London — Britain has not seen anything like it before. Many Britons who have never owned a share of stock in their lives have besieged the telephone lines asking for more information on how, when, and if to buy into what has been dubbed the ''sale of the century.''
When all the news media hype and the deluge of advertising are over, the flotation of shares in British Telecom (BT) will go down in the record books as the world's biggest share sale.
For a government that aims to have one of the smallest state sectors in the world, today is a red-letter day in its efforts to turn the huge, state-owned telephone company over to private enter-prise.
Nov. 20 is when prospectuses offering shares in British Telecom will be published in national newspapers and distributed to more than 5 million homes.
The expectation is that some 2 million people who have never owned shares before will participate in what the Conservative government likes to call a ''share-owning democracy.''
The sale is the latest exercise in the government's campaign to extend privati-zation in Britain. So far 13 enterprises have been denationalized since the Thatcher government came to power in 1979. Already on the runway is British Airways. Gas and electricity may follow.
But the sale of this telecommunications giant with its (STR)8 billion ($10 billion) assets dwarfs all previous privatization moves.
The sale is part of the government's philosophy, which is as much political as it is economic. Its view is that Britain needs a hefty infusion of competition. The sale will also put (STR)4 billion extra in the Treasury.
The campaign has been launched on an everybody-gains type of advertising. The government gets additional revenue; the sale is a boon to the stock market; and there are all sorts of benefits, such as reduced phone bills, to lure the small-time investor.
Although the response to the campaign has been overwhelming and the sale will almost certainly be heavily oversub-scribed, the flotation has met with strenuous political opposition from the left.
Those who want BT to stay the way it was charge it has no business to be privatized. A reader of the Guardian newspaper wrote in complaining, ''As it is a nationalized industry, everyone in the land already owns a share in this company. Everyone's share is an equal one. The company operates in the interest of us all; its profits accrue to us all equally.''
Other critics have charged that the idea that denationalization hastens an equity-owning democracy is specious. They allege that small-time investors soon dropped out after flotations of other denationalized industries, leaving the field almost exclusively to the professionals.
One cloud on the horizon for potential investors is the opposition Labour Party's indication that it would return BT to the public sector as soon as practicable.
For the moment, though, people seem to be hearing only the call of the sale.