As I was settling back at home on return from a holiday in Australia, shares in the Royal Mail were about to go on sale. Their sale, at a price of 330 pence per share, was greatly oversubscribed. On the first day of conditional dealings in the shares, the price had risen by 38 per cent. Four days before they were officially listed for sale, institutions in the City of London had begun conditional dealings in the shares. Some 10 million shares were traded in the first 30 seconds when the market opened.
Not surprisingly, there has been controversy over the price at which they were put on sale and much debate over whether the sale was undervalued. There has also been great controversy over the government’s decision to put the shares on sale at all.
This is based on the fact that the Royal Mail has been publicly owned for nearly 500 years since, in 1516, King Henry Vlll established the office of a “Master of the Posts”, an office that in 1710 was renamed “Postmaster General“. In July 1655, the Post Office was put under the direct government control of John Thurloe, a Secretary of State, historically best known as Oliver Cromwell's spymaster general. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, the General Post Office (GPO) was officially established by King Charles II.
The Royal Mail, therefore, has existed for several centuries as a public service. It has avoided all previous decisions to privatise its services.
From that perspective, it is not surprising that many people have found the decision to put the Royal Mail on sale bad and unacceptable. It needs to be recognised, however, that this historical perspective is not quite as simple as it may seem.
The service of delivering mail — regularly and to every household, whether in the middle of a city or in a remote country area — is not as important as it once was. Everyone knows that a great amount of our communication now does not come by post, but by e-mail and other technological means. Any changes in the way in which the privatised postal service carries out its work will undoubtedly be fiercely debated, but this debate should take place against this changed communications background.
Does what I am saying mean that I am totally happy with the decision to sell Royal Mail? The answer is no; my sense of history means that I would have preferred that the decision had not been taken. My personal experience enforces that preference. Like many of my contemporaries, I worked in my student days as a “temp” in our local postal sorting office during the Christmas holidays. That inevitably gives me a sense of belonging to the “old” system.
If I am honest, however, I have to say that the sale does not cause me great concern. I do not expect to find that I am cut off from communication that is important to me. I also bear in mind the view expressed by our local post office owner that the new arrangements might well tackle some of the staffing problems — such as regular absence through purported sickness — that bedevil the system.
In short, I am left with the view that, however much I regret the change for historical reasons, I do not expect it to make much difference to the service that I receive.
I decided to end this article by moving away from Royal Mail in the United Kingdom, and turning to India. The British Postal Museum and Archive records that India’s postal history is closely tied to its complex political history, in which, of course, the U.K. played an important part.
The archive records that Britain's involvement in the postal services of India began in the 18th century. Initially the service was administered by the East India Company. Warren Hastings (Governor General of British India from 1773-1784) opened the posts to the public in March 1774. Before this, the main purpose of the postal system had been to serve the commercial interests of the Company. The Post Office Act of 1837 reserved to the government the exclusive right to convey letters in the territories of the East India Company.
So there we have it, and I hope my readers may feel some affinity with me, as I contemplate, with as much detachment as I can, the dramatic changes that are taking place in the U.K. postal system.
Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK. Email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org