What is wrong with bus drivers? In what world is G4S honourable? Can I really just refuse to meet my contractual obligations? What on earth happened to values in Britain?
I don’t want to get hung up on the Olympics but it is offering us various glimpses of the state of contemporary Britain that are worth dwelling on a little. In any news story about the Olympics today you will discover quite a lot about the values of the nation’s leaders.
First we have Defence Minister Phil Hammond. I have been trying to get my head round his position since breakfast and still amn’t quite sure what I’m meant to make of it. In Hammond’s view, soldiers shouldn’t get bonuses for bailing out the private company running the ‘security’ for the games because “they’re not bus drivers”. I think I’m meant to take from this that they are trained professionals who do this for a living and so need to extra recompense for their work. So what are bus drivers? In fact, what are corporate leaders, bankers, senior public officials and everyone else with their hand in the bonus pot? I can’t work out whether Hammond means that there is something bottom-feedingly negligible about bus drivers (why bus drivers?) or whether it was meant to meant that all soldiers are some kind of special elite. The alternative (and more accurate) analysis is that everyone else in society is trained to expect fairness while soldiers are trained to expect only obedience. So does that make them bottom of the food chain below, well, everyone else? In fact, I think that both these ideas are probably running through Mr Hammond’s head at once. He wants to pretend that his admiration for soldiers knows no bounds while at the same time adopting the establishment assumption that soldiers are all really just cannon fodder (or in this case turnstile fodder ). And of course, normal people (bus drivers) are a different category again, a category in which unspoken ‘just’s abound. As in “it’s (just) pensioners complaining about (just) not being able to eat”.
Second, we have the equally absurd statement by Jeremy Hunt that G4S has acted “honourably” and argued that it is completely normal for companies to fail to meet contractual obligations. OK, honourable - possessing or characterised by high principles, worthy of or entitled to honour or esteem. I just don’t get it. At an absolute stretch and if one wanted to be very generous indeed you might suggest G4S acted reasonably. But showing high principle by telling you with a week or two to go that you’re on your own and all your promises were worth next to nothing? High principle? Worthy of esteem? Hunt has truly lost the point here. The easy joke to make is that this explains all this previous behaviour – a fundamental misunderstanding of the word honour. But in fact it is probably more to do with the fact that his craven idiocy since someone gave him an important job means he will never get another important job in the public realm so he is fishing for some tasty directorships in the companies that are getting rich off the public. Oh, plus he may be one of the few humans alive that still believes corporations are the pinnacle of civilisation.
But the other point is the one that stops me in my tracks. It is usual to renege on the conditions of a contract is it? So I can phone my mobile phone operator and tell them I’ve decided I’m going to pay £20 less a months than we agreed? And this would be normal? Oops, sorry – I misread, it’s not people who can renege on their commitments. So we can choose simply to stop paying the exorbitant rates that PFI contracts are bleeding out of the public sector? Eh, no, the corporates don’t let that sort of thing happen. Nope, this is the Doctrine of Corporate Infallibility, the belief in Omnipotent Commerce. The government must keep its word, people must keep their words, politicians even have to keep to their words (or find a plausible way to wriggle out) but corporations can do as they damned well please. To say that Jeremy Hunt is a disgrace to public service understates the situation.
So these are the values of the British Government – people are all in an endless contest to identify who is worth the least while corporations are in an untouchable realm where every failed act becomes one more reason to venerate them above all things human. This is just medieval theocracy. The human is the product of original sin, the corporation was given to us by God and God alone may judge it.
And worst of all is the absolute certain knowledge that nothing will change, that this is how it will until something changes. The next contact awarded will be done behind closed doors as usual (commercial confidentiality) and the winner will be G4S or A4E or some other business rich off our backs despite a trail of failure behind it. There is no strand of national debate in the UK which is challenging this order – Labour just wants bonuses for soldiers as if that’s the real scandal here (not to downplay the position of many soldiers who I am absolutely sure are due a proper holiday like an MP might get). Are we hearing about the need to redefine the relationship between government and big business? Not that’s I’ve noticed. There needs to be a change but no-one is offering it. These are the great scandals of our era, hard on the back of Enron, Iraq and the financial meltdown. But it seems we’re just going to have to live with it.