Privatisation in the UK during Margret Thatcher’s premiership was intended to shift the economic burden away from taxpayers into private hands. It was intended to erode the natural state monopoly and establish market-based competition. Economic theory suggests that privatisation eradicates the state owned monopoly and creates competition in the market, which should lead to better services and a lower cost. Government led businesses are said to be inefficient at providing services that a private led firm can do, so the appeal is certainly there.
Nationalised industries tend to provide goods and services with high social value, goods such utilities, agriculture and transport tend to be provided by the state because these derived demanded goods are viewed as essential. Unlike firms, the state’s intention is not to maximise profits, so there are no shareholders to appease, nor answer to. This has its advantages and disadvantages because constantly operating at a loss will impose a burden on the taxpayer, who may feel their taxes would be best utilised elsewhere, where there taxes are not being wasted.
This was central when Thatcher and her government suggested that a wave of privatisations across various sectors such as transport, telecommunications and utilities were the best way to reduce the burden on taxation and the optimal way for consumers to be provided with essential goods and services. The state was viewed as a natural monopoly and the highest consumer satisfaction and utility is gained through competition, it is competition that yields the greatest efficiency and the lowest possible prices. Therefore, establishing competition through several competing firms was central to this proposal. Economists Todaro and Smith suggest,
“Proponents [of privatisation] suggest that it curbs government expenditure, raises cash to reduce internal and external debt and promotes individual initiative while rewarding entrepreneurship”
Clearly the benefits of privatisation are clear, the eradication of the natural monopoly is perhaps the strongest because it opens the market and allow more firms to compete. However, in the UK this unfortunately has not been the case. The wave of sell offs during the 1980s continues to have a significant effect on life in the UK today. Services such as gas were privatised, so was telecommunications and parts of the rail industry. Some twenty years later after firms such as British Telecom (BT), British Gas and regulatory bodies such as Network Rail not only stifle competition, but they appear to have replaced the very monopoly it was created to replace.
John Moore was the Minister in charge of initiating the wave of privatisations. He said in 1983
“The long term success of the privatisation programme will stand or fall by the extent to which it maximises competition. If competition cannot be achieved, an historic opportunity will have been lost.”
He said at the 1983 Conservative Party conference:
“Our aim is that BT should become a private sector company…[but] merely to replace state monopolies by private ones would be to waste a historic opportunity. We shall continue our programme to expose state owned industries to competition.”
Moore explicitly states if privatisation cannot lead to a competitive market “an historic opportunity will be lost.” I could not agree more because had the privatisation initiatives been applied appropriately, with legislation implemented to prohibit cartels forming in the case of the rail industry or outright monopoly, like BT in the telecommunications market then these formerly stated owned industries would have created far more jobs on the sheer fact that the market would be significantly larger, they also would have lower prices. And they would have lower prices because there would be ten or more firms each competing to try and get customers, so lowering prices in order to attract custom. If however there are two or three firms, then they are more likely to collude, whether it is explicit or tacit, the outcome is the same and it is near impossible to detect.
Commentator John Gamble stating in 1994
“When BT, BG and the water industry were divested, the Conservatives failed to liberlise their markets meaningfully and as a result, were forced to create regulatory mechanisms and institutions to prevent the utilities from abusing their positions.”
I mentioned in my piece about regulation and the above inflation gas price increases and how regulators in many instances interfere with business activity and can actually do little to prevent firms from these price changes. It should be noted that the way a customer will have low prices is through competition. That was the reason why Mrs. Thatcher sold off many state controlled firms, but we are seeing today that the state monopolies have been replaced by cartels and monopolies in some cases. Moreover, this is conflicting to what was proposed. One could even suggest that a return to state operated firms were better, because at least they are accountable to the public. Private cooperations are accountable to shareholders are not obliged to disclose information to stakeholders.
Privatisation in the UK does appear to have shifted from natural monopolies to private monopolies in the case of BT and oligopolies in the case of Network Rail, British Gas and so on. Clearly, this is the oligopolistic market structure is not competitive and fails to provide sufficient customer choice. Customers are therefore left to demand essential goods from limited suppliers, resulting in high prices. Unless privatisation leads to a highly competitive market, with several competing firms, it is merely replacing the very entity is supposed to be replacing.