It had been a sinew of empire, a shipping line that ferried soldiers and diplomats, even royalty, on the Victorian mail-runs that tied Britain to its outposts far to the east and beyond.
But when Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation, or P&O, became the object of a likely $5 billion-plus bidding war on Monday after a takeover approach from Dubai Ports World, the company seemed headed the same way as so many other onetime jewels in the British economic crown - into foreign ownership.
As P&O stock soared on speculation that contenders from Hong Kong or Denmark might enter the bidding, the contest invited a more philosophical question: What makes Britain so relaxed about selling companies to outsiders in a way that many in Continental Europe, France, Italy and Germany in particular, seem reluctant to emulate?
It is a question that has wide repercussions: As the European Union ponders its future, the same clash between free markets and national protectionism has all but stalemated the debate and even threatens world trade talks.
For some, the answer lies in a deep-rooted faith among the business and political elite, common to Britain and the United States, that market forces will ultimately provide a more robust economy and greater prosperity.
There is little doubt that the buy-sell ethic of the marketplace has taken root here since the privatizations of the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, when the sale of public utilities like the state-run gas and telephone companies turned many Britons into shareholders overnight.
"Capitalism has been here for a long time," Robert Grindle of the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein said in London. "It's not a Blair thing, it's a Thatcher thing."
He cited Britain's lower unemployment, stronger growth and flexible capital markets as evidence that the system works, its theory being that "the best owner for an asset is the one who wants to pay the most for it."
True, there are strategic companies like British Petroleum and British Airways that are held resolutely as predominantly British entities. And the United States is increasingly touchy when it comes to the idea of selling strategic assets to foreigners, as was displayed by congressional maneuvers to block China National Offshore Oil Corp.'s bid for Unocal this summer.
But a string of British companies are now in foreign hands, with the latest step being the bid Monday by Telefónica of Spain for O2, the wireless offshoot of BT, the direct descendant of Britain's state-run phone company.
Last month, Boots, the pharmacy chain founded as an herbal remedy shop in 1849 that became an emblem of the British Main Street, was sold to Alliance UniChem, a pan-European drug distributor. In June, the American company H.J. Heinz snapped up HP Foods, the 170-year-old manufacturer of such English condiments as Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce.
"Britain has learned that there is no harm is selling your local champions to foreigners," said Holger Schmieding, an economist with Bank of America in London.
Oliver Bretz, a specialist in European and competition law at the Clifford Chance firm, said, "Even within the defense and nuclear industries Britain has a more forgiving regulatory framework" than in much of Continental Europe. "Nationality does not figure very highly" as an obstacle to deals.
It is in the auto industry - where Ford owns such illustrious British sports car brands as Jaguar and Aston Martin, and where Volkswagen owns Bentley - that some of the differences between the British and Continental cultures seem particularly apparent.
This year, when MG Rover teetered, finally, on the brink of collapse, the British authorities toyed with intervening but abandoned the idea. A Chinese company ended up buying the company's leftovers.
The British government's refusal to get involved in the MG Rover debacle showed something of the way Britain's bare-knuckles culture has spread into the national psyche since the days of extensive state involvement in the economy, from coal mines to steel mills.
Britons "don't expect the state to be the first to fix it," whatever the problem, said Katinka Barysch of the Center for European Reform, based in London. "They have less confidence in the state managing things."
♠ Posted by Emmanuel in Europe at 11/03/2007 02:09:00 PMI've dug up this International Herald Tribune article dating from November 2005 that sheds light on the topic in the post title. I am sure that you've heard of Qatar's interest in buying controlling stakes in the London Stock Exchange and Sainsbury's, the third-largest supermarket chain here in Blighty. According to this article, the widespread incidence of stock ownership in formerly state-owned firms by average Joes and Janes paved the way for Britons to decide, yeah, who cares if they sell off the "crown jewels" of the former British Empire or something to that effect. Although some entities are strictly off-limits like British Petroleum and British Airways, there is a lot up for grabs...