The Cautious Revolution: Britain Today and Tomorrow

By Ernest Watkins | Go to book overview

CHAPTER VII
The Battle Over Iron and Steel

Various factors decreed that the issue of iron and steel nationalization should be deferred until the final period of the Labour Government's administration. These were entirely political. The circumstances of the industry itself did not change in such a way as to strengthen the arguments in favor of public ownership. On the contrary, the industry defiantly insisted on blooming and flowering while its nationalized sisters seemed to wilt. The arguments remained as effective or as ineffective as they had been in 1945. What did change, and change more than once, was the resolution of the Cabinet when faced with the immense political battle an iron and steel nationalization bill would provide, and with the equally immense practical difficulties in the way of changing ownership and control of such a vast industry.

This political issue arises from and is part of the history of the industry in Britain, a history of rise and relative decline. Modern steel- making originated in Britain in the third quarter of the last century, but Britain did not retain that lead for long. By 1890, the United States had taken first place, followed by Germany. Britain fell behind, not only in size of plant and total output, but in method, in output per worker, in fuel economy and in the over-all cost per ton. The Labour party, as representing the worker dependent on the industry, has not within living memory had occasion to look upon the leaders of the industry as complete masters of the craft of producing cheap steel.

Many of the advantages won by foreign competitors were gained by political weapons, by rigid exclusion of imported steel, by differential selling prices to compel the home producers to subsidize exports; but those political weapons were supported by technical ad-

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