The Tory Business Minister, Anna Soubry, became famous during the referendum for her encounter with Alex Salmond on the Andrew Marr show. She backed away from him on the couch saying she was “terrified”, as if the First Minister were an axe murderer.
Now she may merit rather more than a footnote in British political history as the minister who inadvertently laid to rest 30 years of UK industrial policy; rather, that should read non-industrial policy since, under successive administrations since Margaret Thatcher, UK governments have tended to leave the fate of manufacturing industry to the vagaries of the market.
Yesterday Ms Soubry conceded that “all options were being considered”, including nationalisation of UK steel after Tata’s announcement in Mumbai that it was throwing in the towel. She feigned ignorance about the deal the Scottish Government struck to save the Scottish plants at Dalyell and Clydebridge. She “didn’t know the details” and said that “there was a lot of puff in it before the elections”.
But there’s nothing puffy about Sanjeev Gupta, the boss of Liberty House who owns the plants. The Scottish Government responded to Tata’s announcement of the closures last year by arranging what was effectively a state buyout. This allowed it to hold on to Dalyell and Clydebridge long enough for Mr Gupta to come along and pick them out of the remaindered bin. He says he is going to make profitable “green steel” from recycled steel products .
This was nationalisation, albeit temporary. The Scottish Government bought the plants from Tata for a pound and sold for a pound. The Government also had to take on the liabilities in the meantime and it’s not clear what the deal has cost the public purse. Business Minister Fergus Ewing, it is generally agreed, played a “blinder” in staging the rescue.
Perhaps a ministerial transfer should be considered as Ms Soubry seems to be a bit at sea. Her boss, Sajid Javid poured cold water on the idea of outright nationalisation. But it seems the UK Government is actively considering some form of state intervention. It could be the biggest change in British industrial policy in decades.
Finding a new private buyer looks forlorn. Given the collapse in world market prices and global overcapacity, selling the steel industry will be like trying to sell sand in the desert. Port Talbot in Wales, the key plant in the UK steel industry, has been losing £1 million a day.
The UK Government’s normal response to industrial closures has been to let market forces work their magic. Who needs metal bashing anyway? Britain isn’t in the business of making stuff any more – we do clever things instead like finance. That ended well.
In 2008/9 the UK Government organised a £1 trillion bailout of the insolvent banking industry. The alternative was just too awful to contemplate: the collapse of the financial system. Somehow the collapse of the industrial system has not been so hard to contemplate. Indeed, there was some oblique criticism of the US government in 2008/9 for bailing out the US motor industry. The message appeared to be that you can only bail out and nationalise banks.
The Government appears to have realised that giving up on metal bashing is not such a good idea after all; nor is selling off strategic industries like steel and energy to foreign buyers. The UK steel industry formerly employed 250,000 workers but that isn’t the only reason it was important. By losing control of key sectors of industrial production you become the plaything of international markets.
The Chinese, who produce half of the world’s steel, don’t make that mistake. Their steel industry is state owned, and when there is a problem – as there has been over the world market price – they just cut prices and dump it to keep the plants running.
There were other factors in Port Talbot’s crisis, of course, including the high value of the pound and high energy costs. No one expects these conditions to remain indefinitely. For a private company like Tata steel of Mumbai, the market situation was terminal. The priority was to cut its losses. You can’t expect a foreign business to look after the long-term interests of British industry.
A similar situation is emerging at Hinkley Point, where the first of Britain’s new generation of nuclear power plants is running into the problems that invariably seem to afflict such projects: delays, technical problems, cost overruns and financial uncertainty. To keep the French state-owned EDF in the game the UK Government has had to guarantee a unit price for its energy of £92 – nearly twice the market rate at present.
The irony is that the high cost of British energy is one of the reasons the UK steel industry is unable to compete. These aren’t called strategic industries for nothing. They all fit together and, unless the UK is to opt out of manufacturing altogether, the Government will have to step in to prevent a catastrophic closure of insolvent steel.
If banks like RBS had been ordinary private businesses, they would have gone into administration until they could be wound up. But banks are seen as strategic; perhaps because they are run by wealthy, well-connected people who persuaded the Government it had to provide access to hundreds of billions of pounds in public funds to tide them over the bad times.
Because of a prejudice against industry, successive UK governments have supported financial services with alacrity while allowing much of what is left of British infrastructure to disappear or be bought out by foreign state-owned companies. And the banks and finance houses have made a lot of money in fees from the privatisations and sale of UK state assets.
Sometimes, to be fair, foreign ownership has worked: the British motor industry seems to do reasonably well, though it is also perilously vulnerable to world market conditions. With foundation industries such as steel and energy foreign ownership doesn’t do so well; nor does it work with natural monopolies such as UK rail, which has become a cash cow for foreign owners while passengers pay some of the highest fares in Europe.
Defending these industries as strategic isn’t about being narrowly nationalistic and protectionist. Foreign competition is a good thing. German-owned Lidl and Aldi have shaken up British retailing and showed how the big supermarkets were over charging customers. Unlike supermarkets, steel and energy are the foundation upon which the manufacturing superstructure is built.
With steel we have perhaps reached an important inflexion point. The days of the “night watchman state” that looked the other way as industries collapsed or were sold abroad may be over. Politicians of the future may look back on the 30-year fire sale of state assets with regret. Perhaps some day there may even be an apology for the closure of what was the largest and most advanced hot strip steel mill in Europe: Ravenscraig.
From Herald 31/3/16