Selling off the family silver

Privatisation was one of Baroness Thatcher's defining policies in the 80s, with some memorable advertising resulting from the push. By Jeremy Lee.

Selling off the family silver

Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation of state-owned utilities (alongside the "right to buy" for council-house tenants) was one of her key policies designed to create what she called a "share-owning democracy".

Like most of the things that Thatcher did, it was not without its critics. One attack came from the most unlikely quarters – the former Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan, the 1st Earl of Stockton (who also did a nice line in anti-Semitism about the make-up of her cabinets).

Speaking in the House of Lords in 1985, this distinguished grandee from a wealthy family, whose background was the antithesis of Thatcher’s, described it in typically Edwardian terms. Famously paraphrased as his "selling off the family silver" speech, Macmillan said: "The sale of assets is common with individuals and states when they run into financial difficulties. First, all the Georgian silver goes, and then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then the Canalettos go."

It’s an analogy that the grocer’s daughter from Grantham would have been unfamiliar with – there was no Georgian silver or Canalettos in her father’s shop on the North Parade. Perhaps that’s why she ignored this emotional outburst over a bunch of inefficient, dysfunctional, collectivist corporations that seemed to sum up the dead hand the state had imposed on postwar Britain and pressed on anyway.

For the advertising industry tasked with communicating this policy to as wide an audience as possible, privatisation proved to be a windfall – much like those optimistic first-time shareholders had hoped. Eye-watering amounts were spent – more than £21 million on advertising British Gas, more than £20 million on the regional energy companies and nearly £10 million on British Telecom. The advertising worked: in 1979, just 7 per cent of the adult population owned shares; by the end of the 80s – the decade that defined her reign – this had risen to 25 per cent.