I return from a weekend away at Center Parcs to discover that Northern Rock is to be nationalised. The Conservatives declare that it is "a return to the bad old days of the sixties and seventies". A solution, they believe, must be found within the private sector. A private sector which is, of course, more open, vibrant, and successful than any nationalised industry could ever be.
We have been going to the Center Parc at Sherwood Forest ever since it first opened in 1987. Over those 21 years there have been a number of changes : it has got bigger, more organised and less eccentric. Center Parcs started in the Netherlands in the 1960s, the brainchild of sports enthusiast Piet Derksen who had a vision of "a villa in the forest" at the centre of a new type of activity-based, environmentally-friendly resort. Those early resorts were wonderfully eccentric : there were stories of naked saunas and the complex instructions for operating the ovens were in Dutch. If you went to use one of the public telephone boxes the only information available was on how to make an international phone call to Iceland.
By 1989, the UK arm of the Center Parc operation had become part of the brewing giant, Scottish and Newcastle. The delightful eccentricities slowly faded away and you were limited to drinks from the Scottish and Newcastle family. Unsure as to whether it was still part of S&N, I tried to track down the company's corporate ownership when I eventually got home. As it turns out it is like a lesson in twenty-first century capitalism. In 2001 it was sold to a French/German partnership and the following year it became the subject of a management buy-out. Later it was floated on the stock exchange and then in 2006 it was bought by the American private investment fund, the Blackstone Group. If you think you might have heard of the Blackstone Group, you are probably right. It has its fingers in a very large number of pies. It owns the Hilton Hotels, a chain of American hospitals, Legoland, Madame Tussauds and McVites Biscuits. It also runs a number of Hedge Funds (they are kind of the capitalist equivalent of betting syndicates) and they were recently involved in making a bid for the Sainsbury Supermarket business. Appropriately enough for such a capitalist enterprise, they are part owned by the People's Republic of China!
Blackstone was one of the groups who expressed interest in making a bid for Northern Rock. They didn't and it went into old-fashioned, backward-looking, one-dimensional public ownership instead. I am enough of a child of those dreadful sixties and seventies to say, "thank goodness".