Arrogance of empire Paul Foot Wednesday August 20, 2003 The Guardian
In hospital last month for a (literally) nerve-wracking operation on my back, I was lucky enough to have with me an advance copy of Robert Harris’s novel Pompeii. At one level, the book is a thriller that kept me going through the entire sleepless night before the operation. At another, it is a thinly disguised satire on the arrogance of an empire that extended itself by force of arms so far across the world that it ignored elementary social and environmental problems at home. The fact that Pompeii before the eruption of Vesuvius was home to the richest Roman exploiters adds to the irony.
At the beginning of the book, Harris quotes, quite irrelevantly so it seems, the statistic that ancient Rome provided itself with more water than New York City did in 1995. Whether he chose this city by chance I do not know, but over last weekend, just a week before Pompeii was published, millions of citizens of New York and other US cities were plunged into darkness and chaos. They were obliged to suffer at least a tiny fragment of the agony of the people of Iraq, similarly cut off from electricity.
The Iraqi mess is the direct result of old fashioned US/British imperialism. The misery in New York and surrounding cities was caused not by terrorism – as many people there hastily assumed – but by capitalism, in particular its historic failure sufficiently to invest in unprofitable services that most people need. For a fleeting moment, likely to be repeated in the future, the citizens of Iraq and the US simultaneously became victims of the reckless greed of corporate America.
Thank heaven such horrors could not happen here. More than half a century ago, a Labour government nationalised gas, coal and electricity. Doggedly the Labour ministers responsible, led by a wild-eyed revolutionary called Hugh Gaitskell, staved off the Tory attacks on these measures. It was, those ministers argued, nonsense to talk of competition and “free enterprise” in the field of fuel and power, on whose regular supply the entire nation depended – and which were more efficiently and fairly run by publicly accountable monopolies.
Such arguments were denounced in the US as communist, and the supply of power there stayed in the hands of free enterprise. Some of the results of that were on show at the weekend in New York, Ohio and even in poor old semi-social democratic Ontario.
Is this just a North American problem? Among the harassed electricity company executives who stammered in front of television cameras on the night of the power cuts was Bill Edwards, president of Niagara Mohawk. His company supplies electricity to more than a million people in upstate New York. For six awful hours, many of them were cut off from power. Mr Edwards said he couldn’t comment on the suggestion that Niagara Mohawk had caused the blackout, at least until after a full investigation. In the meantime he warned his customers to turn down the air-conditioning and turn off unnecessary lights.
Now you might think that Niagara Mohawk is an American or a Canadian company. But you’d be wrong. Niagara Mohawk was bought in January last year for Â£2bn by the National Grid company, a private firm in Britain. National Grid plc merged last October with the Transco/Lattice Group, thus forming a monopoly that provides everyone in England and Wales with all their gas and electricity. More and more of the efforts of the new monopoly have been devoted to buying up power companies abroad – it has spent nearly three times as much on buying companies in the US as on capital investment in power in Britain.
How did the stale old socialist power monopoly created in the late 1940s to provide British people with gas and electricity become a brand new dynamic capitalist monopoly snapping up not altogether successful power companies abroad? Simple. Among the first and, for the City of London anyway, the most profitable of the great Thatcher privatisations were gas (don’t tell Sid) and electricity. At a stroke, parliamentary responsibility for these crucial areas of public concern was transferred to private boardrooms, whose jumped-up executives, revelling in their new power, awarded themselves fantastic salaries and bonuses.
The Labour party was outraged at the proposal, and threw itself into furious opposition. In December 1988, Labour’s young frontbench energy spokesman denounced electricity privatisation. “We are proud that we took the industry into public ownership,” he said. “When we come to power, it will be reinstated as a public service for the people of this country, and will not be run for private profit.” The young man’s name