When the crazy becomes “normal”: the Byers/ Railtrack row

Submitted by AWL on 21 July, 2005 - 6:39

By Gerry Bates

Roman tourists who went to Greece 1900 years ago would watch as the brutal glories of the ancient Greek city state of Sparta were evoked for them by courtesy of local showmen, by flogging a slave to death.

There were contemporary people who opposed such horrors. But at that time most people took it as “normal”, as “given”. Slaves had no rights. And what you take as “natural”, as just how things are, you don’t question. That fact is one of the great psychological props of the gangrenous conservatism which, in history, has protected so many horrors for so long.

Something like that numbed incomprehension operates in Britain now to prevent a vast outcry at the absurd way we organise our affairs being prompted by the Stephen Byers case.

Byers is being sued by representatives of 50,000 ex-shareholders in Railtrack, the privatised rail infrastructure company which was taken back into a sort of public ownership in October 2001, when he was minister.

The ex-shareholders are demanding millions of pounds in “compensation” for having their bankrupt company taken from them. Though Railtrack was economically unviable; though it had paid out £100 million in dividends to its shareholders just months before, despite making huge losses; though in 2001 Railtrack paid out £225 million to “consultants” (many of them former Railtrack managers); the state paid Railtrack shareholders a total of £500 million for their worthless shares. That’s not enough, they insist.

Railtrack was privatised in 1996. The shares were sold for a total of £1.9 billion. Two years later, the total share price was up to nearly £8 billion. The shareholders drew huge gains.

Then came the rail disasters due to inadequate maintenance, and Railtrack had to reverse some of its cost-cutting. Vast amounts of government subsidy were needed to keep it afloat. Yet right up to the end the beneficent New Labour government gave the company money to give out in dividends, as well as vast salaries for the top managers.

Even after the collapse of October 2001, the managers were paid £6.7 million in bonuses “to reward them for staying with the company”.

Why? Don’t ask daft questions. That’s how things are, stupid! How they have always been. How they have to be. Where are you from? Mars?

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