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Britain gets frest burst of 'free enterprise'

You can buy an antique telephone here with no difficulty. The only thing you can't do, legally, is hook it up and use it. The Post Office has a monopoly on the installation of telecommunications equipment, and such novelty phones are not among its wares.

But all that is changing, as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government sets out on its latest round of monopoly-bashing.

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Nationalization of industry, a pillar of socialist policy, has been a hallmark of the British economy since World War II. But since July 14 the government has announced a barrage of denationalizations:

* The Post Office, split off from its telecommunications business, will no longer be the sole distributor of mail. Private operators will be free to carry "time-sensitive" mail, charities will be able to deliver their own Christmas cards, and private firms will be able to transport mail in bulk between distribution centers.

* The other half of the former Post Office, British Telecommunications, will retain only the right to connect the initial telephone. Thereafter, customers may purchase extensions, switchboards, telex and facsimile transmission equipment, and service (including installation and wiring) from private firms.

* Four profitable subsidiaries of the state-owned British Rail (BR) are to be sold. BR will retain only a majority shareholding in its two ferry services (Sealink and British Rail Hovercraft) and in British Transport Hotels and British Rail Property.

* The Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) will no longer be a monopoly supplier of electricity, as it has been since the Electric Lighting Act of 1909. At present 17 percent of the electricity used in industry here is privately produced, but any excess must be sold back into the CEGB grid. The change allows private sales, and opens the way for private firms to build and operate generating plants -- which could be a boon to rural areas.

* The L176 million ($413 million) British Transport Docks Board is to be made into a company open to private investors. In contrast to the BR subsidies, however, the government intends to retain a 51 percent share of the firm, which runs about one-quarter of the nation's ports and last year made a pretax surplus of L27 million ($63.5 million).

Predictably, the Labour opposition and the trade unions are fuming. They are particularly worried that once the telecommunications monopoly is broken, Britain will be swamped with equipment from abroad -- especially from the United States, where private suppliers have been in business for over a decade. They see a wave of imports translating into a loss of British jobs and production. The government has promised a three- year transition period, however, to allow British firms to gear up for the new market.

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Proponents of nationalization also argue that the government, hard pressed to hold its tight budgetary line, is selling off the most profitable chunks of its businesses -- selling, in effect, the nation's future prosperity.

They also complain that the nation will be left holding a bag of unprofitable services. They point particularly to the Post Office, where private carriers will lick their lips over high-volume inner-city contracts, while leaving the already-impoverished Post Office to take second-class letters from Cornwall to Orkney.

But facing a comfortable Conservative majority in Parliament, the opposition can do little but howl and wring hands over the unraveling of so many years of nationalization. Government leaders argue that services exist to serve customers, not producers. They are worried, for example, about the backlog of potential telephone users queuing up to get connected into the London exchanges -- or perhaps taking their businesses out of London or out of the country because of poor service.

The government, arguing for free enterprise and competition, feels strongly that many firms now in the public sector would be much more efficiently run if freed from what the Financial Times newspaper has called "the soporific effects of a noncompetitive market."

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