian behavior has left it isolated and condemned by the international community, which suspended crucial foreign aid” was countered thus by Ives: “The ‘international community’, if defined as the majority of the world’s nations, is sympathetic to the Haitian government and disapproving, at the very least, of the Bush administration’s strong-arming. … the majority of the OAS and CARICOM member states have pleaded for the release of the aid and loans to Haiti, held hostage only by Washington’s hostility to Aristide.”

Titid vs. Washington Consensus

Aristide came under fire from those who advocated more enthusiastic compliance with the US and IMF. Ives: “Aristide was proving to be mercurial and uncooperative about privatizations and other neoliberal reforms.”
Brian Concannon: “The ease with which Haiti’s leftist elite and its foreign supporters joined sweatshop owners, Duvalierists and the Bush administration in a crusade to overthrow Aristide says more about the fluidity of their own political commitments than about Haiti’s government. The real cleavage in Haiti has always been not left-right but up-down. When push came to shove, class allegiance trumped any professed commitment to social equality or democracy.”

Military coup

Aristide was overthrown in a military coup September 1991, in which the US and France were heavily implicated. The military’s leader, General Raoul Cedras, led an oppressive regime marked by numerous human rights violations. Both the Organization of America States and the United Nations issued international sanctions against Haiti in response to the coup.
In October 1994, under Bill Clinton, the US military intervened and restored Aristide to power, with a little over a year of his term left to run. Although authorized by the UN, the restoration was basically a US operation. My friend Zen Haitian commented: “He was forced to agree to their structural re-adjustment measures in order to be restored to power– he lost some, but was still able to command the love and respect of a majority of Haitians.”

Another electoral triumph

In November 2000, Aristide was again elected by a landslide. The US froze international aid on specious grounds of electoral fraud. The Haitian government, faced with crippling poverty, was required to pay ever-expanding arrears on its debts, many of them linked to loans paid out to the Duvalier dictatorship and to the military regimes that ruled Haiti with great brutality from 1986 to 1990.

The US State Department ignored repeated opposition attacks against Lavalas and the deadly campaign being carried out by neo-Duvalierist guerrillas. Declassified records now make it clear that the CIA and other US groups helped to create and fund a paramilitary group called FRAPH.

Abduction and exile

Aristide was flown out of the country by the US on 28 February, 2004. Aristide has accused the U.S. of kidnapping and deposing him.

In his book, Paramilitarism and the Assault on Democracy in Haiti, Jeb Sprague focuses on the period beginning in 1990 with the rise of Aristide, and the right-wing movements that succeeded in driving him from power. Sprague traces connections between paramilitaries and their elite financial and political backers, in Haiti and in the US and the Dominican Republic.
Peter Hallward argued that people with – generally tenuous – connections to Aristide’s Lavalas party were probably responsible for around thirty killings in all the years he was in office. Five thousand Lavalas supporters were killed while Aristide was in exile between 1991 and 1994, and fifty thousand deaths have been attributed to the Duvalier dictatorships.

For all its faults, Lavalas remained the only significant force for popular mobilization in the country. No other political figure of the past fifty years has had anything like Aristide’s stature among the urban and rural poor. Class sympathy among Western elites who felt themselves under similar threat, both at home and abroad, goes a long way to explaining the international perception of the Lavalas regime.

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