The moral case for saving steel

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Despite being clearly cited by Carwyn Jones (and others) I do not think the moral case for significant state intervention in UK steel industry has been fully fleshed out.

‘Cause morals matter, right? They matter because without a sense of fundamental fairness and a doing-of-the-right-thing, the basis of society becomes seriously eroded – as does the authority of those in government.

The moral dimension here is not just about the industry itself – not about a depersonalised economic asset or transaction. Steel has a deep, long history which I believe accounts for the resonance of this issue.

It is the people most directly connected with the industry who create this resonance – steel is woven into the lives, economy, and folklore of many communities. And nationally it is almost a touchstone – a standard or criterion by which Britain is judged or recognized.

And if the steel industry dies, what happens (and what has happened) to the people who are those communities?

The prospects for steel towns are worse than stark. 50 % of all employment in Scunthorpe is at risk as this excellent video explains. Port Talbot and the surrounding area fear an economic catastrophe if the plant closes. Even the Daily Telegraph raised fears about already-high local poverty. Redcar’s decline, brief regeneration and closure as been described as “disastrous” for Tees-side

We can probably agree with 20/20 hindsight that it was unfortunate that certain towns become so dependent on one employer. But that doesn’t help find a solution.

And a solution is needed, because the alternative is to push already poor, struggling, barely-keeping-heads-above-water people under a blanket of hopelessness.

You may ask, how can we make special case for steel, when we didn’t for coal? Or manufacturing? Well, it is the steel industry is what we are dealing with right now. Maybe steel makes us realise that perhaps we should have done something different for other industries. Maybe we should point to the state aid given to RBS. Maybe we just take each case on its merits.

As groups like We Own It make clear, state involvement is not an irrevocably bad news story, nor a visa to the land of incompetence and complacency. State intervention, nationalisation even, is no blank cheque, no open-ended subsidy for loss making.

Instead, as steel unions and the TUC have collectively said – it is a chance, a hope.

So far, so ethical (unless, as some seem to, you believe that it is immoral to intervene in such circumstances, that the market must be allowed to prevail, that the state should not act as subsidiser of last resort, that the case against steel is overwhelming). But there is an economic justification too. Put simply, saving steel has significant financial plus-points.

That argument rolls across the issue of huge pension liabilities. But we should engage with this challenge, not run away from it. As financial online journal Citywire makes clear, there are options here for those who chose to seek them.

It also makes no sense to destroy the integrity of historic pension arrangements and depress the spending power of those in retirement – possibly even creating poverty for pensioners as well as for people of working age. All contributions to the economy are important.

There are many genuine practical questions and concerns. But we seem plagued by shades of grey in a fairly black-and-white scenario. The government should take the morally right decision, calling on strong supporting arguments of economics and strategic national interest.

Intervention – renationalisation – if you like – will save so much more than the UK steel industry, important as that is in its own right. It will reconnect an increasingly distant government with the peole it has an obligation to protect and serve.

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