Ian MacGregor dies at 85
Donald Macintyre writes political sketches for The Independent, having been Jerusalem correspondent since 2004, covering Israel and the Occupied Territories, as well as travelling for the paper to Iraq, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Egypt.
Tuesday 14 April 1998
Sir Ian was given by Margaret Thatcher the job of scaling down the coal industry in the belief that pit closures would provoke a strike for which the then government was ready.
Baroness Thatcher said yesterday: "He brought a breath of fresh air to British industry and he had such a genial personality. He had a tremendous way of putting things. He made a real difference and I was very grateful when he came back to this country."
Not everyone in the coal industry found him so genial. Although he was born and educated in Scotland it was his background as a highly successful businessman in the United States which attracted to him to the then prime minister when he was brought in to run the British Steel Corporation. In the steel industry, as later in coal, he set about a formidable job- shedding programme which was pivotal to the restructuring of the British economy between 1980 and 1983. He was then transferred to the NCB where his antipathy to the Morrisonian coal-board management culture was considered by ministers as a key qualification.
His courage and determination are not in doubt. He certainly emerged the victor, though his harsher critics argued that there were times when the Coal Board appeared to be winning despite rather than because of his leadership. At the height of the conflict with the miners he helped to provoke a serious strike threat by the normally loyal pit deputies, saying that he could replace them with outsiders as Ronald Reagan had done with striking air-traffic controllers.
His lack of presentational skills could well have been seriously damaging if Arthur Scargill had not forfeited trade union, Labour Party and above all public sympathy by refusing to hold a strike ballot.
His market value, however, was underlined by the - for the times - huge and controversial payments, each of well over pounds 1m, to Lazard Freres, of which he was a senior partner, at the time of his appointments both to the BSC and NCB.
He insisted that his harsh image was a distortion and his publicly stated intention before the strike was to ensure jobs in mining for all who wanted them and generous redundancy payments for those who did not.
"I am not a butcher," he said. "I am a plastic surgeon - I try to rebuild damaged features."
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