The history of steel is the history of the British industrial revolution. Tuesday evening –which saw the decision by Tata to close all of its steelworks in the UK, consigning the production of the metal to potential oblivion- either marks a new chapter or is a concluding footnote.
Niall Ferguson once used the term Killer App to describe the fundamental parts that make up his brand of civilisation. Steel is surely one of Britain’s. What is happening to steel mirrors the fate of many of Britain’s killer apps. We are proud of our long democracy but bemoan parliamentary politics. Our railway was pioneering but we haven’t upgraded it for over three decades. We still talk about our world class media at a moment when national newspapers are disappearing and the BBC is struggling to define its mandate (which surely should be obvious from its name!).
I am in no position to comment on either the factors that drove Tata to sell up or what should be done to limit the damage. The closure of the plants in Port Talbot, as well as across Yorkshire and the Midlands, is unimaginably devastating to those who will lose their livelihoods. The ricochet will be deep and cut across generations.
The implications for the British brand are still being registered. At stake are two apps that have been at loggerheads for decades in Britain. One is market logic. It says that we are a model open economy at the mercy of the global market’s invisible hand. It is not the place of government to intervene. However existential or strategic the industry if the market says it is worthless then no public pound should be wasted. Given the price of the steel Tata is producing in the UK –costing $200 in contrast to the $10 spent by Chinese producers- it is not obvious how nationalised steel production would solve this dilemma.
Market logic may know the price of industries, but it fails to grasp the value of tradition- another key app. As the jobs market becomes increasingly dominated by services –which by their nature offer precarious employment and encourage frequent shifts in roles throughout a career- the idea of a job for life, associated with older forms of labour such as the traditional professions and manufacturing, becomes more alien. It is not sentimental to say that if British steel goes so will a way of life. Speaking up for this front we see a coalition of lefties suspicious of global capitalism and conservatives worried about the erosion of sovereignty. Both groups argue that Britain should assert control over these faceless global forces.
With the #saveoursteel row the ideological fissures of British society are opening up. There have been few occasions in the country’s history where it has ever had to seriously consider its identity and confront these contrary impulses. In 2014’s Scottish referendum we came close. With the SNP confidently owning a form of modern nationalism the rest of Britain appeared like an awkward grouping of disparate traditions and cultures. The combined force of the upcoming referendum of Britain’s membership of the European Union and the debate of what is to be done about the British steel industry ought to prompt a moment of soul searching. Like steel, Britain is an alloy and its composite nations have very different notions of the equation of price and value.