One of the other features in the DVD was a sequel, in colour, dated from 1963, called Thirty Million Letters. It is a touching, emotional and absolutely brilliant evocation of what a postal universal service obligation used to mean. There are postmen walking through blizzards, delivering post from a pony and trap, by plane and in constant supportive contact with the public.
The universal service obligation, which the newly privatised Royal Mail is so keen to dispose of, was portrayed there as a thing of beauty – a commitment of pride, a national treasure, a precious stone set in a silver sea...
I can see that the chief executive of the Royal Mail is in a difficult position. Now the Royal Mail is a private company, its continued universal obligation holds it back.
The pressure is on from innovative new competition, from click and collect to Amazon drones. It is difficult out there. It is also difficult for Business Secretary Vince Cable – criticised that he undervalued the shares, and now criticised just weeks later that he overvalued them.
But the abolition of the universal service obligation, a feature of the Royal Mail since Victorian times – which now seems inevitable – is such a scandalous volte face by the Royal Mail that I have been wondering if it marks the end of privatisation as an instrument of policy.
The appalling things is that, as predicted, a universal service obligation shifts from something which we took for granted with quiet pride in the 1960s into something which is too expensive.
Privatisation was born in 1984 as a means of improving service, encouraging innovation and providing a form of popular capitalism – and also of course of raising national revenue (selling the family silver, as Harold Macmillan put it).
After three decades, it has become something else. Here are three reasons why it is reaching the end:
1. Instead of setting free public services by giving them entrepreneurial energy, the process seems to have had the reverse effect – it transforms them into the worst kind of intractable bureaucratic megaliths, apparently without care or thought. As bad as before, but more expensive.
2, Customer facing UK business is itself going through a period of serious dysfunctionality, based on dysfunctional CRM business practices, set in concrete by dysfunctional IT systems. The prospects of handing over any more services to that kind of customer services does not bode well.
3. Nobody any more believe that privatisation will lead to a better service. Quite the reverse. That was not the case in the 1980, and the great privatisations back then – British Gas, BT – have retained their functionality, but it certainly is now. State owned East Coast railway lines provide by far the best service.
4. The need to save money means that there is simply no opportunity for profits that privatisation might once have offered, especially in health – which is why so many contracted out NHS services are being abandoned.
None if this suggests that privatisation will stop dead. There are also good reasons for contracting out some services inside the state system – and always will be - but, despite the scare stories, privatisations seem to me to have reached the end of the line. The revelation of just how much universal services and competition are incompatible will only hasten their demise.
The remaining two justiications are that privatisation helps raise money – which is not enough of a reason for doing so in itself if the management is going to be worse or more expensive – and that they can then raise investment money off the government's balance sheet. This is still an important driver. But there is a political limit: if privatised services are acknowledged to be worse, less reliable, less effective and less universal, then the tide will turn,
I think it just turned.