Adam Curtis’ latest documentary, All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, concludes on BBC 2 on Monday. It merits a review but I’m not going to venture one yet.
But in between the documentaries, Curtis’ mind-expanding blog is always worth a visit. An article he wrote last year about BP and the British government illustrates current misconceptions about what nationalisation is and has been. You can read the piece here
Curtis goes through the turbulent history of BP and the British government. They conspired to persuade the CIA to mount a coup and overthrow the democratically elected Iranian government of Mohamed Mossadegh in 1953. Mossadegh had nationalised the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (the company was renamed BP in 1954) which was itself nationalised in Britain – the British government owned 51 per cent of the shares.
The British/American action resulted in the return to power of the pro-Western dictator, the Shah of Iran and decades of repression.
In that case, the interests of BP, a state-owned company, and the British government, converged. But they also clashed. In Curtis’ words, “British Petroleum didn't give up on trying to subvert and avoid the decisions of democratic governments. In particular its own, British, government.”
In 1965 the racist government of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) declared independence to avoid majority rule. The British government of Harold Wilson imposed economic sanctions to try and depose the government. Rhodesia was blockaded by 27 Royal Navy warships.
But the policy of the British government was successfully undermined by BP, a company owned by the British state! They, and Shell, secretly busted the sanctions by selling oil to Rhodesia.
You can see a 1978 film, on the Curtis blog, in which Frank Bough, who used to present Grandstand on the BBC, explains how they did it.
(In those days of the mixed economy in Britain, many companies were state-owned – even the travel agents Thomas Cook was nationalised between 1948 and 1972. BP was eventually fully privatized in 1987. Another film from the ‘70s Curtis shows on the blog describes BP, then still state-owned, as “the largest industrial corporation in Britain”).
Now we are faced with a situation in which the British government has a dominant stake in large banks, like RBS, but refuses to use the power it has. The banks pay huge bonuses and pensions, and the government appears willingly impotent to do anything about it. But, perhaps, given the history of BP, the situation is not so novel.
The Keynesian economist, Ha-Joon Chang, has said the British government should tell the nationalised banks how to behave and serve the interests of the electorate. “That is what nationalisation should, and used to, mean,” he says.
But the history of BP shows that nationalisation, a very British nationalisation, often didn’t mean that.
There’s no reason why public ownership should mean that corporations do whatever they like, regardless of what the public knows or wants. In that case what is the point of public ownership? But common ownership can take many forms, and without a real shift in power, it is a token gesture. With nationalisation, content is as important as form.