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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

The gathering of public utilities into public ownership in Britain was a long and piecemeal process. Public utilities can be broadly defined as the basic services essential to the functioning of an entire community, such as communications, transport and the provision of power and fuel. A central element in communication, the *Post Office, was publicly owned from its creation in the 17C; and the same was true in broadcasting, with the creation of the *BBC in 1927.

But the majority of utilities – such as the telegraph and telephone, the canals and the railways, the distribution of water, gas and electricity – were pioneered in the 18–19C by small independent companies. In the interests of efficiency these tended to merge; and for the same reason many were later taken over by local authorities, well placed to supply water, gas or electricity to their own communities. Similarly Britain's pioneering private airlines had all been merged by 1939 into *BOAC.

Many services were therefore in public ownership by the time Britain had its first government with the commitment and power to legislate on an ideological basis. This was the Labour administration of 1945, which put into effect a vigorous programme of nationalization; it brought into public ownership the *Bank of England (1946), *railways and *coal (1947), *gas and *electricity and many docks and canals (all 1948).

The national ownership of hospitals, which came into effect in 1948 with the creation of the *National Health Service, was a different case since hospitals are in origin charitable institutions rather than commercial enterprises. The most controversial industry in terms of nationalization was steel; Labour's efforts to nationalize it and a Conservative commitment to denationalize it remained high on the political agenda until it was brought into public ownership in 1967 as the British Steel Corporation.

Many of these industries had been ailing in private ownership, as were those in a second wave of nationalization in the 1970s; the government, for example, rescued *Rolls Royce when it was bankrupt in 1971 and took a majority stake in *British Leyland in 1975. But from 1979 Mrs *Thatcher introduced a new political ideology – the first in effect since 1945. It brought with it a new orthodoxy, *privatization.

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