Some excellent reviews for James Meek’s polemical Private Island


Writing in the Guardian, John Gray describes James Meek’s new book on privatization, Private Island: Why Britain Now Belongs to Someone Else, as an ‘an unputdownable book that will leave you with a lasting sense of unease.’  Reflecting on how the ‘stealthy encroachment of profit’ into nationalized industries began under the Thatcher/Reagan years, Gray comments that this move cannot simply be seen as a form of ideological conservatism but has in fact lead to the steady erosion of the conservative and nostalgic values of ‘British life’ that Thatcher aimed for. 

The extent of this wave of privatization is, Gray notes, remarkable.

Did you know that when Enron collapsed it owned Wessex Water, which serves Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire? Or that the French energy company EDF is one of the dominant six suppliers of British electricity, owning a portfolio of power stations, including a fleet of nuclear plants, thereby effectively renationalising these businesses – but on behalf of the French state? Or that Northumbrian Water, which serves northeast England, is owned by the Hong Kong-based company Cheung Kong Infrastructure Holdings, which also has the monopoly on London Underground's electricity cables? Well, if – like me – you didn't know, do yourself a favour: read Private Island and find out what has really happened in Britain over the past 20 years.

Another review of Private Island appeared in the Financial Times over the weekend. There, Meek’s book is described as an ‘energetic and colourfully told polemic against privatization,’ and a ‘a book to read if you want vivid details of what went wrong’ with Britain’s national industries. Emily Chapman’s review focuses on Meek’s discussion of privatization of essential services as a form of indirect taxation that hits the poor the hardest.

Jonathan Derbyshire reviewed the book for September's edition of Prospect magazine (paywalled). Derbyshire praises Meek's history of the past 30 years of privatization and market-driven rationalisation as based upon 'admirably thorough and vivid reporting.' Meek's account is without the 'starry-eyed' nostalgia for the former glories public ownership, yet equally avoids the 'dogmatic suspicion of all public servants,' so evident in the 1990s.

The Observer were also forthcoming in praise: "In his devastating account of the privatisation dogma of the past 25 years, Meek makes clear that these policies formed part of a bigger picture. He charts the link between the policies pursued abroad and at home, policies that in the UK have now turned full circle. Whole swathes of industry, particularly the public utilities, are in the hands of foreign state companies whose very existence would not be tolerated here at home.

Meek bombards the reader with compelling facts, but he does so with panache. After all, how many authors could turn a passage about ownership of the water industry into a page-turner?"

Finally, Francis Wheen gave the book 4 out of 5 stars and a glowing review in the Mail on Sunday (not online).

Visit the Guardian, Financial Times, Prospect & Observer to read these articles in full.

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