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On Tory indifference to steel and to human tragedy, and their hatred of solidarity

tata steel jobs copyIt was like the crashing of dominoes, except the toppling was done by livelihoods, supply chains, ways of life. First, SSI in Redcar announced it was going belly up. And after toing and froing with the government, once it was clear state aid wasn’t forthcoming it was as if Britain’s steel bosses huddled together and decided the time was right for job losses.

2,200 are going in Redcar. Tata are shedding 1,200 in Scunthorpe and Lanarkshire, and a further 1,800 are in danger. They blame energy costs and the flooding of European markets by dirt cheap Chinese steel. That’s the government’s narrative as well, ruling out action on grounds it’s against EU rules. It’s convenient to have someone else to blame.

It is true that global markets are eroding the viability of the British steel industry. It is untrue the government are powerless to do anything about it. Behind each job loss is a personal crisis, and the Conservative Party are utterly indifferent. Never mind that the maintenance of a steel industry is a pretty basic trapping of any country claiming major power status, again strategic security concerns – and maintaining the capacity to make stuff is a security matter – come second to Tory short-termism and stupidity. Then again, this is the party suggesting the new Labour leader is a security threat for past associationswith Sinn Fein and assorted unsavouries in the Palestinian solidarity and anti-war movement while they are ceding a chunk of Britain’s electricity generation to the Chinese state. But of that another time.

Why are the Tories so reticent to intervene? Is it purely spite? As much as some might think that is the case, it’s not. There is what passes for brute rationality: the (wrong) view steel is peripheral to the British economy and employs comparatively few people. It wouldn’t bring the whole show crashing down in the manner of a bank collapse. There’s the usual idiocy of submitting to the hurricane winds of global competition. And lastly a refusal to countenance a bail out on grounds that if they get one, every industry should get one.

Yet I’m convinced something a touch more complex is going on too, something that reaches into the (sub)cultural and ideological neuroses of the Tories as a collective. There is still, deep down, a fear of the industrial worker. The 1970s casts as much of a shadow over Tory thinking as the 1980s does over ours, which is why the walking dead tropes of that decade are dug up and given fresh meat every now and then.

This was their lowest point, of having their government brought down by striking miners and a strong, confident labour movement (apparently) surging forward. And at the forefront of it all were vanguards of workers that had slipped their trade union leash. These were the men who worked filthy, demanding, monotonous jobs. They were dangerous jobs too – not because of the threat they posed to life and limb, but to the risks they posed established order.

The bonds that kept the workers burrowing a mile beneath the earth, feeding the blast furnaces and smelting pools, gave them the strength to say no: no to management, and no to the government. The solidarity between workers necessary for their collective safety in the job went beyond the gate and out into the communities clustered around the pits, the steel mills, and the factories. This is what made them potent, and was precisely why Thatcher had to defeat them. 30 years after the Miners’ Strike and these communities are much reduced, but they still evoke folk nightmares in the Tory imagination.

Osborne plays with the Northern Powerhouse like a fancy train set, but his idea of an industrial renaissance bears the indelible marks of the 1970s trauma. There is no place for the dirty industry of old (or, for that matter, what Dave calls the “green crap“). It’s about the futuristic, of the fast, the clean, and the mindbogglingly complex. Nuclear power stations, high speed rail, graphene, quantum computing, medicines, space, big data. This is the only white heat the Tories are interested in.

The workers here fit the Conservative ideal: highly educated, skilled, motivated, entrepreneurial. Some might say embourgeoisified too. This is the edge of the coming wave, and where state aid should be focused. Steel mills? They’ve had their day, best to abandon them to the pitiless grind of market forces. It’s a kindness to let them go, and these communities will be healthier and wealthier once they’re weened off their century-and-a-half addiction to primary industry.

Unfortunately, the price paid for the Tory psychodrama are by people out of sight and mind. No cameras will be filming the heartbreaking scenes in thousands of homes. No London journos chronicling the further decline of already depressed towns and regions. These people, our people, are being left to rot. How many more will this happen to over the next five years?

One Comment

  1. David Ellis says:

    The Tories believe in `creative destruction’. Letting the steelworkers go links in with the cutting of Tax Credits: a huge public spending and job cutting exercise designed to let a major recession rip as with Thatcher and Howe in 1979 and 80. There will be no way back from this one though.

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