COUNT on Twitter, that most modern of communication companies, to steal the thunder of the Royal Mail, an organisation founded by Henry VIII and now aiming to reinvent itself as a privatised, modern parcel delivery firm. For most of yesterday, the Royal Mail was the big story: the coalition confirmed the firm would be sold off in a few weeks. But suddenly, at around 10pm last night, the US social networking giant sent out a tweet announcing it was filing for its very own, much larger and – to bankers, investors and most of the public – far more exciting $10bn float.
To those who still oppose the privatisation of Britain’s legacy postal service, Twitter’s ability to upstage it even on a day like yesterday ought to be a wake-up call. The Royal Mail’s state ownership now looks like a historical aberration, an archaic, almost quaint relic of a long-forgotten pre-digital world. Once, the challenge was to transport hand-written letters using horses from London to Birmingham; today, it is to attract business from the likes of Amazon.
When England’s “Master of the Posts” was founded in 1516, state ownership might have seemed sensible; it might even have sounded unremarkable in 1710, when it was renamed Postmaster General. But the real reason the monarch and subsequently politicians wanted to own a monopolistic postal service had little to do with notions of public service: they wanted control over their subjects.
When King James moved to London in 1603, the postal service he established between the city and Edinburgh was deliberately designed to retain power over the Scottish Privy Council. In future decades and centuries, the government’s monopoly over the postal service was always fiercely protected, and eventually, in most cases, extended to telephony.
Controlling people’s communications – or at least, preventing individuals from setting up their own rival, private and potentially subversive postal networks – was a key strategy pursued by politicians and governments of all political hues.
But the world has thankfully moved on. The free-market revolution in the 1980s finally smashed the monopolies in telecoms, even though the more ancient postal ones had to wait a while longer. Technology heralded the arrival of the mobile phone and then, of course, of the internet, which went mainstream in 1995 and pulverised letter-writing. Suddenly, everybody could communicate all the time using a multiplicity of competing networks, devices and systems. It is almost impossible to remember what things used to be like: we now know what real freedom feels like, and nobody is going back to the staid, controlled, slow, top-down ways of the past.
In that context, it makes obvious sense to privatise and break-up the old postal monopolies (though, of course, the Royal Mail’s privatisation doesn’t go that far, with all its old universal service obligations remaining intact). Another reason why governments around the world are deregulating and privatising postal services is that they realise that they no longer need actually to own the communications infrastructure to monitor what is going on, for good or for ill. They can ensure national security – or spy on their citizens – by making use of spooks’ eavesdropping techniques.
In the age of Twitter, Skype and internet shopping, it makes no sense to keep the Royal Mail in public ownership. The company needs the flexibility to adapt. It needs to be able to raise the capital it needs to fight back against its competitors in the UK, and grow its international businesses. The coalition has made only one mistake: it should have unleashed a marketing campaign aimed at private investors, like the successful “Tell Sid” commercials of the 1980s. But this is 2013, so perhaps ministers will take to social networks, and start to Tweet Sid.
Follow me on Twitter: @allisterheath