Abstract: A Policy (Still) in Search of a Rationale? Accounting for British Telecom's Privatisation

Remi Gilardin


In 1986, the Economic Journal published an article entitled ''Privatisation, a policy in search of a rationale''; since then many have sought to identify such a rationale. However, the multidisciplinary literature that resulted has overall failed to provide a satisfactory framework accounting for the historical origins of the phenomenon. By focusing on a case study, the selling of British Telecom (BT), I argue that historical research is best equipped to conduct such an inquiry. The case study reveals that the most common explanations accounting for the emergence of privatization in Thatcher's Britain—like the ailing performances of public enterprises, for instance—were actually not as decisive as is usually thought. Rather, I demonstrate how a ''crisis of capitalization,'' born from the unique agency of technological change and monetarist policies, was the key determinant to BT's privatization. The paper also explores the importance of ideas in the design of the British privatization program and notably highlights the influence of neoliberal and Conservative ideologies.