Mass share-ownership was part of Margaret Thatcher’s vision for a capital-owning democracy, and in an era when the Conservative Party’s electorate is increasingly confined to those with capital it’s not hard to see the appeal.
Yet one of the key statistics highlighted by Fallon when making his case illustrates the big problem with a Government-led attempt to cultivate widespread share owning. He said that only eight million British citizens own shares today, whereas when Thatcher left office in 1990 that figure stood at 11 million.
On the face of it, that looks like a call to arms. But it suggests a real problem with the previous model: how do you stop people just selling their shares and banking the windfall? That’s pretty much what happened when shares in the nationalised industries were passed out, after all.
This shouldn’t have surprised Thatcher, sceptical as she was of top-down intervention, but today’s inheritors of the idea have no excuse not to confront the problem of how to prevent shares, once dispersed, from simply concentrating again.
For example, Forsyth reports that the former Defence Secretary suggested “tax breaks for companies that offer free shares to employees”. This certainly has its appeal as a more capitalist, market-friendly take on turning employees into stakeholders à la workers on boards.
But would the employee be prohibited from selling that share off? Would owning it be contingent on ongoing employment with the company in question? If not the question of how this doesn’t just turn into a one-off payoff remains; if so, it looks less like ownership than borrowing.
This problem is not just confined to stocks and shares: it confronts too those who would, for example, sell property at below-market rates in order to spread home-ownership. If the new owners can sell on at full price, it’s just a cash handout.
Much like saving, mass share ownership probably relies more on cultural change than on policy fixes. If the option of cashing in the benefit immediately by selling on is there, the evidence suggests a great many people will take it.