Updated: May 16
The British steel industry has been in a state of managed decline for decades. Our openness to the global marketplace allows for countries with lower overheads and labour standards to compete favourably against our own workforce, which enjoys high levels of unionisation and cutting-edge health and safety standards. Successive Labour and Conservative governments have been compounding this ongoing decline by failing to take the drastic steps necessary to save the industry. If the current state of world affairs is teachable in any sense, it is to draw our attention to the value of strategic national industries: of which steel is one. Having hobbled away from an existential crisis spanning 2015/2016, the Coronavirus challenge now threatens to deliver a coup de grâce to our remaining mills.
Rishi Sunak has been admirable in his willingness to offer real and substantial packages to help workers and business overcome the coronavirus with their livelihoods intact. His furlough scheme, and business rate abolition demonstrate an approach which seeks to provide remedy across society. In spite of the chancellor’s actions there remain still a swathe of industries whose existence will be imperilled by anything short of nationalisation. Steel is an industry which in 1971 employed some 320,000 workers. By 2016 this number had fallen to just 32,000. The number of workers who now forge our steel, though dwindling, remains substantial, and represents tens of thousands of highly skilled workers, who are densely concentrated in Wales and Yorkshire, and upon whom those local economies rely.
It is not just the human case that should urge us to support a bailout, but the economic and strategic case. The ongoing crisis and the export bans country after country are introducing, highlight the dangers of the UKs supply side deficiency, and just how catastrophic it could prove to be in the event of a crisis. If ever we needed to produce drones, ships or tanks, instead of masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, the country would find the challenge insurmountable. We cannot rely on China for our steel, or indeed any other country, since ultimately the nation state will serve itself before others, and this effect is amplified in times of scarcity.
Not only should we nationalise our steel, but we should work to ween our way off of cheap foreign steel. In so doing we could put tens of thousands of people to work, producing the structural beams, car chassis, and the white goods we will need to kick-start the economy once this lockdown ends. Once more we could be proud to say ‘Made in Britain’. 4