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United Kingdom: Britain's finished revolution

Institutional investors loved privatization in the 1980s when the UK government sold off sleepily run companies with undervalued assets such as Cable & Wireless and Associated British Ports. They are less interested in highly regulated utilities with heavy long-term investment plans - all that's on offer these days. As the government struggles to whip up enthusiasm for this year's disposal candidates, Railtrack and British Energy, Jonathan Ford looks at the end of the City's love affair with privatization.

It is indicative of the downbeat mood in which the government and its advisers are approaching this May's privatization of UK railway operator Railtrack that no high-profile public relations campaign is planned to market the issue to private investors. "Four years ago we might have promoted it as a symbol of the renaissance of the railway, but there is not much appetite for that now," admits David Freud, managing director of the sale coordinator, SBC Warburg. "It will be a pragmatic, practical campaign emphasizing the company's role in the railway network, the reliability of its earnings and the share value."


To a generation of popular capitalists reared on the hysteria surrounding Sid and Frankenstein's monster (the advertising creations which promoted the share sales of British Gas and the electricity companies when they were privatized respectively), this seems like pretty dry stuff, hardly designed to provoke a flood of applications from Joe Public. Railtrack's public relations consultants Dewe Rogerson may insist that Sid and his like have been ditched because of the growing sophistication of private investors in the 1990s, but it's hard to escape the conclusion that this new sober approach represents a response to the British public's increasing disenchantment with the concept of privatization as a whole.


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