04/10/2013

Thatcher(ism) and Switzerland

The innovations of Margaret Thatcher show some aspects relative to transport, of people and objects, particularly relevant to Switzerland.


Opinions on the achievements of Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1979 to 1990, tend to be extreme: adore or hate. On the left, she was hated for her ruthless breaking of the power of the trade unions, in particular the National Union of Mineworkers. On that particular issue I have mixed opinions. On the one hand, having an uncle who worked in the mines in the North-East, and who died too young from emphysema, I can understand the hate. However, part of the problem was the fault of trade union officials, including Arthur Scargill, who had too much power but little responsibility, and who were using this for political ends.

It was in her second four-year term of office, whan she had a huge majority in the House of Commons, that privatisation really took off. Of particular interest was the privatisation of BA (British Airways) and the airports. Before that, one of the jokes was that BA was equated to Bloody Awful. Probably some of you might remember some of the other "wrong" names for other airlines (TWA : Try Walking Across!).

The privatisation of the airlines is now accepted, as is that of privatisation of airports in Britain. On the other hand, it appears that she was never a particular fan of privatising either British Rail or the Post Office. In fact, the privatisation of the railways was only done as a rushed last gasp affair of a dying Conservative government, under John Major, and many feel that it was badly done and resulted in a  shambolic state of affairs where passengers get confused over which companies run which routes and, when any accident happens, someone else is always to blame.

IMHO, Margaret Thatcher, faced with a situation where the pendulum of power had swung too far to the left, managed to push the pendulum back towards the right. However, when you do that, and if there is no damping force, the pendulum swings back too far the other way. Thus, what she set in motion by the pendulum change has gone too far. Certainly, as someone brought up with strict moral principles, I am sure that she would have been horrified by the actions of "the rich" in hiding their assets out of reach of the tax inspectors by increasingly devious (and immoral) methods. She certainly would never have done a "Cahuzac", and one can think that her colleagues would have been far too frightened of her to act as Cahuzac acted. However, the subsequent breed of politicians, bankers and heads of large, sometimes post-privatisation, organisations have adopted an extreme view of Thatcherism: one that I call the "me first" credo: anything which makes money for me is good (as long as it is either "legal" or pretty sure to be undiscoverable!).

So what can Switzerland take out of the result of her terms of office and the subsequent events? Switzerland still has a mainly public rail and postal service, and I suspect that she would have been happy to see this situation. On the privatisation of the airlines, I think that for too long Swissair was not sufficiently aware of the changes in the realities of aviation, but its painful destruction and subsequent rebirth as Swiss is probably now recognised as "a good thing".

The airports are also less state-controlled than they were some years ago, and are probably more efficient and profitable. Nonetheless, I would be opposed to the state relinquishing all control over the airports, since then the temptation to concentrate on simply making more and more money, at the expense of the environment, could take over. Already I see Geneva airport as being too oriented towards growth, prestige and financial gain, and working on the principle that noise pollution can be avoided simply by paying for the soundproofing of nearby buildings, rather than by bringing in genuinely punitive restrictions and charges which would effectively force their clients (the airlines) to use quieter aircraft and, in collaboration with the local communal authorities, by implementing flight procedures which would minimise noise over highly populated areas.

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