The SNP Holyrood Government has announced the nationalisation of the ScotRail franchise which is currently responsible for the vast majority of rail journeys across Scotland. As the transport workers’ union RMT said: “We have long campaigned for the Scottish Government to utilise its existing powers and take Scotland’s rail passenger services into public ownership and today’s announcement represents a clear victory for this campaign.”
That the Scottish government has taken this step now is testament to the huge crisis facing capitalism and to the system’s currently overwhelming reliance on the state to underwrite huge swathes of the economy and private business. It is also a reflection of the fear felt by capitalist governments at the prospect of mass working-class revolt, which looms on the horizon as the lockdown restrictions are lifted.
Socialist Alternative of course welcomes the return of any rail service to public ownership. However, the timetable and manner of this move reveals clearly that it is not a socialist anti-austerity measure to weaken the grip of the bosses on the lives of Scottish workers, but a tinkering with the market, ultimately aimed at protecting the interests of big business.
The powers being used are the ‘operator of last resort’ (OLR) provisions, written into the Railways Act 1993 by its Tory authors. These allow the government to step in and take over operations. They are meant to be used temporarily, only to rapidly return operations to the gentle embrace of the market. On the East Coast Mainline franchise between London and Aberdeen this has been used twice by UK governments, in 2009 and 2015, after successive operators based in tax havens (Sea Containers and Richard Branson’s Virgin group) walked away from the franchise, pocketing millions in public subsidies.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong in using these powers to defend workers’ and passengers’ rights. Indeed, the RMT correctly pointed out two years ago that the refusal to use a break clause and allow the existing contractor Abellio to run ScotRail until 2022 would cost £37million, the equivalent of an 11% fare cut. This figure has grown exponentially during the pandemic: Holyrood have handed Abellio £215million of emergency funding for the six months between March and September last year. A source told the Daily Record ‘It wouldn’t be wrong to assume the running total could be close to half a billion.’ Meanwhile, the Government refuses to intervene in a dispute between Abellio and its staff which has led to strike action over rest day working (the latest scheduled for Easter Sunday).
Democratic control needed
The manner in which the OLR will be run has not been revealed but, if the experience of workers at Ferguson Marine, the Clydeside shipyard taken into public ownership by Holyrood in December 2019 is anything to go by, the stock market spivs can sleep easy. Ferguson is managed on behalf of the government by Tim Hair, a Gloucestershire based ‘turnaround specialist’ whose ‘Indeed’ profile boasts that he ‘led the sale process for [a] specialist hydraulics business having doubled profitability and delivered top line growth. Sold for £33.5m, over twice the valuation at the start of the process’. That it remains ‘business as usual’ for the Hair and the Ferguson bosses was underlined in January when workers received a letter insisting that they return to work during the pandemic. One worker said ‘It is ridiculous and unfair… There are people travelling from all over the place to get here. It is heavy-handed, bullying management which openly ignores the Scottish government’s own guidelines… How can working on a ferry that is three years behind schedule be deemed to be an essential service?’
A socialist government in Scotland would use these powers but go beyond the Tories’ intentions and bring the whole of the rail system (both track and rolling stock) as well as the bus services, roads, and ferries into public ownership. On this basis, and by linking up with socialists and working-class fighters across England and Wales, it would then be possible to plan a fully integrated green public transport system which would be affordable and responsive to the needs of ordinary people. This can only be achieved if decisions are made democratically by passengers and the workers who run the services, and not by politicians or high paid executives dancing to the tune of the market.