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Collapse of Port Talbot’s Steelworks

The collapse of Port Talbot’s steelworks is a death knell for industrial, working-class Britain.

Keith Gildart – The Guardion

UK industrial towns offered not only well-paid jobs, but a whole culture. A radical alternative is desperately needed

Last week, Tata Steel in Port Talbot announced the immediate closure of its coke ovens. These ovens create the coke that ultimately powers the blast furnaces, which, as was announced in January, are due to be shut down. The decision by Tata to close the furnaces sent shock waves through the community. There are set to be 2,800 job losses – a huge blow for a small town that has already undergone significant cuts to its steel industry over the past decades. A final chapter in the decades-long deindustrialisation of the British economy appears to be coming to a close.

Plant closures are never only about the loss of work, but also the cultural and psychological effects on the people who are made unemployed, on families and communities. Steel provided well-paid, unionised and skilled employment, and created a working-class culture that gave the country Labour MPs, athletes, musicians, writers, artists and a sense of community and collective purpose. Port Talbot even gave the world the cinematic presence of Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins.

Such a distinct, collectivist culture was crucial to the development of Wales, central Scotland and parts of England in the 19th and 20th centuries. At its peak in the 1960s, Port Talbot steelworks employed about 18,000 workers, complemented by the nearly 60,000 employed in south Wales coalmines. These industries after the second world war offered an alternative vision of industrial relations, investment, community development, and a Wales (and Britain) with working-class agency at its centre.

The seeds of the destruction of this world of labour were planted with the mass closures of coalmines in the late 1950s and then the 1960s, with patchy attempts by governments to mitigate the effects. But the election of a Labour government in 1974 granted a temporary reprieve to the steel and coal industries. The subsequent Plan for Coal envisaged a long-term future for the industry with the introduction of new technology, skills and high wages. In these years, a miner could become an engineer, a mine manager, an official of the National Coal Board, a trade union official or a Labour MP. Others could take advantage of the education provided by the National Union of Mineworkers and enter university. Having started work as a coalminer in 1985, I took this path in 1992, studying history and politics and eventually became a university professor. Yet with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, a darkness descended over the steel and coal communities.

The warning shot for British Steel and Welsh industry came with the closure of the furnaces at Shotton in March 1980, when 6,500 jobs were axed in a single day. The steel strike of the same year ended in defeat for the steelworkers. By the time Ian MacGregor left his role at British Steel in 1983 to move on to the National Coal Board, he had cut the steel workforce by almost 60% in only three years. After the crushing defeat of the miners in their year-long fight against closures in 1984-85, pits rapidly disappeared from the British landscape. The destruction of communities quickly followed. Both the moderate leadership of the steel unions and the more militant activism of the miners could do nothing to stem the tide of unemployment, inequality, poverty and the transformation of the world of work.

What has the loss of this world ushered in? The impact can be seen not just in Port Talbot but across the post-industrial regions of Wales, England and Scotland. While that industrial world of work brought with it risks to life and health, the income, opportunities and relative security offered stability. That has been replaced by warehousing, logistics, retail parks that offer zero-hours contracts, low wages, no long-term security and hostility to trade union membership and representation. Decades after the closures, Britain’s coalfields are still feeling the long-term effects, suffering disproportionately from multiple inequalities.

The deindustrialisation of Britain and the marginalisation of the working class has also had a profound impact on political engagement and representation. Your Labour MP is now likely to be a lawyer, special adviser and expensively educated graduate, rather than a steelworker or a coalminer. Meanwhile, the organised working class has moved further to the periphery of political and civic British life. At the same time, perhaps counterintuitively, the old industrial workforce is viewed with a sense of deference rather than suspicion. Steelworkers and coalminers have gone from being labelled as industrial dinosaurs, technological Luddites and enemies within, to being almost canonised through films such as The Full Monty and Billy Elliot.

That is all very well and good, but what is really needed is an appreciation of the communities and the political alternatives that they provided. Post-steel and post-coal localities need a radical industrial policy that would bring high-paid jobs, skills and opportunities that could form the basis of a real driver of levelling up. As the Port Talbot coke ovens close, what is the government doing to fill the void?

United States Officially Ends Most Section 232 For UK And Suspends Penalties On Ukrainian Products

On Wednesday, June 1, the United States officially ended Section 232 steel and aluminum tariffs for most products coming from the United Kingdom. The Biden administration’s temporary, one-year suspension of the Section 232 duties on steel products from Ukraine also took effect the same day.

As Connecting the Dots reported previously, in March U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai announced an agreement with the British government to replace the penalties with a system of tariff-rate quotas, or TRQs.

The agreement, which went into effect June 1:

Read the White House proclamation here. Read the announcement from the British government here.

Story via MSCI
Image courtesy of Pixabay via Pexels

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