Proposed UK 25% stake in rescue of Tata Steel’s UK operations echoes Thatcher’s actions over industry in the 80s.
Granted, the headline might seem far-fetched. But my interest was piqued when looking at the history of industrial nationalisations in the UK – and seems to suggest that civil servants might possibly have leafed through what governments did in the past when it came to trying to assist the steel industry at times of crisis.
Consolidation in the steel industry
I spotted a very interesting BBC article from 2008 about what the last nationalisation was in the wake of Northern Rock being nationalised by the then Labour government.
It explained that a programme of consolidation was begun in the steel industry in a bid to achieve a successful privatisation after Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979.
And the article quoted a Professor David Parker, of Cranfield University – appointed by the government to be the official historian of privatisation in the UK – who said that “Mrs Thatcher had to swallow a minor “nationalisation” or two” as part of this consolidation.
The article went on: “Troubled specialist steel firms entered joint ventures with the nationalised steel industry and effectively passed into public ownership.
“”Mrs Thatcher didn’t like it, she didn’t like nationalisation by the back door,” said Prof Parker.”
What Mrs Thatcher said in parliment
This little bit of industrial history intrigued me – so I did a bit of digging and found comments made by the then Conservative prime minister in the House of Commons during an exchange with a Sheffield Labour MP Martin Flannery in 14 April 1981.
They were crossing swords about the “great steelworks” of Hadfields in Sheffield, which Mr Flannery said was about to close – and that the workforce wanted to know “what will be done about the private sector”.
Mrs Thatcher replied: “I am delighted to hear the hon. Gentleman standing up for the private sector.
“Perhaps we could stand up more for the private sector if we were having to spend a little less on the public sector.”
Public private ventures
And here’s the interesting quote: “In the steel industry we are trying to form a number of companies into what is called Phoenix II, which is part British Steel Corporation and part private sector companies, such as Hadfields, with a view to its eventually coming into the private sector.
“That would be a great advance on the present situation.”
So, just perhaps the current Consevative government’s offer to support the rescue of Tata Steel UK – largely made up of the remaining parts of the country’s steel industry – does have Thatcherite credentials…
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Main photo credit: By Rob Bogaerts / Anefo – Nationaal Archief, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27508130