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Privatization: from1979

Privatization is taken further and faster in the UK than the USA, largely because more has been nationalized and therefore there is more to privatize.

Within six months of Mrs Thatcher becoming prime minister, in 1979, the government sells a large part of its holding in British Petroleum (BP). Fully nationalized enterprises, such as British Aerospace (BAe) and Cable and Wireless, soon follow. From the 1984 sale of British Telecom onwards a major and successful effort is made to persuade ordinary members of the public to buy shares. The Trustee Savings Bank and British Gas are floated in the same way in 1986, as is the national airline, British Airways (BA), in 1987.


Even more ambitious, with almost no chance of introducing the desirable element of competition, are the sales of the water companies in 1989 and of the electricity industry in 1991. But the most controversial privatization of all, from the public's point of view, is that of the railways - pushed through by John Major in 1995-6.

The privatization of services which have previously been state monopolies (telephone, electricity, gas, water, rail) is accompanied by the creation of regulatory agencies charged with ensuring (not always successfully) that standards are maintained and that the new private companies do not make excessive profits from their privileged position.


The example of Britain's privatization programme is eagerly followed in many parts of the world during the 1990s. To governments strapped for cash there is a strong incentive, quite apart from any free-market ideology. In Britain by the mid-1990s the Treasury receives some 60bn from this unrepeatable source.

The money is used not for investment but to reduce the government's debt (the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement) and to permit lower taxation. The savings of earlier generations are being used to subsidize their grandchildren. This is the strongest argument of those who oppose the policy - criticized in a memorable analogy, by Harold Macmillan, as selling the family silver.


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