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Jun 03, 2013

Comment: Rethinking Thatcher's privatization drive

Finding chinks in the armor of the Iron Lady’s legacy 

Margaret Thatcher’s death in April revived discussion of state ownership of industries. The New York Times always described Mrs T as ‘the prime minister who privatized the loss-making state industries’. In reality, she was careful to sell only those that were very profitable, otherwise her friends in the City would not have been so eager to snap them up.

That well-known Bolshevik Winston Churchill nationalized BP, which was making untold millions for the Treasury by the time Mrs T sold it. The utilities that were privatized were no more efficient after the event than before, and usually inflicted much higher charges on their captive customers.

The same management teams that had led the state enterprises kept their desks but tended to pay themselves much more, despite mediocre results. In the modern version of shareholder capitalism, they escaped the political scrutiny of both parliament and citizenry and swapped it for the benign insouciance of money managers.

It’s true that in some countries state industries were channels of patronage and corruption, but the industries Thatcher sold were not among them. They did have strong unions, but for most of the post-war period those unions co-operated in productivity measures and closures, as well as huge reductions in employees. Industries like British Rail lost three quarters of their workers under state control, and these workers tended to be low paid anyway, as governments used them to hold down pay rates and allegedly control inflation.

If the British state industries had a fault, it was not inherent in their form of ownership, but rather that the permanent government of Treasury civil servants starved them of investment, and thus productivity, in order to reduce the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement (PSBR). The PSBR was, and is, an irrelevant shibboleth, as if there were no difference between borrowing to finance investment and selling bonds to finance day-to-day government operations. Indeed, that was one of the stated reasons for privatizing British Telecom: bringing the antiquated telephone network up to date would have needed huge amounts of public investment.

Thanks to Mrs T, in the 1980s, competing parallel universes to the left and the right called for the nationalization of strategic industries, or liberating business from the ‘tyranny of the state’. Both were, and are, utterly detached from reality, as indeed is much of the discussion now.

In the real world, the governments of countries like Singapore, Norway or other oil states now hold huge stakes in British and American industry, without any diminution of business efficiency. Wall Street travels to work on the public-owned MTA and PATH trains and, in between glasses of Champagne, drinks water supplied by New York City. The Street lacked enthusiasm to invest in a 50-year water tunnel building program, but it is not reticent in its acceptance of Uncle Sam’s cash in times of crisis, as long as it comes untrammeled by ownership and control.

Back in Britain, one of Mrs T’s successes was the privatization of the Trustee Savings Bank, until the courts ruled it was owned by its clients, not the government. The proceeds of the sale to Lloyds had to be returned to those clients.

But these models can be Procrustean. If a state enterprise makes money it is either sold or milked to make it fit the privatizers’ paradigm. Now that Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac are making money for the US Treasury, we can be sure calls to sell them will follow – and soon. The US Postal Service (USPS) made money until ideological Congressmen forced it to prefund its employee health plans for 75 years, to pave the way for privatization.

One potential beneficiary of USPS dismemberment would be DHL – owned by the state-owned German Postal Service! There may be a rationale here, but it got lost in the mail somewhere.