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Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain. (Book Notes).

By George Monbiot

London: Macmillan, 2001

448 pages; $18.40

THE ACCELERATED CORPORATE TAKEOVER of public and private life in Britain has provoked a crisis of governance.

Although the outward signs are obvious -- corporate logos are popping up everywhere from the Millennium Dome to police uniforms -- the policies used to drive the process, such as the Private Finance Initiative, are for the most part relatively obscure.

This is largely the result of a two-party political system that's easily bent to corporate interests. While the Conservative Party initiated many of the intrigues that have pushed the British government out of the path of big business interests, the Labor Party has sought, successfully, to take office by relegating any opposition to corporate power within the party's own parliamentary ranks to the back bench. As Prime Minister Tony Blair told the Confederation of British Industry, there is "great commitment and enthusiasm, right across the government, for forging links with the business community."

The extent of those links is demonstrated by the number of corporate officials who simultaneously sit in public office. A list of corporate officials appointed by Labor since the 1997 general election takes up a whole chapter of Captive State. The stunning conflicts of interest depicted rival those of any U.S. administration. It should not therefore be a surprise when British regulatory agencies promote the interests of industries they are supposed to keep in check. The influence of the biotech industry over food policy is just one of many examples that George Monbiot chooses to explore.

One conduit for such influence is through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the main source of funds for biologists working in Britain's universities. Peter Doyle, BBSRC's Chairman, is also an executive director of the biotech company Zeneca. Other council members come from Nestle, the Food and Drink Federation, and other corporate interests. BBSRC condemned the prestigious medical journal The Lancet as "irresponsible" for publishing a paper by Arpad Pusztai claiming that genetic engineering could endanger human health. The BBSRC also funds the secondment of academics into corporations.

Any writer who takes up the topic of corporate power in Britain finds a target-rich environment. Corporations have colonized virtually every aspect of British life, assaulting workers' standard of living and collective bargaining rights, extracting decision-making processes for health, safety and environmental standards and placing them in remote decision-making spheres such as the World Trade Organization, distorting the research and teaching agendas of British universities, and using rigged planning processes to crush the well-being of residents and small businesspeople.

As in the United States, cynicism and discouragement has risen among the electorate as a result.

But new kinds of grassroots resistance are gradually being borne out of the crisis. The book opens with the story of how Robby the Pict and other citizens living on the Scottish island of Skye organized after losing a free government-run ferry service to a privately financed toll bridge.

George Monbiot, a Guardian columnist and investigative journalist, points out some major obstacles to building a broader movement of resistance to corporate power, such as the corporations' ability to use Britain's draconian libel laws to attack would-be reformers and the absence of a strong Freedom of Information law that is an essential tool in any democracy. Although handicapped by the lack of such a law, in Captive State Monbiot has effectively combined national policy analysis with on-the-ground reportage to help British citizens and outside observers understand the current context for the emerging struggle against corporate dominance in Britain.
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Publication:Multinational Monitor
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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