Stonehenge privatized

English Heritage – the state funded body – which owns such national treasures as Stonehenge and the Roman remains at Wroxeter has been split into two organisations. One is a charity – which keeps the name ‘English Heritage’ and the other, a direct funded statutory body, has the role of advising owners of listed property on its upkeep and maintenance etc. This latter is to be called ‘Historic England’.

Initially the government will fund the charity English Heritage but the aim is to draw down funding so that by 2022/23 it will be ‘self-funding’. [1]

What this means in effect is that English Heritage (the charity) will need to come up with ways of raising more money from the public. Previously English Heritage charged for admission to sites which it ran – such as Stonehenge and Wroxeter. Given that their government funding will be withdrawn it is clear that they will have to find new ways to drum up money. This is likely to mean some, or all, of the following: more marketing and merchandising at these sites, higher entrance prices, sub-contracting sites to commercial entertainment companies, commercial sponsorship. How long, for example, until we see a bank’s logo projected onto Stonehenge?

Forget the ‘charitable’ status of the new body. This is in effect a privatization. The new English Heritage will be obliged to either adopt commercial practices or sub-contract site management to commercial companies. Large private (whether privately owned or publicly traded) companies are ruled by one golden rule; “maximize profits while maintaining a legally defensible position”. The only thing they think about is their bottom-line. This is precisely why a state or socialized sector is needed. In this case – a socialized ‘English Heritage’ could take a decision precisely not to commercialize Stonehenge. They could do this out of a sense of veneration for tradition and a sense that the site is best seen in a relatively uncommercialized way. A private ‘self-funded’ English Heritage will not have that luxury. An example of what a heritage sight could look like when run purely for profit is Warwick Castle. This site is run by Merlin Entertainments Group Ltd.  It appears that this  company is partly backed by US private capital and partly publicly traded. [2] At Warwick Castle the visitor pays a large entrance fee. Once inside she is offered numerous opportunities to pay further fees – to visit special ‘attractions’ or shoot a bow and arrow and so on. Merlin Entertainments certainly knows the marketing adage that the best people to market to are your existing customers. The effect is that the visitor to the Castle gains little sense of the history of the site. Everywhere he looks he sees not historic ramparts but another gimmicky ‘attraction’ or gaudy stall pushing yet another ‘upsell’. The effect is that it becomes nigh on impossible for a visitor to imagine the castle as it was in its historical context; which must surely be the educational value of visiting such a site. Once a heritage sight is turned into a tourist attraction it is no longer a case of heritage preserved for benefit of present and future generations but of heritage exploited for the (financial) benefit of whoever owns the site.

The campaign to privatize everything is, no doubt, driven by the power of money. Capital wants more machines to set spinning to generate more revenue streams. The economic necessity of a publicly traded company to think about nothing but its profits translates into a culture which can think about nothing but money. The capitalist revenue machines they create need consumers. Everyone must be educated to consume and ‘enjoy’ to the max. The language of marketing ellipses that of anything else, including heritage, education and morality.

When the current wave of UK privatization started in the 1980s the public was told it was about ‘efficiency’. Private firms, they were told, were just more ‘efficient’ than state owned firms. This was a gigantic fib. The real aim was to enable the creation of capitalist revenue machines. In so many cases the ultimate owners of these newly created revenue machines turn out to be US firms – quite often private equity firms, sometimes publicly traded (or a combination of both). At any event preserving the national heritage of a site will only be on their list of priorities if it is the most profitable course of action. If stuffing an ‘attraction’ with ‘optional extra attractions’ and gimmicks is more profitable that is what they will do.

There is a loss to all this privatization. A socialized sector can hold and put into practice values other than return on investment. A socialized sector can operate to preserve heritage. It can adopt an educational purpose. It can act in the long-term interest not the short-term. It can act in the national interest. A socialized heritage business is more likely to support education and the imagination eschewing a more populist but profitable commercialization of the site. A private company will act only in pursuit of its need to generate profits. Yes; private companies can be ‘regulated’ by law. But reliance on this as a mechanism to control their behaviour is naive. In reality the traffic is the other way, as private companies lobby governments to adopt policies and laws which create more opportunities for revenue machines. There may be a place for private companies. But their extension into every area of social and economic activity inevitably erodes those kinds of enduring values which only a more dis-interested party could foster. Total privatization means that the only value we hold dear is money.

The effective privatization of Stonehenge is probably the nadir of the privatization orgy in the UK. While not as harmful, say, as drugging millions of young people on the basis of spurious conditions, in order to find a market for re-purposed slimming drugs (as in the ADHD scam) , it is symbolic of a profound malaise.




Author: justinwyllie

EFL Teacher and Photographer