I had been to the pensions and privatisation meeting at Meadowbank, where in a small room called the Thistle Lounge (no, I don’t know either) about a hundred people listened to about a dozen speakers – most of whom were better-informed about the current crisis than most people you hear on Question Time.
The link between pensions and privatisation: public sector workers get low wages but they get what should be a rock solid pension – they pay for it with a substantial contribution out of their wages. If a publicly-run service is to be sold to a private company, the pension for which the workers have been paying can be enough to make the service unprofitable, or at least not very tempting, to a private buyer. The solution, in the minds of those who see privatisation as the solution to everything, is to give the public sector pensions such a hammering that they’ll be worth no more than a private sector pension, or even less, and thus make the service more tempting to a buyer. Privatisation does no one any favours except the people who are rich enough to think in those terms.
So when the public sector union workers go on strike on November 30th to defend their pensions, they’re also defending the public services they work for against a sale to private companies who will operate their Government-given monopoly on terms most profitable to them – and it won’t matter any more what we think of the services, because we won’t even be their customers – that will be the councils.
In Edinburgh, the Council has offered a nine-year contract to a private company and apparently, when it discovered by Mori poll that people in Edinburgh regard private companies as only out for a profit, privatisation always meaning services being cut and diminished in quality, and the Council as unfit to manage such huge transfers from public to private, they redefined these views as “myths” and a “knowledge gap”. Because after all it’s not as if we’ve any direct experience on the Council throwing millions to a private company and making appallingly stupid financial decisions. Not at all. Trams, what trams?
Thinking this, I walked from Meadowbank to Easter Road and caught the 35. I got off the 35 bus by The Shore at the temporary bus stop just past the Sandport Place bridge. There was a strong smell of burning in the air – very thick and unpleasant. I turned towards The Shore, and saw smoke and a small crowd of people outside the Waterline Pub, which had closed early – it was about quarter to nine in the evening. There was smoke coming from the window of the flat immediately above the pub, where the windows were dark. The flats above had lighted windows.
What follows all took place in about five minutes. I saw a red light through the window in the dark flat and realised that this was a real fire. I heard someone else asking if someone had called the fire brigade, and an affirmative answer. The window of the flat above opened and someone looked out and called down something about the smoke, and was told from the street that this was a fire – get back from the window. She couldn’t see how bad the fire was, as we could from the street, but the smoke must have been blowing right in her window. Several people called to her that the fire brigade had been called, to get back. She called down then – and sounded really panicked – “we can’t get out!” The stair must have been full of smoke. A girl who had been to a judo class – she was still wearing her gi and had a backpack on – asked me if they would be OK, and I told her, someone had called the fire brigade, yes, they would. At that point I climbed over the metal fence that separates the road from the footpath by the river, and headed towards the fire, I suppose thinking that there might be a window and we might be able to help. And then I called 999 and told them where I was and there was a fire and people were trapped. And literally just as I was speaking on the phone three fire engines came up, Lothian and Borders Fire and Rescue, and the relief. Seriously. I know, because of the timestamp on the photos I took, that all of that took place in five minutes or less, but it felt like much longer.
They’re one of the oldest municipal fire services in the world. They’re good at what they do. It was a bad fire, with two storeys of flats above the fire, with thick choking smoke. But everyone in the building got out alive, no casualties, fire put out.
That’s a dramatic use of public services. There’s a thousand other less dramatic public services. But they’re all vital. And we don’t want to turn any of them over to private companies who want to make a profit out of them. And we don’t want to cheat them on their pensions, either.
So I’ll be joining the rally in Edinburgh on 30th November.