Strangleman (2002) 'Nostalgia for Nationalisation - the
Politics of Privatisation'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 1, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/7/1/strangleman.html>
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Received: 5/2/2002 Accepted: 27/5/2002 Published: 31/5/2002
If the full advantages of co-ordinated transport are to be secured we must eliminate the conflicting interests created by the existence of innumerable separate private ownerships. These, quite naturally, are chiefly concerned about advantages for their own individual undertakings. They do not worry themselves too much about the efficiency and welfare of transport as a whole. If this is agreed, we then have to choose between private monopoly and public monopoly. The trouble about private monopoly is that it is dangerous for the general wellbeing. The management of a private monopoly must inevitably be fettered by much state regulation to protect the interests of the community. A monopoly which is publicly owned does not threaten public interests and so does not require such intense state regulation (cited in Bonavia 1971; 40).
I remember the thrill of going to Paddington station en route to Oxford, and I remember the chocolate and cream coaches, the glorious engines and, of course, the station master in top hat and tails. Apprentices for the GWR had to go to Swindon to be approved. It was like joining a good regiment. The Railways were privately owned and the morale of the staff was high (quoted in Bagwell 1996, 133).
I am sitting in a first class compartment of the Sandling train, odorous and untidy, which, for reasons as yet undisclosed, and probably never to be disclosed has not yet left Charing Cross. 'Operating Difficulties', I assume, which is BR-speak for some ASLEF slob, having drunk fourteen pints of beer the previous evening, now gone 'sick' and failed to turn up (Clark 1993, 169).
... didn't understand the nature of the markets they were dealing with, how to produce train services or what the implications of their decisions were. They had taken no advice from anybody who knew anything about it (quoted in Wolmar 2000, 128).
... the result of the independent spirit which still survives in this country and refuses to be crushed by the money-worshippers, centralizers and unimaginative theorists who are doing their best to kill it (Betjeman in Rolt 1961 xix).
Don't you realise you are condemning our village to death? Open it up to buses and lorries and what's it going to be like in five years time? Our lanes will be concrete roads, our houses will have numbers instead of names, there will be traffic lights and Zebra crossings ... [the railway] means everything to our village.
... the architects of British Rail never cease to destroy their heritage of stone, brick, cast iron and wood, and replace it with windy wastes of concrete... I became aware that the rich inheritance of railway architecture from Victorian pride in achievement to Edwardian flamboyance, declining to the poverty of the new Euston, has a moral. There was nothing modern to photograph (Betjeman 1972, 9).
... combined the classic shortcomings of the traditional nationalised industry. It is an entrenched monopoly. That means too little responsiveness to customer needs... Inevitably also it has the culture of a nationalised industry; a heavily bureaucratised structure... an instinctive tendency to ask for more taxpayers' subsidy (quoted in Bagwell 1996, 139).
... the old arrangements were flawed because they were producer-led ... It was the same old nationalised industry story: the management taking all the key decisions on a centralised, bureaucratic basis and without a stable financial regime. The command economy with a vengeance (Department of Transport 1994, 4).
The first consequence was the breakdown of the old comradeship, which used to mean that the problems were easily spotted, repairs made, and people could talk to each other. Track workers operated in gangs and knew their stretch of rails like their own back gardens. Instead, workers became nomadic, moving to the next job with little or no local knowledge and instructions not to talk to rival workers.
If the old men, old railwaymen, if they start to talk about the old days a glazed look comes over the eyes of [new] management, they're not interested. It's 'Oh here we go again, the "Olden Days" (John Porter, signalman Railtrack, interview 1995).
Because it happened 20 and 15 years ago, or before that, they find that threatening because they can't identify with what we're about...Oh yes, that railway culture's been challenged, but at the end of the day, for as long as we intend to run trains, there'll be problems and by all the old hands being told to shut up and get out, somebody should say "hang on now, why didn't we listen to them" (Railtrack Manager, interview 1997).
They [the train companies] have got a policy of recruiting as much as possible from the street, you know, young keen people that they think will be completely malleable, won't be trade-union minded and they will be able to do what they want (RMT interview 1998).
More importantly, they were well read, dedicated union men, who learned their craft, as well as the ideas of Ruskin, Morris and Marx, in evening classes and in oily depots. They were truly the aristocracy of labour. Not today. Those working for the privatised transport companies run by former supermarket managers and second- hand car salesmen have become little more than the "lump" (Guardian 22/9/99).
The lesson to be learned seems to be that compliance with Rules cannot be assumed in the absence of some positive system of monitoring which is likely to detect failures. Such a conclusion would, however, be a sad reflection on a fine industry which has been created through the enthusiasm and support of countless individuals who were proud to be thought of as part of "the railway". Perhaps the true lesson is that a different culture needs to be developed, or recreated, through which individuals will perform to the best of their ability and not resort to delivering the minimum service that can be got away with (Uff 2000, 202) (emphasis added).
It seems to me that sociologists need to be bolder in their public interventions when politicians and managers make use of core sociological concepts such as culture.
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