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International Socialism, Spring 2001


Peter Morgan

A troublemaker’s charter


From International Socialism 2:90, Spring 2001.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


George Monbiot
Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain
Macmillan 2000, £12.99

Who runs Britain? The answer may seem straightforward since every four or five years we have an election. The major political parties put forward their programme, and people vote for their preference to take control of the country. Or at least this is what we are led to believe.

Yet for as long as the system of parliamentary democracy has existed there seems to have been a bias in favour of big business at the expense of workers. In particular during the Tory years, first under Thatcher and then Major, there was a widely held belief that the capitalist class had things too much their way. This was part of the reason Labour swept to victory in 1997.

Yet how radically have things changed since Labour was elected? Part of the answer to this can be gleaned from the original way in which George Monbiot addresses this question in the middle of his excellent new book, Captive State. Under the title of The Fat Cats Directory Monbiot has constructed a table which is divided into three – in the first column he names the ‘fat cat’, secondly he describes what he calls their ‘previous gluttony’, and then thirdly comes their ‘subsequent creamery’. In using this method Monbiot very effectively shows how the rich and powerful have been able to take over and control large sections of public life.

So, for example, we learn that Ewen Cameron, former president of the Country Landowners’ Association, owner of 3,000 acres of land in Somerset and the man who blocked a footpath across his Somerset estate, is now chairman of the government’s Countryside Agency, which includes among its responsibilities implementing the right to roam.

We also learn that Lord Simon, former chairman of BP, which under his chairmanship was accused of evicting peasants from their land in Colombia, and in a Colombian government report of handing over video footage and photographs of local campaigners to the military, is now one of the ministers responsible for implementing Britain’s ‘ethical foreign policy’.

The list also includes David Steeds. You’ve probably not heard of him but, as Monbiot tells us, he was formerly the corporate development director of Serco Group plc, one of the most successful bidders for privately financed government projects (the Private Finance Initiative, PFI, schemes). His new job? He was recently appointed by the New Labour government to be the chief executive of the government’s Private Finance Panel, which is responsible for allocating PFI contracts.

And, in what must be one of the most remarkable examples of the lunatics taking over the asylum, John Bowman, formerly a director of Commercial Union, which was named and shamed by the Treasury for 7,900 possible mis-sold pensions, now finds himself on the board of the government’s Occupational Pensions Regulatory Authority, which is meant to protect pensioners from being exploited.

Monbiot’s book is full of such examples, and for the first time we have a publication which goes into some detail in explaining how far the corporate takeover of Britain has gone during the few years of the New Labour government. It is a devastating critique of the Blair government and the way that the interests of big business have been promoted.

Yet there is more to the book than just this. Not only has Monbiot given us details as to who has taken over large parts of the country, but he also shows how this was done. He says of Captive State in his introduction that:

It demonstrates that the provision of hospitals, roads and prisons in Britain has been deliberately tailored to meet corporate demands rather than public need. It shows how urban regeneration programmes have been subverted to serve the interests of private companies, how planning permission is offered to sale to the highest bidder, and how the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has fallen prey to a perilous conflict of interests. It examines the means by which the superstores have achieved their pre-eminence in Britain, closing down competing shops and controlling their suppliers. It documents some of the curious discrepancies between the duties of business people appointed to government posts and their former activities. [1]

Monbiot achieves this very well, and there can be no better recommendation than to urge all readers to buy a copy and read the book for themselves. The scale of the corporate takeover of Britain, the methods by which this was done, and the collusion and help they had from the New Labour government are truly staggering.

His first line of attack is the government’s PFI. The first chapter introduces us to the campaign against the Skye toll bridge project in Scotland. The bridge was first commissioned under the Tories, but it was seen through by the New Labour government. The new bridge was to link the island of Skye with the mainland by road, as previously the only way to travel between the two was by ferry. However, what made this project so important was that the bridge was to be built solely with private funds under the new government PFI scheme. Hence the stakes on getting this through were high. Monbiot shows how rules were broken and millions of pounds of subsidy put the developers’ way.

It was estimated that the cost of building the bridge and the surrounding infrastructure was a total of £25 million. The theory of PFI is that no public money is used. However, as Monbiot shows, the Scottish Office paid £6 million to build the support roads; when a public inquiry delayed construction the government gave the companies £2 million in compensation; £3 million was paid by the government to consultants; another £3 million was given to the private companies to compensate them for the subsidies given to Skye residents for a reduced toll; £2 million was even given to the private companies when it was decided to reduce the height of the bridge by a few metres to reduce its visual impact. As Monbiot concludes:

The islanders were furious, but the investors must have been delighted. The companies which built the bridge spent, according to the Public Accounts Committee, a mere £500,000 of their own money. In 18 years of tolling, they would collect, the committee determined, £37 million ... The arrangement was so lucrative because, as the National Audit Office reported, the consortium had the government over a barrel. It knew the Scottish Office was desperate to launch the government’s first privately financed project [and] it knew that once it had won the contract it could tear it up and demand whatever it wanted. [2]

Monbiot presents a damning exposé of the whole scheme, and he reveals the truth about PFI behind the government’s rhetoric. He shows the extent to which public funds are used to subsidise the PFI schemes, effectively giving the private investors a no-lose option.

But there is more to Captive State than this. Monbiot has also given a voice to all those who have been at the forefront of the campaigns against the corporations. So it is with the Skye bridge campaign we are introduced to Robbie the Pict, the man who, along with the other Skye resident campaigners, has been a constant thorn in the side of the government and private contractors by literally clogging up the system. Not only did they force concessions by a systematic and well organised campaign of non-payment of the toll, but they also used an imaginative series of stunts – such as presenting a cheque for the toll that was literally too large to fit in the tollbooth – as a means to get their case across.

Despite the energy and imagination of the protesters, however, the bridge was built, the tolls were imposed (although at a reduced rate for local residents) and the private contractors made a killing. But as Monbiot shows this was done at great political and economic cost to the government. A new generation of activists, many of whom in the past may have denied they were political or claimed they were not at odds with the system, began to realise that it is only when you question the priorities of the government and fight against it can something be done.

Monbiot’s sympathies clearly lie with the protesters. His aim is to show that at the same time as the corporate takeover of Britain has continued, democratic control has been removed from many areas of public life. The result has meant a deterioration of services. In the area of health, for example, he shows how a PFI scheme for the health service in the Walsgrave area of Coventry has resulted in less beds in the city and greater distances for local people to travel to get treatment. He also shows how this is not some accident but a direct result of getting private money to determine what gets spent and where. He concludes:

Just as the problems surrounding the plans for the new hospital on the Walsgrave site in Coventry result not from a terrible mistake but from the inevitable unfolding of the Private Finance Initiative, so the impending reduction of beds and staff nationwide is an unavoidable consequence of taking private money. Like the Walsgrave scheme, the price of all the new projects has been massively inflated in order to make them what the NHS calls ‘PFI-able’: attractive in other words, to private investors. [3]

But it is not just the government which is the target for Monbiot’s attacks. He also goes for those who lurk in the background – the huge multinationals which seek to invade every sphere our lives. One of these is the huge conglomerate Monsanto, which during the 1990s became one of the largest producers of GM crops and other farming products. Having gained dominance in the US farming market, Monsanto was keen to extend its influence. In particular it wanted to establish itself in Britain, which it saw as an important stepping stone into the lucrative European market.

Monbiot gives an amazing account of how Monsanto developed a growth hormone called rBST which, when injected into cows, resulted in an increase of 15 percent in milk yields. In 1993 the US government’s Food and Drug Administration licensed the artificial hormone for commercial use and it became widely developed on US farms. By 1998 sales of rBST made $200 million for Monsanto.

There was, however, a slight problem with the growth hormone, as it became increasingly apparent that it posed a health risk to humans. By 1995 it was revealed that the hormone may have been responsible for birth defects when injected into cows. The fear was that this would then be passed to humans.

In any rational and sane society the obvious conclusion would be to withdraw the hormone immediately. However, as Monbiot shows, what followed was a concerted and well planned campaign by Monsanto to ensure that production and use of the hormone continued. This included a huge and well funded publicity campaign. Monsanto was involved in smearing those scientists who questioned some of the research. It gave substantial contributions to the US president’s legal funds (so much so that Clinton singled out Monsanto for special praise in his 1997 State of the Union Address). Monsanto even flew a group of Irish journalists to the US in the hope of influencing them about the merits of its products, and its representatives gave the journalists a tour of the White House including the Oval Office.

At the same time as this was going on Monsanto was involved in a campaign to get its GM crops accepted. Yet such was the anger of ordinary people both in the US and Europe that by the late 1990s Monsanto was facing resistance. As Monbiot explains, ‘When American consumers began to respond to a series of food scandals involving genetically engineered products by turning to organic food instead, the US Department of Agriculture sought to widen the statutory definition of "organic" to include genetically engineered crops, and to outlaw higher organic standards than those it set. It withdrew the proposal only after receiving 270,000 letters of protest.’ [4]

Monsanto’s allies included not just the Clinton administration in the US but also the New Labour government in Britain. A glance at The Fat Cats Directory in the middle of the book shows that one of the ministers responsible for overseeing the introduction of new food technology was Lord Sainsbury, former chairman of the supermarket chain J. Sainsbury plc.

Yet despite having friends in high places Monsanto was not able to overcome the hostility from consumers. In the middle of the 1990s it appeared as though Monsanto was taking over large parts of the world, yet by the end of the 1990s the name Monsanto had been all but buried. As Monbiot explains:

Consumers on both sides of the Atlantic had become suspicious of its products. Farmers were reluctant to plant, and financiers were wary of investing. As its share price plummeted, the company was forced to merge with the drugs company Pharmacia and Upjohn. A month later, the name Monsanto disappeared from all but one of the new corporate divisions. The behemoth had been swallowed. [5]

There are many other interesting examples in this book of how corporations sought to extend their influence. Monbiot shows how supermarkets have been throwing money at councils in an attempt to bypass local planning laws, as well as trying to get councils to stop competitors from building new stores. He also looks at the bigger picture, explaining how the WTO and the Gats agreement will allow the huge multinationals to dominate large parts of the world’s economy, forcing governments to take their products against their will.

This is investigative journalism of the highest order. Each chapter is full of footnotes which refer to government, independent and international reports, websites and articles. This book is a damning indictment not just of the New Labour government but the whole capitalist system. There has been a huge amount of new literature that has emerged as the anti-capitalist struggle has grown and deepened over the last 18 months, and this is one of the best of them.

There are, however, two weaknesses, and this happens when we get to the end of the book – the ‘what is to be done’ bit. Monbiot’s last chapter is called A Troublemaker’s Charter, and I’m sure he will be proud to be known as one. There is much here that will ensure that he will greatly annoy the New Labour government. For example, among other things, he demands: the Private Finance Initiative is scrapped; the patenting of genes is repealed; the legal advantages corporations enjoy over people are withdrawn; mergers and takeovers are resisted; corporations, when they have shown to be a menace to society, are destroyed by the state; international decision-making is democratised. And so the list goes on. But as you reach the end of the book the one thing that you really want to ask is – how?

Monbiot’s solution to the size and power of multinational corporations is to call for a mixture of greater regulations, sanctions against tax havens, smaller and more accountable businesses, and a series of international agreements. On the surface there is nothing wrong with this – indeed these are the measures that have dominated social democratic thinking throughout the 20th century.

The problem arises, however, when the good intentions of individuals come up against the power of international capitalism. History has shown that capital wins hands down. For example, a series of workers’ co-operatives like the Meridan motorcycle co-operative that were set up in the 1970s all failed when they came up against the power of the market. The current New Labour government has its fair quota of people who came into politics with the intention of ‘taming’ the power of multinationals and introducing greater regulation, only to now find themselves being apologists for the very system they were intent on changing. And the call for smaller and more local businesses to reverse the trend toward multinationals flies in the face of the logic of capitalist competition which ensures larger units of capital are concentrated in fewer hands.

All of this can only be challenged when the power of the individual is mobilised against the power of capital. To be fair, Monbiot does go part of the way in recognising this. He says:

… we must ... cause trouble. We must put the demo back into democracy. Legitimate protest takes many forms. It should not be confined to parliamentary politics or even to strictly legal channels. Parliament is incompletely representative. [6]

But for this to be effective we must organise where we are strongest, a point which Monbiot fails to recognise, and this is the second weakness of the book. There are a few words or phrases missing from this book. We never hear of strikes or solidarity, we never hear of people as workers – instead he mostly talks of them as consumers. Maybe this is nit picking, but I think it undermines his solution to the problems he outlines. We are the ones who, when we are hungry, have to go down to the local supermarket, and who, when we are ill, must use the nearest PFI hospital. This is true, but there is another side to the equation. We are also the ones who work there – we run the supermarkets and the hospitals, and for that matter the multinationals. Without us the bosses and the conglomerates are nothing. And so it is here, at the point where we produce things, where we come together and where we can organise, that our greatest power lies. It is here where we can best halt the corporate takeover of Britain.

Nevertheless, Monbiot has done a great service to the growing anti-capitalist movement. He has exposed a lot of what is wrong with the system and New Labour’s part in it. It is also wonderful to know that as this review is being written the book is selling well, and a new generation of activists will learn from the many campaigns Monbiot talks about. He quite rightly says at the end of book that the responsibility for stopping the corporate takeover of Britain lies with the reader. The debate as to how this is to be done is set to continue.


1. G. Monbiot, Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain (London 2000), pp. 4–5.

2. Ibid., pp. 28–29.

3. Ibid., p. 76.

4. Ibid., pp. 240–241.

5. Ibid., p. 280.

6. Ibid., p. 358.

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