Historians' Watch

Privatization and the Moral Origins of the Modern State

In 1819 Elizabeth Fry and her brother John Joseph Gurney published a report on the prisons which they had inspected in Scotland and the north of England. They remarked on the disadvantages of a system operated on a profit-making basis by gaolers, and also on the disastrous multiplicity of local jurisdictions:

‘the Manchester thief is well fed on gruel and broth, and beef and cheese, besides his allowance of bread; the Carlisle thief prolongs his miserable existence upon as much bread as can be purchased for threepence-halfpenny per day: the Yorkshire thief is loaded with heavy irons, and perhaps has not a shirt upon his back’.

In short, the same crime, incurring the same formal sentence, could actually entail very different penalties. This was not justice; a uniform system was a legal and moral imperative, and only the state could provide it.

Elizabeth Fry, 1823. From the portrait by C.R. Leslie © The British Library Board

As Quakers, neither Elizabeth nor John Joseph had any veneration for the state; theirs was an agenda for the social reform and, indeed, re-Christianisation of Europe. But the evidence of their eyes convinced them to press for state action. Moreover, despite their commitment to philanthropy, and creation of new voluntary organisations, they were under no illusions as to their efficacy. Elizabeth Fry is celebrated for setting up the British Ladies’ Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners, but not for her statement in 1818 that ‘in a few years we shall none of us that now take care of them be here’. What mattered was continuity; if the official employment of women warders were not enshrined in law, the volunteers’ initiatives would soon wither away.

Marx wrote that those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. The present British government’s drive to shrink the state by selling off as many of its functions as possible to private companies, often leaving voluntary societies to pick up the pieces, may look like a wildly misguided drive to return this country to the early 1800s, and there are many comparisons to be drawn between prisons (and, indeed, hospitals) then and now. It’s all grist to the cartoonists’ mills.

But the regime’s irresponsibility over issues of variation, fragmentation and continuity is compounded by something much more sinister: the systematic abandonment of sovereignty and accountability. Privatising contracts are shrouded in ‘commercial confidentiality’; global corporations now sue national governments over legislation deemed contrary to their interests (such as, for example, minimum wages and health warnings on cigarette packets); they will do so in this country if Britain and the EU accede to the Transatlantic Trade and Industry Partnership, under whose terms disputes are to be resolved by unelected ‘independent’ arbitration boards, meeting in private. Even governments that want to resist will be prevented by international law and the astronomical costs of court actions.

"TTIP graffiti in Malmö" by Johan Jönsson (Julle) - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:TTIP_graffiti_in_Malm%C3%B6.JPG#/media/File:TTIP_graffiti_in_Malm%C3%B6.JPG
“TTIP graffiti in Malmö” by Johan Jönsson (Julle) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s put to one side what Marx wrote about the state withering away; he did not envisage the dismantling process taking place at the behest of global corporations. Let’s also put to one side the line about farce; there is unlikely to be a second time. There’ll only be tragedy. Those of us who have spent lives on the left are entitled to some cynicism about our representative institutions, and can recognise the instruments of ruling-class interests when we see them. But this is a story about babies as well as bathwater (and about real as well as metaphorical babies). Historians, of all people, should keep in mind the moral origins and functions of the modern state, and study how to defend them.


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