The New Meaning of Licence—The Question of Capital Issues—Text of the Treasury Regulations—Their Scope and Effect—The Position of the Stock Exchange—Wider Issues at Stake—Should Capital be set Free?—The Arguments for and against—Perils of an Excessive Caution—The New Committee and its Terms of Reference—The Absurdity of prohibiting Share-splitting—The Storm in the House of Commons—Disappearance of the Retrospective Clause—A Sample of Bureaucratic Stupidity.
A contrast between liberty and licence is a pleasant alliterative commonplace beloved by political writers, especially those with a reactionary bias. In the light of recent events it seems to be going to take a new meaning. Licence will soon be understood, not as the abuse of liberty, to which democracies are prone, but as a new weapon by which our bureaucracy will do away with liberty by tightening the shackles on our economic and other activities. For imports and exports the licence system is already familiar; if the mines and railways are to be nationalised we may have to be licensed before we can burn coal or go away for a week-end; if the Eugenists have their way a licence will be necessary before we can propagate the species; and before we can get a licence to do anything we shall have to go through an exasperating process of filling in forms innumerable, inconsistent, overlapping and incomprehensible. Finance is the latest victim of this melancholy tendency. Under the guise of an attempt to give greater freedom to it a system has been introduced which makes a Treasury licence necessary, with penalties under the Defence of the Realm Act, for doing many things which have hitherto been possible for those who were prepared to forgo the privilege of a Stock Exchange quotation. Let the story be told in official language, as uttered through the Press Bureau, on February 24th, in “Serial No. C. 10917.”
“In view of the changed conditions resulting from the conclusion of the armistice, the Treasury has had under consideration the arrangements which have been in force during the war for the control of New Issues of Capital.
“The work of scrutinising proposals for new Capital Issues has been performed during the war by the Capital Issues Committee, the object being to refuse sanction for all projects not immediately connected with the successful prosecution of the war. The decisions of the Treasury, taken upon the advice of this Committee, have, however, not had any binding force, beyond what is derived from the emergency regulations of the Stock Exchange, which forbids dealings in any new Issues which have not received Treasury consent.
“While it is not possible under existing financial conditions to dispense altogether with the control of Capital Issues, it has clearly become necessary to reconsider the principles upon which sanction has been given or refused in order that no avoidable obstacles may be placed in the way of providing the Capital necessary for the speedy restoration of Commerce and Industry, and the development of public utility services.