We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

“So, Patrick, over in 1912, how’s Britain’s recent telephone nationalisation working out?”

I am glad you’ve asked. Not well, it would appear. Over in 1912 they’ve had less than two months of it and even the politicians are beginning to notice:

A majority of complaints fall under the following headings:-
1. Premature disconnexion.
2. Interruptions to conversations by operators.
3. Wrong numbers given.
4. Delay in answering calls…

Etcetera, etcetera…

Do they know why? Yes they do:

…the incentives inherent in a private concern to give the best no longer prevail. It will suffice to state that in Government concerns initiative is often dormant, staffs are largely permanent, and not necessarily promoted by merit or dismissed on inefficiency, and the system of organization generally stereotyped and non-progressive.

So, are they going to do anything about it? Not exactly:

The transfer of telephones to the State is irrevocable, and must be accepted as such.

Fortunately, “irrevocable” turned out to mean “until 1984” when British Telecom was privatised.


The Times, 22 February 1912. Click to enlarge.

Update Title changed so that it makes sense.

6 comments to “So, Patrick, over in 1912, how’s Britain’s recent telephone nationalisation working out?”

  • I love historical parallels and am particularly interested in the period around a hundred years ago avant le déluge.

    The part of this that resonates with me is “The transfer of telephones to the State is irrevocable, and must be accepted as such.”

    He was wrong, but given that acceptance lasted 72 years, not laughably wrong.

    How does that happen? How does something come to be seen as inevitable? In the case of nationalisations and the rolling forward of the state, that was the way it flowed for a whole lifetime and we have made damn little progress at revoking them even now, the drive for privatisations that started with Thatcher having run out of steam.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Well, one good thing came of it:

    The grimoire Necrotelicomnicon is a handy (but in unskilled hands possibly lethal) look-up guide to methods of contacting Gods and related Supernatural Entities. It as also known as Liber Paginarum Fulvarum (Latatian: “Book of yellow pages”). It is not clear if this an older name than Necrotelicomnicon or a latter nickname. The Necrotelicomnicon was written by Achmed the I Just Get These Headaches whilst knurd.

    The book currently rests in in the maximum security wing of the Library of Unseen University, where it sits in its own room with a large, carved stone arch reading NECROTELICOMNICON, just in case anybody forgets why they wanted to go in the room in the first place. (Another inmate is Ye Tantric Booke of Sexe Magicke, which is kept in a refrigerated cell at the bottom of a vat of crushed ice.)

    Staring at a page can cause a man’s brain to dribble out of his ears; it is unknown whether the book has the same effect on women, since none are allowed in the Library. Certainly the Librarian, being an orangutan, is able to read the book without too many ill effects, but he still does so from behind a smoked glass visor.

    It is known that the Necrotelicomnicon contains information on Holy Wood, and judging by its name it presumably also allows one to contact the dead.

    The page headed “About the Author” spontaneously combusted shortly after Achmed’s death, but the “Other Works by the Same Author” page remains, telling us that the Necrotelicomnicon’s sister work is a Book of Humourous Cat Stories.

  • Natalie, I agree with you entirely. Even the questions. And I have no answers.

  • BT wasn’t exactly privatised properly. Local loop anyone? The buggers still behave like a state monopoly because they are in many ways still almost a monopoly (though private – like that really makes a difference – not to them – I used to work for them and he culture stank).

  • Paul Marks

    Compared to the railway “privitization” (which really was nothing of the sort) the BT sale was wonderful Nick.

    You are a bit young to remember what a state telephone company was really like (sadly I am not too young to remember it).

    Presently I am Sky customer – which means I still use a BT line (i.e. a line BT owns) However, I could go over to Virgin if I wanted to (go over to cable), but they do not offer the television stations I actually want….

    Turning to historical point.

    Patrick is correct – the complaints did not start many years later, they started at once.

    And the United States (where telephone and telegraph remained private) was an example of alternative way to go.

    Yet the IDEOLOGY of statism was too strong.

    This ideology of state worship started to come in many decades before, and it come from Prussia.

    It started with a worship of Frederick the Great (still admired by historians who should know better) – and later became the reading of Germany philosophy.

    As I have often pointed out – even liberal philosohers (such as Sir William Hamilton) start to use the word “state” as a positive term – and to assume in their DEFINITION of such concepts as a “university” that the “state” creates them and gives them X, Y, Z.

    Such philosophers remained formally free market in many ways – but their politics was in fundemental contradiction to the philosophical assumptions.

    And, over the course of the 19th century, those contradictions worked themselves out.

    In the United States also (thanks to the work of Richard Ely and others) German practices and German (state worshipping) philosophical thought became the norm in academia (and that leaks out into wider society).

    Indeed the only problem that the elite had with Germany was that it was not statist ENOUGH – that old customs and traditions (and the autonomy of various places within Germany, such as Bavaria) limited collectivism in practice.

    For it must be remembered that thinkers like Richard Ely were NOT fans of the German monarchy (monarchies) or the other established institutions…

    On the contrary they (even before the First World War) wanted such old things swept away – so that a more pure anti commercial society could be created.

    If not in Germany – then in America or Britain.

    Of course Marxist thought was the most radical of all.

    Formally opposing any “state” at all – but being totally collectivist (in practice).

  • Peter MacFarlane

    What NickM said.

    You cannot get a physical line installed anywhere in the UK without going through “OpenReach”, which is part of BT but with the added spice that you cannot deal with them yourself, you have to deal with them through BT.

    So you have TWO lots of monopolistic former-nationalised-industry who-gives-two-f***s-about-the-customer attitudes to work through.

    Oh, and an automated telephone calling reponse system that really could have been designed by Franz Kafka.

    It stinks beyond belief.