We Need to Talk About Sid

The time has come for a new public awareness campaign on the benefits of capitalism

Westminster wonks are easily caught up in their social media bubbles. Debating the Laffer Curve and writing lengthy Twitter/X threads on full expensing creates lively and fruitful discussion but it does not speak to the voting public. Supply-side reform has the potential to transform vast swathes of the economy, from housing to energy, but conservatives struggle to spread these ideas through accessible language and powerful messages. When Margaret Thatcher set about privatising state assets in her second term, public relations was just as important as policy making.

Thatcherism was driven by the impulse to create a property-owning democracy. The more opportunities there are for people to own capital the more likely they are to support capitalism. Creating more homeowners, self-employed, and small business owners was central to these efforts. But so was privatisation. Shares in BT, British Gas, and British Airways were sold below market value and paved the way for future privatisations, such as electricity, water, and rail. This helped increase the number of shareholders in Britain from 3 million in 1979 to around 12 million today.

An iconic part of privatisation was the 1986 ‘Tell Sid’ TV ad campaign. The ads showed people passing along the message about British Gas shares being sold at affordable prices and telling others to “tell Sid” about it too. It inspired thousands of people to become shareholders for the very first time and embraced the spirit of Thatcher’s ‘enterprise economy’. The ads still have a hold over the conservative imagination today. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced last year that the government is looking to sell its shares in NatWest, saying “it’s time to get Sid investing again”.

But relying on slogans from the 1980s will not help deliver a new supply-side revolution. Instead, conservatives should remind themselves why Thatcher’s political language was so successful. The message of “tell Sid” worked because it spoke to aspirational middle- and working-class Brits and clearly explained how they could benefit from pro-market policies. Rather than instructing voters to acquaint themselves with Hayek’s ‘knowledge problem’, Thatcher emphasised simple values such as choice, freedom, responsibility, and common sense. This was combined with a bold retail offer to the electorate, clearly explaining how people will be better off.

That is also why the appeal to “tell Sid” rang so hollow in the Chancellor’s speech. Despite some worthy achievements, Conservative economic policy has become too mired in Treasury orthodoxy and technocratic tinkering. Politicians should be selling their policies to normal people, not just the alphabet soup of quangos and international institutions that so often come out against Conservative governments whether it be on austerity or tax cuts. This also makes it harder for conservatives to warn against the very real risks of electing a Labour government that will roll back privatisation, hike taxes, borrow and spend even more, and unleash a new expansion of the regulatory state.

What would a modern “tell Sid” equivalent be for Popular Conservatism? Even with NatWest, the scope for privatisation is much less promising than it once was. It is also painfully clear that conservatives need to win back younger voters if it is going to survive at all. Ownership is the key. Sir John Redwood MP, an advisor to Thatcher on privatisation, authored a Centre for Policy Studies report outlining some robust solutions, including raising the VAT threshold to £250,000, now that we have left the EU, to show Britain is great place to start and run a business. This could provide an opportunity for a new public awareness campaign to revive interest in enterprise and create a new generation of popular capitalists.

David Cowan is a Ph.D. Candidate in history at the University of Cambridge and a former staffer and researcher in the UK Parliament.