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What was the last nationalisation?

Molten metal being poured in a foreign steelworks
The steel industry faced competition in the 1980s
Northern Rock being taken into public ownership may have left you scratching your head - what was the last thing to be nationalised?

Nationalisation is a controversial concept. Even the exact definition of the term can be a complicated business.

The most-quoted example of the last nationalisation in the UK is the creation of British Aerospace - a single entity to tackle the major private American aerospace firms; and British Shipbuilders - a merger of a number of UK yards - in 1977.

But there are some who would point to other events since 1977 that have come close to being nationalisations.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines nationalise as "to bring (land, property, an industry, etc) under state control or ownership".

Under a loose interpretation of this, some might argue that the last thing to be nationalised in the UK was Railtrack.

Minor transfers

In 2002, the troubled private rail infrastructure owner was taken out of private ownership. But, the government was very careful at the time to make sure the move could not be called a nationalisation.

Network Rail, the new entity, was known as a not-for-dividend "company limited by guarantee". Its debts and liabilities would be kept off the government balance sheet and the state would not directly control or own it.

In 1997, in an offhand line in a conference speech, John Prescott was reported to have boasted that he had recently "nationalised" London's Docklands Light Railway. But as the line had already been in public hands, the use of the term nationalisation might be seen to be confusing.

1977: British Shipbuilders and British Aerospace
1980s:Minor steel joint ventures
1984: Johnson Matthey Bankers
2002: Network Rail

A similar view could be taken of the minor transfer of responsibilities over the London Underground in the mid-1980s.

Professor David Parker, of Cranfield University, has been appointed by the government to be the official historian of privatisation in the UK.

He says to find an example of a single private company in financial dire straits being bailed out by the government and wholly nationalised you actually have to go all the way back to Rolls Royce in 1971.

The car and engine maker had committed heavily to the development of the RB211 a powerful engine for the new Lockheed TriStar plane. Facing insolvency, the firm was nationalised by Edward Heath's Conservative government largely because of the strategic nature of the firm.

Leyland woe

"It wasn't a political decision, it was a decision to bring them into public ownership temporarily, but it lasted for something like 16 years," says Prof Parker.

A couple of years later and British Leyland was in trouble, but though the solution was nationalisation some parts of the massive firm remained outside public ownership.

Cammell Laird shipyard
For the purists, 1977 saw the last real nationalisation

And then there is the curious case of the British steel industry. Most of it had been in state hands since the late 1960s, but it was a prime target for the privatising government of Margaret Thatcher after 1979.

"The Conservatives after 1978 were very keen to privatise it. But with the financial state, it was quite impossible."

So a programme of consolidation in the ailing steel industry was started in the hope that a successful privatisation could be achieved. But as part of this, Prof Parker reveals, the rabidly anti-nationalisation government of Mrs Thatcher had to swallow a minor "nationalisation" or two.

Troubled specialist steel firms entered joint ventures with the nationalised steel industry and effectively passed into public ownership.

"Mrs Thatcher didn't like it, she didn't like nationalisation by the back door," says Prof Parker.

TriStar plane
Engines for TriStars did for Rolls Royce

And that wasn't the only "nationalisation" of the Thatcher era. In 1984 the troubled Johnson Matthey Bankers were bought by the Bank of England for 1, a move described by the Financial Times using the "N-word".

These steel firms' change in status attracted little interest in the 1980s, while more recent shifts to public ownership have seen more publicity but have also avoided the "N-word".

"The Labour government has been very careful to avoid the term and reject suggestions that they are nationalisations," says Prof Parker.

And indeed, Prof Parker suggests, under the strictest definitions of nationalisations you have to have an act of Parliament to truly nationalise something and another piece of primary legislation to change it back.

Under this definition, the Northern Rock's true ancestor would have to be the 1977 aerospace and ship nationalisation.

Below is a selection of your comment.

You forgot the biggest nationalisation of all, when Thatcher nationalised the water industry. Before that it belonged to the local council ratepayers, but it was taken into government ownership so that it could be sold off to her friends in the City.
John, Chesterfield, England

This article does not include that the UK government provided guarantees for the construction of the whole UK side of the Eurotunnel and the track to Waterloo and now St Pancras. That the UK government owns around 95% of London Continental Railways means that the project is infact being carried out by a state owned enterprise and thus this is a nationalised industry by any definition.
David Anderton, London, UK

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