After sustained pressure from trade unions and steel workers, Business Secretary Sajid Javid has offered to buy into Tata’s steel business in Britain. This is overwhelmingly good news as such a move would preserve thousands of people’s jobs and prevent Britain losing a key strategic asset. However its also important on an ideological level as it reveals that the appetite for socialist policies in still there in the wider population, and that the Tories don’t have any ideological bravery. This is an opportunity the Left and doing nothing about this ideological dimension will be a grave error.
On the practical substance of the story, Sajid Javid travelled to Mumbai and offered to take a 25% stake in the UK business of Tata Steel. If accepted it would mean that the UK government will spend millions of pounds in supporting the steel industry. Obviously this will prevent massive jobs being lost in communities that are reliant on the steel industry like Port Talbot and Scunthorpe, but it is also good news for the wider British economy. If the government’s offer is accepted by Tata, it would mean that the success of the industry would be in the British government’s financial interest. This would result in new infrastructure projects using British steel and therefore break the country’s addiction to foreign imports.
It is worth pointing out however that this offer is not necessarily going to be accepted. Javid has suggested different forms of finance including debt restructuring, and it is clear that Javid’s ideological convictions make the idea of partial nationalisation less likely to occur than debt restructuring. It is therefore incumbent on us to keep the pressure up and continue arguing in favour of nationalisation.
Irrespective of the government’s decision, the whole saga about the future of British steel has revealed an opportunities for leftists. The discourse around this issue has revealed a latent desire for increased state-involvement in the economy, much to the chagrin of the Thatcherites currently running the government. Nationalisation is wrapped up in a number of different philosophical questions and leftists like myself need to address them in order to make a modern case for increased state-involvement in the economy.
Because of social and scientific advances, we tend to think that civilization is in process of constant improvement. Socially speaking the tolerance and celebration of ethnic minorities, the LGBT community, and people of different religious groups is rightly seen as a positive step forward. Similarly the rapid improvement of humanity through scientific advancement over the last few hundred years also give the appearance of this linear idea of history being a story of constant improvement. However I would argue that this is not the case.
For example, I would argue that the democracy of Ancient Greek city-states, although not providing the franchise to all people, was a far superior system of governance for ordinary people than the feudalism of the Middle Ages and the Imperialism of the Early Modern era. In a more recent context, the US passed the Eighteenth Amendment in 1920 which instituted the prohibition of alcohol; this was later repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933, thus illustrating that history does not always result in social improvements.
So how does this all relate in with nationalisation? When Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party his supporters were calling for the nationalisation of the railways and other key industries, many of which were privatised in the 1980s. However, upon stating these as future policy objectives, the Tories said that these solutions were straight out of the 1970s and that the world has progressed on from the days of Harold Wilson. I found this to be a curious position from Conservatives because of their apparent ideological convictions.
The Conservative Party has always represented a view of the world that is sceptical of change, and sought to maintain the continuity of the British state through a number of ways, including institutions and traditions like the monarchy. However because the Tories have essentially abandoned conservatism and replaced it with neoliberalism, Tory MPs line up with an argument against nationalisation that implies history to be this linear timeline of progression. In effect the Tories are arguing that we shouldn’t consider nationalisation because it is something that happened in the past. My question is simple: what if policies from the past aren’t inherently wrong?
Take a hypothetical situation. A government has a policy that prohibits discrimination against a certain group of people, whether it be in employment, housing, etc. Twenty years later the government of this hypothetical country decides to introduce laws to discriminate against black people in all aspects of society. In this situation, Conservative MPs wouldn’t argue against bringing back the older policy on the grounds that times have changed.
The argument that Tories would make is that my example is about social policy and nationalisation is an economic policy in a different economic context as the 1970s. This is a fair point but this presumes that the people endorsing nationalisation are suggesting to reinstitute the same policy from forty years ago. This is not a good assumption. Most modern scholarship on this form of socialism emphasises the importance of co-operatives and the collective ownership of state assets rather than the bureaucratic centralism of the past. It would therefore be fair to say that this form of nationalisation is actually a new policy rather an harking back to the days of the Three Day Week.
To conclude, the news of a potential deal to increase state involvement in the steel industry is welcome but we must now point out the glaring ideological inconsistency of the Conservative Party. We need to argue in favour of a nationalisation plan that puts communities in control of these industries and reject the idea of the current neoliberal consensus being the inevitable result of an improving civilization.