1980s >> 1986 >> no-988-december-1986

The Big Bang

So that was the Big Bang was it? What revolutionised the Stock Exchange and shook the City actually made no difference to most. Workers woke up one morning to a deregulated Stock Exchange, but would not have had much time to ponder the significance of such a revolution on their lifestyle before they had to get to their work or their place in the DHSS queue.

But of course, such matters must be important mustn’t they? After all, it’s on the news every evening, after the royal item and before the Granny-parachuting-for-charity, we get the summary of the share price fluctuations, and hear how the Pound struggled, rallied, finished weakly. As one who after a usual day’s work (struggled, rallied, finished weakly) cannot see the significance of it all. I sent off for the Stock Exchange’s glossy pamphlet An Introduction to the Stock Market. Thinking that “bull” was what economists talked about (rather than a type of market). I needed to see what all the fuss was about.

The cover had lots of photographs of the type of people who, presumably, own shares: all ages from smiling babies to smiling OAPs; all occupations from cooks to builders. welders to fishermen. They even managed to get half-a-dozen different ethnic groups represented on the pamphlet cover, which is about five more than are effectively allowed on the trading floor of the Stock Exchange, to go by recent reports.

Of course it’s the same sort of rubbish that we get on TV with every advert for the TSB flotation, the idea that becoming a capitalist is as easy as wearing a bowler hat, everyone can do it. It’s a popular notion — borne out by the oversubscription for TSB — that we can drag ourselves free from the varying degrees of poverty and pressures of working-class life. There is nothing wrong with wanting to escape that, but there is everything wrong in believing that a handful of shares in the TSB will free you of anything but a few hundred quid.

It is a popular notion because people want it to be true but it has no basis in fact. Research by London Weekend Television shows that the City is not full of self-made men (or women). Those who reach the top in the City still come, predominantly, from a privileged background. Indeed the class division between rich and poor, owners and non-owners did not end years ago with the nineteenth century, nor the nationalisation of the 1945 Labour government, nor the privatisation of the present government and certainly it will not end with the next stock market flotation (there should be one soon), nor with the next boom period (there should be one sometime), nor with a next Labour government.
The situation today has changed little:

  • the top one per cent own some twenty per cent of the total wealth in Britain, which is as much as the bottom seventy-five per cent;
  • the 20.000 millionaires in Britain own more wealth than half the population put together;
  • the top six per cent enjoy forty-four per cent of unearned income, while two-thirds have none.

(They didn’t tell me that in the glossy brochure. I had to look elsewhere.)

The fact that some of those who work in the factories now have a couple of shares in British Gas tucked under their pillows, and a fifty pence reduction in their gas bill, will not upset the factory owners.

But isn’t the Big Bang going to change all that? Isn’t it going to sweep away the inherited privilege of a lucky few, in favour of real rewards for those with courage, enterprise and a will to work hard? You know the sort of person, a cliche that only exists in the head of a Tory Party speech writer he (not she) is pulling himself up by the bootstraps and pulling in his belt, he’s got his nose to the grindstone, one foot on the ladder and is on his bike . . . Well, “yes” is the answer if you have eyes to read the brochure with; no is the answer if you also have a brain to think with. Far from opening up the City to the individual and the entrepreneur, the Big Bang means the deregulation of exchanges and emphasis on high technology, allowing very complex and very fast transactions of commodities all over the world. In the USA, this “programme trading” has produced much larger and more frequent swings in the markets. Judgements are decided by short-term market fluctuations. not on longer term evaluations like the state of the economy in general. Consequently, small investors cannot weather the large swings in the market without large financial backing. It’s the big fish that remain.

But regardless of the fluctuations of share prices, the legal business of exploitation is not just a matter of gambling on the Stock Exchange — buying and selling at the right times and the right prices —where you are rewarded for your “courage”. All you need to do is sit on your shares and spend the money as it comes in. You don’t need talent or guts, just a lot of money. Indeed, a BBC Nationwide news programme a few years ago had an item about a dog (presumably they could not find a parachuting grandmother that day), who placed his paw on the Financial Times and chose the shares for his master. The dog was a millionaire. And his owner looked about as happy as a dog with two million pounds. You can do it too. Try it at home – all you need is a dog and somewhere in the region of £100,000. A trained monkey could do it. Even Gerald Grosvenor (the Duke of Westminster — two billion pounds and two O’ levels to his name) can do it.

Most capitalists are the same, they get someone else to do the little bit of work of buying and selling shares. Most hardly even see the Stock Exchange, let alone the factories. land or offices they profit from.

Quite simply, the City cannot be opened up to everyone. As my brochure says (stuck away in the last paragraph on the bottom of page nine), your broker will “tell you honestly if your personal circumstances are such that you would be ill-advised to become an investor”. Capitalists need workers but we don’t need them. They couldn’t tolerate a builder or a manager or a secretary retiring at the age of thirty to live off the proceeds of their work. They need to squeeze as much as possible out of you, from when you are strong enough to work until you are old enough to drop. The rest of your life is your own.

Unfortunately for this scheme of things, capitalism never runs smoothly for very long. The deregulation which has already started has produced some blatant examples of inflated salaries in the City. At a time when wage councils are being abolished and while one quarter of full-time workers in London are below the poverty line, the news that a few miles away in the City salaries can touch £lm cannot help the government’s pleas to workers for wage restraint. At least the Queen has set the right example to Britain’s greedy workers by accepting a pay rise below the rate of inflation, in the process boosting her earnings last year from £3,850.000 to over £4million.

Then we have the interesting sight of Thatcher criticising the excessive salaries. The champion of the market-place, outflanked by the uncontrollable nature of the system she supports. For capitalism, which periodically bares its “unacceptable face” that no cosmetic can hide, is the best ever advert for socialism.

We could have a society where personal consumption of wealth will not be restricted by your personal circumstances and where production of wealth will not be restricted by the requirement of a surplus called profit.

Socialism will take the information and communications technology that today enables vast amounts of useless information — like market fluctuations and share prices — to circulate the world in seconds, every second, and will liberate its potential for a society based on production for use, as we liberate ourselves in a movement for World Socialism which makes the Big Bang look a damp squib.

Brian Gardner