There’s a meme that keeps resurfacing in the genteel world of rightwing financial thought: that the term “neoliberalism” is in some way just a term of abuse, or a catch-all phrase invented by the left.
Well, as the UK steel industry faces instant closure — and let’s be clear that’s what Tata would do if it had to — we about to get a textbook lesson in what neoliberalism actually means. It means, when market logic clashes with human logic, the market must prevail and you must not give a sh*t about the social consequences.
At stake are two things.
First 40,000 manufacturing jobs in Tata and its supply chain. These are very high quality jobs. In the Stocksbridge Tata plant, for example, you’ll see three or four people using hand-held controllers operate a facility the size of an aircraft hangar, melting and re-forming massive bars of metal. At Port Talbot there’s a half-mile long rolling mill operated, last time I was there, by a shift of twelve people. At each site there are tens of apprentices currently studying to do these jobs, which if Tata closes will not exist.
So question number one is does the British government want to intervene to save these jobs, and the communities that depend on them.
The second issue is steel as a strategic resource. If you want an independent defence industry you have to have a steel industry. Given the nature of war, many of the things you need to fight it — like tanks, submarines and missiles — have to be made of metal. At some point that metal has to be produced in a furnace. Furnaces use large amounts of energy. Energy is expensive because we need to wean ourselves off carbon. So energy policy, trade policy and defence policy are at odds — fundamentally because there is no industrial policy to tie them together.
Indeed the ministry that should have an industrial policy is run by a man who, when the space between his ears registers a thought at all, believes there should not be an industrial policy.
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