I was listening to the BBC's Today programme yesterday. The prime minister, David Cameron, was being interviewed and in a throw-away soundbite to demonstrate how radical his administration was he said, "we have broken up the state monopoly on the provision of public education." I must confess I was only half listening, but this statement seemed to fly out of the radio and splash into my bowl of breakfast cereal. I was so taken a-back I only half realised what I had heard and had to take a moment to digest its full implications.
Now is it just me, or does it seem rather strange, not to say inappropriate, to regard the provision of public services as monopolies that need to be broken up? And is it not a logical next step from this idea is to regard government itself as a monopoly that needs to be broken-up?
Once upon a time we had government's that believed in the creation of state monopolies and so we nationalised industries in areas such as coal, steel, and airlines. I think we all realise now that this was a silly idea and breaking up these monopolies was a sensible thing to do. But the manufacture of steel is not the same thing as provision of public education or healthcare. Indeed the provision of private education and healthcare is not the same thing as the the provision of public education or healthcare.
In the private sector, monopolies are bad things and you need governments to provide the regulation that stops them from forming or breaks them up. But the public sector is different. The only reason we need to have a public sector is to provide services or infrastructures that cannot be provided by the private sector, because the private sector is unable to satisfy important considerations such as equality of access irrespective of income or geography, or because the long-term nature of investment does doesn't fit within the relatively short-term commercial requirements of capital markets. The very nature of a public service is that it has to operate as a cohesive and linked-up whole. But what sort of mindset would see this requirement for cohesion as a monopoly? Systems that need management and constant improvement - yes. Monopolies to be broken - I don't think so.
Personally, I pay my taxes so that the secretary of state for education can focus on managing a system of public education - not so that he can break it up and effectively turn the whole thing into a fragmented mess of semi-regulated private education. That seems to be the worst of all worlds - an approach that restricts the operation of genuinely free markets and competition (because this would see education aligned against price and therefore wealth) yet which still requires the burden of bureaucracy to create and manage artificial markets and management systems.
Somewhat paradoxically, the move to break-up public services is actually creating new monopolies, or at the very least, potential cartels. A handful of companies, such as Serco, Carillion, G4S, and Capita now control large chunks of the delivery of public services. This creates all sorts of dangers, not least the potential for very cosy relationships and revolving doors between the senior management of these companies and government, policy advisers, civil servants and regulators. It is interesting to note that one of the leading providers of public services in employment, A4e (as in Action for Employment) has, as its director of strategy Jonty Olliff-Cooper, one of David Cameron's former close advisers in designing the 'The Big Society.' A4e to J4B (as in Jobs for the Boys) one might say. Nothing illegal in this of course, but this sort of thing doesn't make me feel comfortable and I suspect I am not alone in this.
Public education as, well, a managed system of public education. Yes, Prime Minister.