2016 started badly for what remains of British industry with another round of steel closures and a collapse in North Sea oil and gas industry.
In the days before we adopted the neoclassical religion, and had politicians who understood the meaning of the term “strategic resource”, the state would have stepped in and nationalised both industries – something they are forbidden from doing under the EU Maastricht Treaty (although this didn’t stop politicians nationalising failing banks in 2008). Today even so-called “progressive” politicians like the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon and Labour’s Carwyn Jones profess impotence in the face of “market forces”. The best they can offer to the workforce is help finding alternative employment.
What these politicians fail to see is that the workforce in these key industries are as much a strategic resource as the commodities themselves. The oil industry was already in trouble in this respect because many of the key engineers and technicians who first entered the industry during the expansion following the 1973 oil shock are now in their late 50s. Faced with a collapse in demand, many of these are taking early retirement deals. Younger skilled workers are simply being laid off.
The trouble is that there is more to working in industries like oil and steel than putting on a hard hat and a high visibility jacket… you need to know what you are doing. And when industries close, while the interchangeable unskilled and semi-skilled workers may face long-term unemployment, the key engineers and technicians have the transferrable skills that pretty much guarantee them jobs elsewhere. So when, in a couple of years’ time, global demand for oil, gas and steel increases once more, it will be impossible to expand the UK workforce.
In this sense, politicians’ promises of “support” are no less destructive than sending the bulldozers in to flatten the plant.