Thatcher ruined my Tuesday
Last night I found myself in London at an end-of-season party for the radio show I’m involved in producing (nothing like a bit of cross-platform self-promotion eh?). So much fun was had that I decided to do a thing I’ve not done in forever, a thing fairly taxing for a woman of my advancing years, and accidentally-on-purpose miss the last train back to Brighton. I’m pleased to report that, contrary to all expectations, Soho is still full of weird late night dancing spots and yes, they still do 3am hot chocolate at Bar Italia. Flushed with enthusiasm, friend love and gin, I waved a wobbly farewell to my cohorts and tottered off to Victoria to get the early morning train home.
Which is where it all went wrong.
First I was a victim of the dreaded Night Bus Syndrome, in which a vehicle pootling through traffic-free streets takes an unaccountable diversion that adds ten extra minutes to a journey, thus ensuring arrival at Victoria Station approximately 32 seconds before the 4am train shoots off into the night. The next train was not till 5, and I saw any chance of a functional Tuesday’s work fade slowly before my eyes; but I was sanguine. After all, it’s only an extra hour of my life, and staying out past midnight on a Monday will be an unimaginable luxury once I get a job (you will note the uncharacteristic optimism of even momentarily assuming that I will get a job, given the dismantling of humanities education in the UK, but that’s another post altogether). And so I sat in Victoria, reading Sunday’s Observer and missing the wisdom of Polly Vernon, which would probably have propelled me all the way home with sheer annoyance, until my platform was announced and I could crawl onto the train and fall into a light and welcome stupor.
This small joy was not to last. I was awoken by an offensively cheerful announcement about a minute before the train was due to depart, informing me that the service had been cancelled. Along with people going to Gatwick airport, people going to work, people with children, people, in short, who were not on that train because they’d been out dancing all night, I was expelled back into the Orwellian bowels of the station, only to be informed that the next train to Brighton wasn’t for an hour and a quarter.
Why? I asked the man at the barrier. Why have I been tortured so? Well, he said, there weren’t enough staff. The previous train had got to East Croydon and then someone somewhere had realised they were short of people and so everything for an hour had been cancelled. Clasping hard at the tattered shards of my sense of humour, I settled in alongside the friendly vagrants and vowed to stay awake so no one would nick my copy of The Interpretation of Dreams. I made it into my bed at half past seven this morning, vowing vengeance on the head of Southern Rail and all who sail upon her.
I’m not telling you this story because I want your sympathy. Rather, My Public Transport Hell ™ is a cautionary tale with greater implications. The UK is notorious for having some of the most unreliable and overpriced railways in western Europe. A large part of the blame for this must land squarely at the feet of the rabidly enthusiastic Thatcherite programme of privatisation that split the network into a number of different companies, with Network Rail owning the track and others owning the trains themselves. This bizarre and counter-intuitive move, instead of offering the much-vaunted triad of consumer choice, market freedom and accountability, created a bloated, dysfunctional system where private companies get away with greed, incompetence and blatant disregard for the needs of the people who use their services.
Why, you may ask, is this important? Yes, transport problems are annoying and inconvenient and sometimes have horrible consequences but they’re not really the end of the world. We’re not curing cancer here. It’s not life or death.
Except that it might be. Imagine if I’d been waiting for a transplant not a train. According to Will Hutton, “Martin Gilbert, chair of [train company] First Group, speaks for the industry when he declares in the company’s annual statement that the financial interests of shareholders – not passengers or taxpayers – remain the company’s overriding interest.” Imagine if the health service, like the railways, was run on these lines. Imagine if treating the rare condition you’d suddenly come down with was not viable for the balance sheets.
Despite David Cameron’s self-serving rhetoric it’s becoming increasingly clear, from policy statements, from slips made by party functionaries, from the government’s refusal to listen to public and GP opinions, that the Tories have it in for the NHS. How can anyone be surprised that Thatcher’s children are veering towards a slow privatisation of the health service? If everything else in this country is measured only by its economic worth then we shouldn’t wonder that our health too is being marketised, that the physical wellbeing of an entire nation has been reconfigured as yet another way for yet another small group of elite businesspeople to make yet more money, all in the name of worshipping at the shrine of capitalism. You’d think someone in government would have noticed, given the radical fuck up the global economy’s just been through, that, just maybe, the market isn’t the best impetus for policy decisions. If the irreparable chaos this sort of thinking brought to the railways is anything to go by then I suggest everyone stocks up on aspirin now, because we’re in for a bumpy ride.