Nationalisation nostalgists should be careful what they wish for – they might just get it

Russell Brand and Paris Lees are too young to remember what Nationalised industry was like - but I do.

Redcar.
The beach at Redcar in 2008 - before the sale of Tata Steel. Photograph: Getty Images.

In a BBC Newsnight interview Russell Brand said that no corporation should make a profit. The multi-millionaire professional anarcho-syndicalist presumably didn’t include Hewlett-Packard (profit, last year, $28bn even after the hefty fee paid to one Russell Brand for promoting their products). Meanwhile Paris Lees, presenter, journalist and transgender activist, on BBC Question Time declared that all things of daily use should be nationalised. In many respects the people saying these things aren’t terribly relevant – but the response is. There has been much whooping and applauding in praise of these ideas.

Brand (born 1975) and Lees (born 1987) have no knowledge of what it is like to live in a world of nationalised industries that make no profits. But I do.

In 1977 as a sixteen year-old, when Russell Brand was 2 years old and Paris Lees was twelve years away from conception, I stood at the gates of South Bank Steelworks just outside of Middlesbrough for my first day of work. I was, essentially, a child about to enter one of the most dangerous working environments imaginable. The only really famous son that the town would produce was the magician Paul Daniels, whose catchphrase, "Not a lot", summed up how much any human being with two brain cells to rub together would like to stay in the steel works any longer than they were compelled to. The three blast furnaces belched out noxious fumes 24 hours a day, covering the whole town with a layer of dust. Washing on the line left out too long had to be re-washed to make it wearable.

Apprenticed to be a laboratory technician, I was at the intellectual end of the employment spectrum in British Steel. Even so, we weren’t above reading the night-shift log to remind ourselves of the place where we worked. Electricians, welders and fitters were routinely saved from being fed into the blast furnace by process operatives who occasionally looked up from their copies of the Sun to see hapless individuals who had accidently fallen into the buckets that fed the furnaces with limestone, iron ore and coke, waving to them on the surveillance cameras as they trundled towards the feeding mechanism that would deposit them into 1,800°C of furnace.

There was a red button to stop that happening. Sometimes things went wrong, as on the day two apprentices weren’t spotted. Also there was the time when a squad of bricklayers who were lining what were known as "torpedoes" with refractory bricks and had their Radio 1 listening interrupted by the contents of a blast furnace being poured over them. If they had been extracted it would have taken fifty men to carry each one of their coffins. As it was, the carbon content of a batch of pig-iron was slightly higher than expected.

Steel-making is inherently dangerous and it is an activity for which people should be paid well. Nationalisation doesn’t make it dangerous. What made nationalisation dangerous was the unions. I was once handed a pay packet containing a pay rise back-dated two years. I had only been there six months. When I asked how this could be right, since I was fourteen when the pay rise was instigated, I was told to shut up because it would spoil it for everybody else.

There were also constant micro-strikes. We were told to suspend what we were doing whilst the union officials negotiated something or other for us. The gains were tiny and incremental, even imperceptible, often things that could have been accomplished by appealing to reason not aggression. One day someone worked out that I wasn’t actually a member of the union and I said I didn’t want to join. This also caused a strike – it brought the coke ovens to a standstill – even though it should have been a matter for personal choice.

And so it went on, and on, until on the 4 December 2009, having passed through various hands, the mill’s latest owner, Tata Steel, pulled the plug, with the loss of 1,700 jobs. Britain could no longer produce steel at a price that the world economy would buy it at, but the seeds of destruction could have been seen 30 years previously.

It’s not that unions are bad per se, it’s that they have such terrible attitudes within their leadership. They have been schooled in the idea that their only reason for existing is to perpetuate a sense of class war. They simply don’t know when to stop. The INEOS Grangemouth debacle was a case in point. Your average German union representative who sits on the main board of a company to work with management for the common good, would be swivel-eyed in disbelief at the idea of worker representatives essentially flipping a coin which, on one side, contained the words "close the entire plant".

The debilitating sense of working in a place where one was constantly in a state of seething conflict combined with the idea that if you wanted to bust out of the mould and cross the line into "management" you would automatically become "the enemy", created a claustrophobic atmosphere that only served to reinforce the idea that I really didn’t belong there. The union officials that pretty much ran the place were as intent on keeping me in my place as any cartoon capitalist who would want torobotise me to satisfy their cravings for champagne and caviar. The two of them didn’t look terribly different to me.

And so it was with a sense of urgency and glee that I went to night school while working, obtained university entrance, and by the time I was 26 had a doctorate from Oxford University and was a research fellow there. It was nine years between sweeping the floors in a north eastern steel-works to sitting at high table at an Oxford college. This was such a rare event back then the Northern Echo ran a one-inch piece on me entitled "Man of Steel". The story has been repeatedly used as its size allows editors to fill in blank areas of pages. Friends who remain in the north east habitually send it to me. I have gone to university on at least a dozen occasions in the past 30 years. Overall, you could say I’ve seen a lot on that journey.

So if you want to believe the theorizing of Agitprop populists, those who spend their time festering the idea of a 1970s nationalised Nirvana that never existed, then go ahead and vote for the party that promises to deliver that. But from past history, from the documented time that it existed, nationalisation caused nothing more than intermittent services, inflation and conflict.

In reality, the redistribution of wealth, globally, will not occur by increased state intervention - it will occur by changes in population. Over time Africa and the Far East will dominate the world and with it will come economic growth, raising more and more people out of true poverty. In Europe and North America our populations will stay roughly stable and we will have to share a planet with people who are competing for rarer and rarer resources. We will have to use those resources more efficiently just to stay where we are economically. No nationalised or unionised structure that insists on living in a constant state of conflict, that cannot innovate or compromise will be fit for purpose in a world like that.

You really do have to be careful for what you wish for – you might just get it.

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