The Tories can't afford to repeat the mistakes of the 1980s in Port Talbot with Tata Steel

The deindustrialisation of the Thatcher years left towns economically obsolete. Neither David Cameron nor Port Talbot should be held hostage to economic dogma over the steel crisis

Liam Booth-Smith
Wednesday 06 April 2016 11:12 BST
The decline of the Potteries is a cautionary tale for David Cameron and Sajid Javid as they seek to solve the steel crisis.
The decline of the Potteries is a cautionary tale for David Cameron and Sajid Javid as they seek to solve the steel crisis. (GETTY IMAGES)

Growing up in Stoke-on-Trent I was never far from remnants of the old pottery industry. Blackened bricks; run down factories; untended canals. “Never forget where you came from” was a phrase I heard a lot growing up. How could I? Terraced rows and hollow industrial shells - from a distance it looked like someone had breathed life into an LS Lowry painting. So many people, never seeming to do all that much.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my home town in light of the Port Talbot steel crisis. Stoke’s decline, after the pottery industry all but disappeared, should act as a warning to the government about the cost of doing nothing. Port Talbot stands on the brink of losing a lot more than jobs. As business secretary Sajid Javid meets Tata Steel bosses for crunch talks in Mumbai this week, to discuss the prospects of a rescue deal with potential buyer Sanjeev Gupta, he should keep that in mind all that’s at stake.

By allowing Port Talbot to close, the government wouldn’t just be letting the British steel industry collapse, they would be letting a place fail too. The deindustrialisation of the Thatcher years has left many towns, particularly in the north and the midlands, economically obsolete.

No amount of government largesse can give these communities back what they’ve lost: their purpose. Some have become ghost towns, haunted by memories of a stolen future. Progress, where an industry has been ‘brought back’, often resembles an attempt to reclaim the past; it can’t hide the fact that many such communities are now just sleep walking into economic failure. Javid, and prime minister David Cameron, cannot preside over a repeat of that previous Tory mistake.

Despite the poverty of the era, my grandfather used to talk about the golden age of the pottery industry. It would be a disservice to the man to dismiss his passion as rose tinted nostalgia, though he never seemed happier than when he was living in the past.

When an industry leaves a community, the community does not die. Instead, it falls asleep, choosing to live in its memories rather than confront its atrophies. It becomes ever weaker until, eventually, it lacks the strength or will to rouse itself at all.

With the Conservatives under self-imposed pressure to see the human cost behind the economic figures, Port Talbot represents a litmus test for how far the party has moved on from its slavish reliance on the market to solve all problems during the 1980s.

Sajid Javid in Port Talbot

But, so far, the government’s position doesn’t inspire confidence. It’s insistence on ‘no nationalisation’ and its determination to find a buyer from outside, while nevertheless openly discussing proposals that sound very much like nationalisation, is an irritating semantic sleight of hand. It suggests Number 10 knows there is a huge ideological row just waiting to happen, with Jeremy Corbyn sitting in the wings until it ignites.

To avert such commotion, the Prime Minister must realise that his and Port Talbot’s interests are aligned. Neither can afford to be made a hostage to economic dogma.

The price of intervening might be high, but the cost of not doing so is higher still. For the government this is not about saving the steel industry as much as it is about whether it can allow Port Talbot to fall into a slumber from which it may never wake.

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