My neighbourhood has one post office – a relatively large one in comparison to some, and very rarely empty; its solitary presence means those seeking the service it offers have nowhere else within walking distance, and it is a genuine oasis surrounded by a desert of trendy bars, coffee shops, pizza emporiums, foreign food outlets and numerous other businesses that exploit obesity. However, rumours recently reached me that whichever horrible corporation owns the premises it has occupied for decades has trebled the rent over the last twelve months in a bid to force the post office out, and this essential community hub now either has to be reduced to sub status in a supermarket or simply disappear forever.
62 post office branches were earmarked for closure last year; a further 37 have been pencilled-in for the same fate this year with an estimated 420 jobs to go. The network of post offices across the country has shrunk around 30% over the past three decades, though the service still has upwards of 17 million customers a week. The increasing trend towards buying and sellng online should, in theory, have revitalised an industry whose traditional income was based around that quaint archaic practice of sending letters, yet continuously falling revenue gave the Government an excuse to capitalise on the situation four years ago.
A public institution aged 500 years young was deemed to be a source of shameless profit for our friends in Whitehall when they took the decision to sell off Royal Mail, thanks in no small part to the persistent pushing of Westminster’s very own Iago, Mr Mandelson, after deregulation opened the market to competition in 2006. Like so much privatisation since the mass closing down sale instigated by Mrs T back in the day, the benefits for the humble customer in the event of a family silver auction have been secondary to private profiteering where the post office has been concerned.
Following the notorious sale of Royal Mail in 2013, a report by the National Audit Office claimed the Government’s hasty flogging of the business cost taxpayers an estimated £750 in just one day. Deliberately undervaluing the share price, the Government entrusted the sale to Old Mother Cable in his role as Business Secretary under the Coalition; disregarding warnings from the City, Cable went ahead with his intentions to float Royal Mail at 330p a share and set aside 16 long-term investors to have priority access. Almost half of these investors sold their shares a matter of weeks later, many to the same hedge funds that Cable had labelled ‘spivs’, making a handsome profit in the process. The Government followed suit in 2015, selling its remaining 30% stake, formally ending its centuries-old connection to the service in the most unedifying fashion. I don’t claim to understand the intricacies of privatisation, floatation and the FTSE 100; but I recognise a rip-off when I see it.
For all the flak they continue to take from revisionists, the Victorians’ sense of Christian zeal when embarking upon their moral reform of the nation’s wellbeing wasn’t restricted to a specifically religious mantra. The codification and new professionalism of sports such as association football and rugby league; the right of every child, whatever their social origins, to receive education for free; the laying out of landscaped civic parkland; the creation of public libraries and public swimming baths – all were designed to open doors to intellectual and physical improvement that only the moneyed classes had previously had access to.
Although the postal service became available to the public under the reign of Charles I, the advent of the Uniform Penny Post in 1840, along with the introduction of pillar boxes twenty years later, chimed with the reforming spirit of the age – one that our supposedly enlightened era would find utterly alien. The formation of the National Health Service in 1948 was perhaps the last grand gesture of benevolence by the State in the nineteenth century tradition, devised by men born during Victoria’s reign and influenced by the ethos of their childhoods. The decline and fall of the NHS over the last couple of decades is, amongst many other things, a cracked mirror on the death of the concept of the common good.
The farming out of public services (or ‘outsourcing’, to use the official title), whether contracting the running of prisons to private companies or switching every customer helpline of your energy supplier to the broken English of the Indian Subcontinent, may seem unrelated; but each development of this nature in its own little way contributes towards the alienation and detachment from institutions many feel today, an alienation and detachment less prevalent when public ownership of public services gave everyone a sense of having a stake in society, even if they were down to their last couple of quid.
One small example came my way recently when a friend applied to work in the care sector; because the pay is so poor, jobs aren’t hard to come by, though she will have to wait upwards of two months to actually begin work due to the endless CRB-type checks she now has to undergo, the sort familiar to anyone working with society’s most vulnerable. These checks are in the hands of – wait for it – none other than the Metropolitan Police Force!
If that doesn’t fill you with confidence, it’s interesting to note that the overseas employees she’ll be working alongside (largely from Eastern Europe) aren’t investigated re their employment history in the country of their origin and are essentially ‘fast-tracked’ into the job. Whilst the unblemished record of a native is subject to scrutiny that instantly assumes all Brits are sadistic Paedos in the making, an immigrant worker who may have previously committed the kind of crimes CRB checks are supposed to safeguard against can effectively walk into a position without any additional delays. Of course, that’s not to say an immigrant worker is any more likely to have a dodgy past than any home-grown employee in the care sector, though surely the same rules should apply to all.
Such a farcical scenario may not appear to be connected to the imminent closure of my local post office, or indeed the disappearance of hundreds of post offices throughout Britain since 2013; but it does seem indicative of the cheap, selfish, suspicious, mistrustful, nasty little country we’ve become and how inequality in all its myriad forms has seen Us and Them assert itself as the dominant narrative of the day.
© The Editor