Look at the Thames and know the time for metaphors is over: our politics is drowning in effluent | Marina Hyde

Fire up a Chariots of Fire-style theme tune for the speech of the defeated Oxford captain in last Saturday’s Boat Race, beamed edifyingly around the world: “We had a few guys go down pretty badly with E coli,” declared Lenny Jenkins (the university’s boat club itself says it can’t be that specific on precisely what caused the gut-rot). Having shared a few of the nauseating details, Jenkins concluded: “It would be a lot nicer if there wasn’t as much poo in the water.” Yup, a country that once painted a quarter of the world pink now regrettably advertises itself as mostly brown – encircled by its own effluent and pumping it furiously through its river veins just to be sure. As metaphors go, it is on the nose in all senses.

And so to Thames Water, steward of the river on which that internationally famous race is rowed – a firm that is £18bn in deliriously structured debt, has had to be extensively threatened to spend so much as 30p on infrastructure investment, spent years being used as a cash cow for shareholders, and has pumped human waste into the Greater London area of the river for almost 2,000 hours already this year alone. Despite this rapacious shareholder-facing culture, its current foreign investors have now apparently judged it to be “uninvestable”. Thames Water’s relatively new CEO, Chris Weston, must be struck by that feeling that plagued Tony Soprano. “It’s good to be in something from the ground floor,” the mobster judged. “I came too late for that – I know. But lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

This isn’t the line Chris Weston is going with in public, chirping to the Sunday Times: “I think the water industry, the characteristics it has, as a regulated monopoly, is very attractive to some types of investors.” He should probably tell that to the ones walking away, even as Thames has spent much of the past five years trying to get Ofwat to let it raise bills, most recently by up to 40%. Ofwat is of course the water industry’s “regulator” – if I could do double sarcastic airquotes, I would – and perhaps the only entity more full of shit than the rivers and seas it’s supposed to give one about. Civic-minded individuals such as the campaigner Feargal Sharkey or groups including Surfers Against Sewage have made all the running and worked long and tirelessly to push this issue into the public consciousness, and from there to outrage.

The part that Chris has correctly said out loud, however, is that back in 1989 the water industry wasn’t privatised in any true sense of the term – in fact, the Conservative government of the day held a sale of monopoly rights. State assets were parcelled out into private hands, and those who picked up these monopolies have spent decades doing grotesquely well for themselves at the expense of the captive nation that is stuck with them. They are in effect oligarchs, and even if they can’t boil their enemies in vats of scalding water like their Russian counterparts, they can certainly make them swim in seas of sewage. As Sun Tzu said: “If you wait by the river long enough, the turds of your enemies will float by. I say ‘long enough’ – 30 seconds should probably do it.”

You hear a lot about how the water industry was privatised for ideological reasons, but surely few ideologies could be more universally shared than the one that should see them renationalised. Namely: “I strongly believe that pumping raw sewage into our seas and rivers is both literally and qualitatively shit.” Come on – this really is the great unifier. In an atomised and polarised age, you can’t knock the sheer percentage of people who would – right now – be able to put all their other differences aside and unite behind the idea of that one. The public didn’t back water privatisation at the time it happened, and they sure as Shirley back it even less now. Plenty of Conservatives will gladly tell you that privatising utilities was always madness, for reasons ranging from economic and civic to national security, and Britain is far from the only place around the world where water privatisation has demonstrably not worked.

The public is also not stupid and knows very well that it’s going to be on the hook for the various firms’ massive debts, one way or another. If Thames is currently £18bn in debt and heading for collapse, the £15bn that is the estimated cost of renationalising the entire sector starts to look like long-term good value. Quite why Keir Starmer has rowed back on Labour’s previous pledge to renationalise the water industry is unclear. Presumably the best way to look like you’re responsible with money is to present yourself as the continuity candidate, letting calamitously run monopolies spray it everywhere then demand that consumers of that luxury product, water, foot the bill yet again.

That said, at the current rate of malfunction, Thames Water’s crisis will be upon us sooner than any general election. Yet where is the sense of urgency? Last year the government gave the water companies until 2050 to stop dumping sewage into seas and waterways. Incredible, really, when targets are this low-bar that hitherto the companies have still failed to clear them every time. Someone – anyone! – is going to have to think what to do about this wretched wallygarchy. Those in charge ought to be long past the point of looking busy and simply holding their noses.

The Guardian