How Privatization Turned Britain's Red Telephone Kiosk into an Archive of the Welfare State
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One day in July 1988, I stood on the concourse at London’s Waterloo Station thinking of the hopes once entertained by late politician Anthony Crosland. As a leading Labour Party intellectual in the mid-1950s, Crosland had dreamed of a less austere socialism where the uniformity of the reforming state would weigh less heavily on the life of the nation. As he wrote in The Future of Socialism, it was a time for a “reaction against the Fabian tradition” with its reliance on state-led initiative . The mixed economy could be expected to deliver higher exports and old-age pensions, but only a “change in cultural attitude” would make Britain “a more colourful and civilized country to live in.” The country should have more nightlife and open-air cafés, pleasure gardens, repertory theaters, and statues to brighten up the new housing estates. Better design was needed not just for furniture and women’s clothes but also for streetlights and telephone kiosks.1 The reference to telephone kiosks brought Crosland to mind. Thirty years later, and in a land now governed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party, the Royal Corps of Transport Band was warming up the crowd for the launch of Mercury Communication’s new pay phone system: a banner mounted over the head of its ceremoniously besworded conductor showed a victorious cavalry charge at the Battle of Waterloo and promised “The Greatest Advance since 1815.” Here was British Telecom ’s private rival, much grown since it was arst licensed in 1982, opening its latest assault on a public domain where the franchise certainly was being extended. Waterloo Station may have previously had the grimy and uniform look characteristic of so much nationalized space, but in the age of privatization and niche marketing, it had come to resemble a shopping mall: diversiaed, colorful , and superacially more civilized, too. After the band had ripped through “Ghostbusters” and “In the Mood,” the managing director of Mercury Communications stood up in his appointed place between Casey Jones’s hamburgers and the Knicker Box and declared a “arst for Britain.” We were standing in a newly “competitive arena,” and Gordon Owen was proud to be cutting into British Telecom’s monopoly for the arst time. Unfettered by a public-service obligation of the kind that had prevented British Telecom from conaning its phone boxes to the most proatable sites, Mercury would be concentrating its “state-of-the-art” pay phones at airports, railway terminals, and new shopping malls— all the while, of course, loudly denying charges of skimming the cream. The new phones would be especially convenient for people wanting to make international calls. They would accept credit cards, but coins were a thing of the past. A special Mercury card had been introduced , but Owen also looked forward to the day when Mercury’s growing list of private subscribers, most of which are businesses, would be able to use the company’s pay phones with the equivalent of a PIN number, logging the charge back onto their account. Owen promised a facility distinguished by “reliability, cleanliness, and value for money,” and although Mercury obviously had no intention of mounting a universal public service for the convenience of every welfare bum in the land, he stressed that everything possible would be done 207 ⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮⟮ How Privatization Turned Britain’s Red Telephone Kiosk into an Archive of the Welfare State Patrick Wright ⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯⟯ to accommodate genuinely disabled consumers. Wheelchair access had been built into the designs wherever possible , and volume adjustment would be provided to help the hard of hearing. The Mercurycard was notched on one side to help people with sight problems, and phones would even squeak obligingly to tell blind or partially sighted users when their cards were running out. Next up was Lord Young, secretary of state for trade and industry, who would unveil the new kiosks. Diversity is an essential part of enterprise culture, and Mercury certainly wasn’t going to make the mistake of coming up with a uniform design for all its locations. There were three models to unveil, each designed to at into “different parts of the society.” Fitch and Company had come up with a “totem concept” pay phone booth that, as the press release put it, took “Mercury’s key requirements ” and “embodied them in a powerful, physical form.” The result had already been dubbed the Art Deco kiosk, but to me it looked less like a totem pole than an extruded 1950s-style gas pump...