The Post Office we hanker after doesn’t exist anymore
The mythological Royal Mail of Postman Pat and WH Auden was long ago sacrificed at the altar of Thatcherism
The strange split vision of the British public never ceases to amaze me. Through one eye they see the Thatcherite world view: a realm in which privatised businesses are the best and the most efficient way of organising everything in the country from a devilled kidney to a kidney transplant; but through the other one they retain a misty-eyed perception of the good old Post Office as a great public service that mustn't be compromised in any way by the pursuit of filthy lucre.
I wonder where this prelapsarian Post Office can possibly be lurking? Has it perhaps left the sorting office of time, nipped round the back and dumped its letters to the future in a pond covered with duckweed?
The Post Office is at once the ultimate – and the only – public service
I only ask, because the sentimental conception of the Post Office owes more to the distant - and even fictitious - past than any contemporary reality.
It is one part Postman Pat mixed with another of WH Auden's The Night Train, while, with its evocation of a Britain dominated by collective probity and steely rectitude, it hearkens back to a still earlier age: the time before the First War when - so it was said - you could live your entire life in this country, your only contact with the government being the occasional purchase of a penny black.
So, the Post Office is at once the ultimate public service, and the only public service that exists - no wonder its fans are strung out along the political spectrum.
This week will see the publication of former telecom regulator Richard Hooper's report on the state of the national institution, and already the headlines are in the public domain. But is any of it much of a surprise?
The £7bn hole in the postal workers' pension fund was utterly predictable - a fraction of the estimated £1tr that the Government will have to stump up across the public service as the recession slumps into outright depression.
As for the fact that the Post Office is being harried by its competitors, who take advantage of its cheap bulk rates and 'last mile' service, while undercutting it in the lucrative - and still expanding - parcel sector, well, all of this came up a couple of years ago, which was the last time the Auden fans thought the unthinkable.
The truth is that the Post Office has been demoralised for years now
I've no idea whether - as its supporters claim - the Post Office can turn a profit once the new sorting technology is on line, nor do I know whether a more 'level playing field' would help (another great throwback of an image) when it comes to competition with the other mail providers.
My suspicion is that it won't make a jot of difference; the truth is that the Post Office has been demoralised for years now. After all, we all know how miserable the medical and teaching professions are - and they don't have to tramp the streets for a living.
Ever since the telecommunications arm of the old GPO was hived off to British Telecom, and the wind of Thatcherite privatisation moaned through the wires, the Post Office has been a leviathan that, having lost its dorsal fin, is stranded on a terminal beach.
The most aching irony of all is that the British collective memory of the Post Office is intimately linked to values that would, indeed, stand us in good stead today.
If only we'd stayed in Greendale with Pat and Jess, our only flutter being a few Premium Bonds, and our savings nicely tucked away in a Post Office savings account. But, oh no, we demanded urbanity, we lusted after leverage, and we wanted to spend, spend, spend!
I note that not even Pat has stayed in Greendale; since 2004 he's been promoted to the Special Delivery Service, moved to the town of Pencaster, and required - under some cruel commercial imperative - to deliver mail anywhere at anytime. As for his pension... Well, it doesn't bear thinking about. ·
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