Granny Smith’ is the name given by postmen to the isolated old ladies along their routes for whom the mail service is a lifeline. Dear Granny Smith takes the form of a letter to such women, attempting to explain what has changed in the Royal Mail and what has gone wrong. The pseudonymous author, Roy Mayall, is a long serving postman who is reaching the end of his career only to find that the institution within which he has spent his entire working life is one he no longer really recognises. It is a very short, pocket-sized book that can be read in a single sitting and it is profoundly charming in both its presentation and its content. The book is imbued with the passion of someone who is clearly committed to the Royal Mail and this adds pathos to what is a damning indictment of the changes that are being wrought upon this valued institution.
Some of the examples of public service Mayall presents in the book seem almost unthinkable to those, such as myself, whose reached adolescence at the start of the New Labour era. One particularly striking story involves a colleague who once saved the life of an old woman (ie, a Granny Smith) on his route. He frequently used to knock on the door of this isolated widow to chat and see if she was OK. One day when she did not answer, he looked through the window and saw her collapsed on the kitchen floor. He knew her sister who lived up the road so he went and retrieved her keys then entered the woman’s house. She had fallen on the floor and had been unable to get up. The ambulance crew subsequently told him that he had saved her life. Not only would this not take place under contemporary conditions but for my generation the very idea that it might take place seems unthinkable. The notion of public service has atrophied to such an extent that the idea of a postman intervening in a life to this extent (being one of the few people who speak to an isolated widow, having the time to speak to her on his route, knowing where her sister lives, being willing and able to retrieve her house keys and thus save her life) has simply gone, as have more mundane instances of public service, such as post arriving by 9am and twice daily deliveries.
One of them most compelling aspects of the book is the author’s informed critique of the day-to-day absurdities associated with the Royal Mail’s modernisation agenda. He pointedly explains the newly introduced electric trolleys which are patently unfit for purpose and require both an entirely new fleet of vans (as they are too large for existing vehicles to transport) and an entirely new maintenance infrastructure (in contrast to the simplicity and efficiency of the old fashioned bike). So too the introduction of ‘starburst’ deliveries where a group of delivery staff attached to a single van service streets one-by-one in a manner akin to refuse collection. Such a service, which he calls ‘McMail’, replaces the long-term postmen with causal and unskilled labour and is sure to undermine any last vestige of the public service culture which he has so poignantly described earlier in the book.
Perhaps the most amusing technological ‘innovation’ is the introduction of brand new double-decker lorries which, given the extra time they take to fill up, frequently leave depots half-full. Could there be a more striking example of superficial efficiency savings which simply produce waste? The author’s account suggests that the problem stems from the imperialistic manner in which ideological modernisers push through such ‘savings’ with utter disregard for the sort of on-the-ground knowledge which would quickly suggest the manifold ways in which such heavy-handed impositions are often flawed. As well as his criticisms of its practical realities the author offers a scathing condemnation of the concept of modernisation more generally:
It’s an interesting word, that. Modernisation. Just roll it around the tongue once or twice. We have to be modern, don’t we? Who wouldn’t want to be modern? Actually, it’s just another euphemism, like ‘flexibility’ or ‘discretionary’. Modernisation means scaling back the service in order to serve the interests of the corporations. It means ‘profitability’ which means ‘cutting costs’ which means ‘cutting back on fixed expenditures’ which means – and I don’t have to employ inverted commas for this – lower standards and lower wages.
The book ends with a plea for the renewal of the Royal Mail as a public service. Mayall argues that the network is still fundamentally sound and that underlying problems could be resolved through a return to full public ownership, adequate investment and a shift in managerial culture. It needs managers who enjoy an appreciation of its history and values, as well as a concern for the public the institution is supposed to serve (eg, the Granny Smiths) as well as the corporate clients. He plausibly observes that ‘the tension here is between the Royal Mail as a profit-making business, and the Royal Mail as a public service’. He suggests that the Royal Mail is, at heart, both, and that the poor state of industrial relations within the organisation is a consequence of that fundamental ambiguity. For the Royal Mail management the organisation represents the first, whereas to himself and the frontline workers it represents the second.
Given everything else Mayall has written in this moving book, it’s difficult not to feel disappointed at the earnest moderation of this conclusion. Why not defend the Royal Mail in unambiguous terms as a public service rather than presenting it in terms of both service and profit? The obvious reaction to this suggestion is to implore the necessity of economic viability, but the acceptance of this kind of technocratic language is a crucial element in the very process of modernisation which Roy Mayall so plausibly decries. The apparent acceptance of the brute reality of economic logic (eg, ‘the Royal Mail has to be profitable in order to function’) suppresses the political decisions underlying the purportedly obvious claims. Why should economic imperatives outweigh universal service obligations? Why should public services be profitable? In a democratic society these are questions which ought to be decided through open and equitable procedures, but instead they are forced off stage through the repetitive siren song of ‘modernising’ ideologues who insist that the public sector should be subject to private sector discipline. While a coherent case can certainly be articulated in favour of this agenda, it should be made through political persuasion rather than the invocation of economic expertise.
The past three decades have witnessed a historically unprecedented depoliticisation of economic life, as a narrowly economic discourse of modernisation is used to present profoundly political agendas (for instance ‘slashing’ public services to produce ‘balanced’ budgets) as objective necessities. In each case empirical factors, such as the actual likelihood of a sovereign debt crisis, as well as political factors, such as the obvious possibility of increasing taxation, are left off stage without being subject to democratic consideration. This trend is exemplified by Margaret Thatcher’s famous TINA formulation which is, in many ways, the motto of neoliberal modernisation: There Is No Alternative. The philosopher Mark Fisher recently argued that ‘nothing is inherently political; politicisation requires a political agent which can transform the taken-for-granted into the up-for-grabs’. A starting point for the exercise of this political agency is an impassioned opposition to the discourse, as well as the practice, of modernisation. The former is a necessary condition of the latter, as the persuasive success of modernising rhetoric engenders support for measures which would otherwise be unpalatable to the majority within society. Rather than engaging with its on its own terms and playing the language game of profit and loss, we might reject its presuppositions out of hand and confidently assert the moral value of public service and social good.
Such a stance undoubtedly risks inviting accusations of naiveté and idealism (‘Surely the public sector should adopt the expertise and lessons of the private sector? Would it not be wasteful to do otherwise?’) but the apparent realism of this response hides its reactionary and ideological character. The acceptability of profit or loss within public sector organisations is predicated on political consensus rather than an unavoidable logic of organisational management. It’s often not profitable to run bus services outside of peak times or in rural areas. It’s often not profitable to maintain local post offices outside of urban areas. It’s often not profitable to run rehabilitation centres for drug and alcohol problems. Yet all these things possess a social value and, once we think along these lines, it often becomes clear that this social value has economic ramifications. Drug and alcohol treatment ultimately reduces court costs and hospitable admissions. The preservation of local infrastructure ensures the continued viability of local economies outside of urban centres.
The dichotomy between public service and profitability is false one which presuppose ‘profitability’ to be an entirely private phenomenon. It entails the logic of accounting which systematically excludes those externalities which ‘spill over’ and impact on actors outside of the economic transaction. This manifests itself negatively, as in the environmental impact of more individuals driving after unprofitable bus routes have been cancelled, as well as positively, as in the social cohesion and support provided by local post offices without accruing economic gain for any private actor. This inevitable exclusion of externalities means that the purported objectivity of this form of assessment is utterly fictitious because its unable to evaluate outcomes in a way which takes account of all their impacts. It might be possible to argue that this is suitable for the private sector, although the pervasiveness of environment externalities seems to me to a powerful objection to this view. However economic reasoning of this form is manifestly inappropriate for the public sector because it’s intrinsically unable to secure the place of the social goods which constitute the raison d’être of public services.
However an anecdote from the book illustrates this state of affairs better than abstract reasoning ever could. At the very end of Dear Granny Smith, Roy Mayall poignantly describes a staff meeting where the manager made clear that, given their economic centrality to a modernised business model, the new focus of the Royal Mail was on corporate customers. One of the older postmen asked about Granny Smith and was told, in no uncertain terms, ‘Granny Smith is not important. Granny Smith doesn’t matter anymore’. This is why the discourse of modernising public services must be resisted. Unless, that is, we agree that Granny Smith doesn’t matter anymore.