A ‘thank you’ for public service

Returned to Liverpool from London by train. Late Sunday night. Crossed the road from Lime Street station to catch a bus. The No. 86 paused at every bus stop through town to pick up exclusively young people. We then paused at every stop leaving town to drop them off one by one, two by two. I counted at least 25. Some looked unremarkable, some heavily tattooed, two boys with lank hair completely covering their lowered faces. One was unsteady on his feet and almost fell out of the bus. Without fail, each and every one looked round at the driver as they stepped or fell out to say, “thank you”.

I was stunned. I remember being taught by my parents to do the same more than 50 years ago. That was when buses belonged to the city council, under public ownership. But what were we saying? I wasn’t specifically taught to say ‘thank you’ to police officers or nurses or shop assistants. Buses were singled out. What were we expressing thanks for? ‘This is our bus – thanks for driving it.’ Or else, ‘Thanks for delivering us safely.‘ Or, perhaps, ‘thanks to the Council for providing this service.’ I suspect that, back then, there was more than a hint of gratitude that such a luxury as public transport was still seen as a gift to the citizen. ‘Thank you – otherwise I was expecting to have to walk.’ But I am certain that, whatever else, there was an element of ‘thanks for entering public service’.

I asked my brother, Barry, why he says ‘thank you’ when stepping off a bus: ‘it feels rude not to’. Same question applies. I asked Phil: ‘I always do it – most people do. Nothing unusual – you have this thing about public service’.

Phil’s right. I do have this thing about public service – and these ‘thank yous’ are not, it seems, that unusual – though I won’t let go my surprise at young people so systematically obeying the custom – even when almost legless. In fact, I noticed it because they were only young people on that late-night bus, and I’m not accustomed to seeing many adults say it.

Public service of this kind is one of the great innovations of Humanistic society. Clapping for the NHS outside your front door does not at all trivialise it. Far from it. Think of it in historical terms – how unusual. What a marker of citizen awareness and moral advance, a moment of solidarity. (Even though many of those clapping will earlier have voted for a Conservative government which loathes all forms of public service including the NHS. But we live in paradoxes.)

Anyway, none of this mattered to government privatisers. Profit was measured in hard-cash and in private hands – not in social benefit, and much less in the hands of public administrators. Margaret Thatcher and her advisers saw public service as inflationary – ie. money was being paid out and spent in the economy (bus drivers’ and conductors’ wages) but there was no productivity – nothing manufactured. If you have too many people being paid and not producing anything we end up with more money in circulation than there are goods to buy – the classic definition of inflation. This is why Conservatives are so dead against a high-wage economy. Inflation reduces the capital values of the wealthy. Buses were sold off.

Even worse is the ethos of public service under which profitability is balanced with the public need for the service – even at a loss. So…‘thank you for this bus service – I know we can’t pay our way and we’d like to thank the Council for its commitment’. Anathema, of course, to the monetarists. Running a service at a loss merely intensifies the inflationary effect.

So where are these young people’s ‘thank yous’ aimed today? ‘Thank you Arriva for giving us this service.’ Well, hardly – it should be the bus driver thanking the young people: ‘thank you for keeping me in a job….thank you on behalf of Arriva for adding to company profits’. It is no longer a service – as little as is the provision of water and energy and private health and Academy Schooling. Service – as in ‘we are at your service’ – has clear meanings: acting with the intention to fulfil a duty; or with the intention to create benefit for another; or working under the obligation to compensate for a conferred benefit (as a tenant farmer serves his or her Lord who conceded a piece of land). Arriva, ‘public’ (sic) Utilities and School Academies do none of these, other than as an optional extra. Their primary motivation is private, surplus income. They are businesses. (Academies are not-for-profit, but that means little. They can and do outsource ‘services’ like cleaning, catering – even teaching – to their associated companies, and they can be in a position to profit from the increasing value of building assets).

At the heart of these simple paradoxes lies a simple calculation – the price of a ticket.

Publicly owned buses: cost (buses, staffing, infrastructure) + an investment premium.

Privately owned buses: cost (buses, staffing) + an investment premium + profit margin + premium-level salaries for company management. (Most infrastructure – roads for example – is provided them by the city council for free)

Not surprisingly, modern, savvy local councils like Liverpool City are re-insourcing privatised services, including buses. For which – thank you.

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