Paul Foot

The great society

(22 July 1989)

From Socialist Worker, 22 July 1989.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Articles of Resistance, London 2000, pp. 271–273.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The main point about the building societies when they started out was that no one should make a profit from them. They were ‘mutual societies’ into which people who wanted to save money to buy a house or on the security of a house they already owned could do so in the certain knowledge that no one would rip them off.

The societies were patronised in the early years by better-off working class people (or worse-off middle class people, which is pretty well the same thing). They developed most strongly in northern cities like Halifax, Leeds, Bradford and Bingley, from which they took their names.

Most of their patrons subscribed to what could be called the ‘liberal tradition’ of the last 25 years of the last century, the sort of ‘decent, sturdy’ folk much patronised by bourgeois social historians. The societies had nothing to do with socialism. On the contrary, the money they collected was assiduously invested in capitalist industry and services.

As time went on, and more and more people built houses, so more and more people deposited their money in building societies. By the end of the 1960s, when the balance of surplus value from housing tipped away from rent (council housing) to interest (so called ‘home ownership’), the building societies’ vast funds were an important marker on the capitalist landscape.


As the Thatcher administration released more and more of society to the unfettered control of capitalists, gentlemen at the top of society turned their eyes with ever increasing hunger on the building societies.

If only the outdated restrictions which made it impossible to profit from the societies were removed! What endless riches this opened up! It wasn’t just a question of owning shares. Nor was it even a matter of raising top peoples’ salaries, though that of course was a crucial factor. The real treasure would be the release of the societies’ funds from the strict legal controls which had existed when the societies were mutual.

It was, in short, a treasure hunt of unfathomable wonders for the ruling class. Slowly, surreptitiously, they started to woo the investors whose vote was required if the change was to be accomplished.

The investors were bribed. They were promised the vast sum of £100 in free shares which they could convert, if they were lucky, into about £116 if they sold them on the first day.

Sweetened by this bribe, the investors in the Abbey National voted by a huge majority in favour of the change. So now it is legal to make profits out of the Abbey National. All the old, decent, ‘sturdy’ restrictions have been swept away, and the free market reigns.

It is hard in the whole grim history of Thatcherism to imagine a more cynical or foul development than this one, which was of course enthusiastically applauded all over the newspapers, including the sturdy liberal ones.


There were, however, some hitches in the flotation. Because they had to send out millions of bribes, the managers boobed. Tens of thousands of people got two lots of bribes. Many more thousands didn’t get their bribes on time, and so couldn’t cash them in on the stock exchange casino. Such people were convulsed by fury.

They felt they had ‘right’ to their little bribe. None of them even for a moment thought where their little bit ‘extra’ was coming from.

Did privatisation suddenly open up a pot of money that wasn’t there before? Or wouldn’t it come, as it always does, from a worse service, a cut in office workers’ pay, an attack on the unions and all the rest of the reality of Thatcher’s dream?

The managers were shocked by the stampede which their own bribes and bungling had caused. Sitting as they are on a fortune, they scoffed at the investors they had fooled as the latter rang up (burning out the switchboard), and shouted or swore their indignation.

Mr John Fry, general manager of the Abbey National, told the press haughtily:

‘There is an enormous greed factor out there.’

I like the phrase ‘out there’. The ‘greed factor’ in the building societies is not ‘out there’ at all, but right ‘in there’, with Mr Fry and his shortly to be enriched colleagues.

Last updated on 30 June 2014