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So much older then, I’m younger than that now

October 5, 2011

The Royal Mail‘s missed opportunities

United Parcel Services (UPS)‘s lovely video commercial That’s Logistics, set to the tune of Dean Martin’s That’s Amore, celebrates their association with the 2012 London Olympics.  But it made me wonder what The Royal Mail might have been.

In 1984 British Telecom was privatised, the government trousered £5 billion and BT is now one of the world’s largest telecom companies, paying about £0.5 billion per year in corporation tax into the UK treasury. Could the same have happened with the postal service?

It did twice, elsewhere.   Deutsch Post, privatized in 1995, is now the world’s largest logistics company DHL.  The Dutch postal service, privatised in 1989, ended up as TNT, number four in the world behind UPS itself, and Fed Ex the other privately owned US giant.   DHL and TNT each employ hundreds of thousands in highly paid jobs, and every year pour billions of profit into their shareholders pockets and billions of tax into their home country’s treasuries.

But in 1984 Mrs Thatcher had too much else on her plate, and ten years later, the next time the subject came up, Michael Heseltine and John Major dithered, and The Royal Mail remained nationalised.  It limps along with a heavily unionised and disgruntled workforce, sometime making a bit of money, more often running at a loss.  Its logistics division Parcel Force is tiny in comparison to the giants above.

With its wonderful brand name the world’s first postal service would have easily outshone the Dutch and German offerings.  We’ve surely learned from our mistakes.  Labour tried again to privatise The Royal Mail in 2008, albeit eventually scared off by union resistance. By all accounts Vince Cable and the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition will have another go soon.

It’s not too late. One day perhaps someone will adapt Dylan’s great lesson-learning song My Back Pages into a different refreshing commercial – this time for a British global logistics giant.

Jim Thornton

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