1960s >> 1964 >> no-724-december-1964

Editorial: Molten Steel

Over the past few years, the steel industry has become a sort of political shuttlecock, bouncing back and forth between nationalisation and de-nationalisation. The last Labour government took it under State control and later on their Tory successors sold most of it back to private investors. Now, with the arrival of Wilson’s government, it looks as if steel may well be buffeted about the Commons again, and once more find itself a state industry.

Nationalisation of any industry is not something which is done in the interests of the working class, and is not therefore worthy of their support. The capitalist class may squabble among themselves about whether a particular industry is in need of state control, but these arguments revolve around investment, competitiveness, profitability, etc., things which are dear to any capitalist’s heart, but of no concern to workers. In the light of this, it is interesting to read the press reports of Parliament’s first debate on steel this session. There were fierce words and a government majority of seven, but pro-nationalisation sentiment was by no means confined to the Labour benches.

The burden of the government’s case was that steel had become a dangerous monopoly, keeping prices up and “holding the nation to ransom”. Their answer is to create a state monopoly in place of the private one and so make sure that the capitalist class as a whole shall have direct control over it. From the capitalist point of view there is an argument for state control, at least of the main sections of the industry. The phenomenal growth of the motor car industry, for example, has highlighted the importance of steel in a highly competitive world. And if, as Mr. Lee claims, private investors are simply unable to find the huge sums for new plant and modernisation, then the state will have to step in and do it instead. An assured supply of cheap steel is vital to modern capitalist economy. Steel has, in fact, become a “basic industry”.

What of the attitude of the other parties in the Commons on this issue? In the debate of November 9th, the Tories said they were uncompromisingly opposed to the government’s proposals, but even their fiery spokesman Iain Macleod had to admit that whoever had won the election, there would have had to be “careful and detailed talks” with the steel bosses—in other words more state direction and control. Successive Conservative governments have never been slow to order the steel firms about anyway. It was at their insistence that the unprofitable Ravenscraig strip mill was foisted on Colvilles. The Liberal Party wants a truce in the fight, but is certainly not opposed to nationalisation in principle. That much was clear from Mr. Hooson’s speech. More competition is their cry, and a mixture of state and private enterprise, one battling against the other for sales.

There was a time when nationalisation was advocated by the Labour Party with a heavy accent on the benefits which they claimed would accrue to the workers. This was the case in the coal mines, for example; state control was supposed to be the only answer to the miners’ problems. In the case of steel this argument was barely whispered. Nobody bothered to use “workers” interests’ even as a propaganda gimmick, and the arguments from all parts were almost entirely about the ability of British steel to maintain itself against foreign competition. Yet despite this, and the bitter disillusionment of other nationalised industries—particularly under Labour government—Mr. Lee was still able to claim the support of the unions in the steel industry for his government’s proposals.

The experience of nationalised industries should have shown the futility of supporting these measures. In the industries which have been taken over, workers are still in the same basic position as before. They still have to work for wages and their efforts to improve their pay and conditions are resisted just as stoutly by the government boards as by the old boards of directors. Capitalism continues unmolested and Socialism, in which all the means of production and distribution will be owned by society, is no nearer than before.