Outlook: UK's poor show

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING TO a City reader, more than a half of Britain's top 100 companies (meaning the constituents of the FTSE 100 share index) are at present either being investigated by the government in a manner that might lead to regulatory action, are already under the government's yoke in having their prices and strategies directly controlled by government regulation, rely largely on government for their work, or operate by virtue of some government granted licence or franchise.

It is not hard to see how he arrives at this surprising and somewhat shocking conclusion. The supermarkets are being investigated by the Competition Commission, the banks are subject to a Gordon Brown-inspired probe and the utilities are already directly controlled by the regulators. GEC and British Aerospace are awaiting the outcome of a Competition Commission investigation of their proposed merger and in any case rely heavily on the government for their work. Orange, Vodafone, Carlton, United News and Media, and Granada all operate by virtue of government gift, at least in large parts of their business, and so on and so forth.

So large is the swathe of top companies covered by government edict or reliant on it, that you begin to wonder exactly what the process of privatisation really achieved. All these companies may technically be in the private sector, but they hardly seem to operate in the market economy. It scarcely needs saying that though the situation may be quite similar in the majority of other European countries, it would not be possible to make the same observation about the US. The simplest explanation for this high degree of state interference would be to blame it all on the present Government's love of regulation. According to New Labour's "Third way" philosophy, capitalism is fine but needs regulating in the wider public interest against abuse and excess.

But actually this would be the wrong analysis. The more worrying reality is two fold. First, it tells us quite a lot about the cartelised and monopolistic nature of the UK economy. Plainly any such structurally flawed economy requires a high degree of regulation and intervention.

But second and most important, it is instructive of Britain's failure to create really any major new company or industry of note in the post- war period. This statement should perhaps be qualified by the possible exception of the big drug companies, but they are notably alone. The result is that a very high proportion of our largest companies are semi or wholly monopolistic service providers - banks, utilities, supermarkets, telephone and TV companies - or the product of merger and acquisition. What a damning indictment this is.