History is the story of real people’s lives and I am now old enough for the early part of my life to count as history – and that sometimes gives current news stories a poignant context. In the late eighties I was working in a medium sized engineering company which used a lot of steel. One of my workmates was then in his sixties and was an absolutely incorrigible old Tory while also being an absolute font of knowledge about engineering. He was also tremendously interested in metallurgy and was very interested indeed in the British steel industry. As such he was very keen indeed in one of the Thatcher government’s more minor projects, the sale of the nationalised British Steel.
Compared to the other privatisations this one got relatively little coverage in the media at the time if my memory serves me correctly. Although small investors were not discouraged, I don’t remember there being much promotion to them. But my friend’s mind was made up anyway. He was convinced that nationalisation had been a disaster for the industry and once in the private sector again it would once again rule the world. He determined to purchase a chunk and was sure it would be a good investment.
His optimism wasn’t too ill founded either. At that time Britain was still in the top rank of steel producers, and there had been a lot of streamlining and organising of the industry while it was publicly owned. Somebody has to make steel so why not make it in Britain?
We all of course know how this ends. British Steel didn’t become the colossus on the world stage that some envisaged. The shares weren’t great performers – by the time British Steel was taken over by Corus some fifteen years later they were trading at about half the value they had been sold for originally. Whatever the merits of privatisation in general, steel has to be chalked up as an abject failure. It would have made more sense to close the lot down and sell off the plant as scrap.
Now we are looking at the probable extinction of large scale steel manufacture in Britain. My old workmate didn’t live long enough to see his cash halve in value. But I think he would have been ever more heartbroken by the news that Britain was no longer a steel making country.