Something crazy happened today. Tucked away in the pages of The Daily Mail, Britain’s most infamous right-wing newspaper, Britain’s most infamous rightwing columnist described “the great Thatcher-Reagan promise” as a “great con”. Yes, that’s right, Peter Hitchens cussed Thatcher.
In almost every conceivable sense, the British steel industry is an exemplar of free market failure. Could it be the Tata steel crisis the finally brings the British neoliberal dream crashing back to earth with a bump? Swamped by a deluge of dumped Chinese steel, the industry’s ability to compete has been catastrophically compromised. But while the terminal decline of the entire industry has been flagged over and over again across the last year, the Tories have been busy in Brussels doing everything they can to undermine efforts to impose the tariffs that could stop this happening. Worse still, Cameron and the Chancellor have been fervently promoting China as worthy of gaining Market Economy Status at the World Trade Organisation, making the future imposition of anti-dumping tariffs even harder to achieve. Steel is a vital domestic industry, and not just for the tens of thousands of workers, and their communities, dependent on it for their livelihood. Homegrown steel is a vital component in defense, in maintain British manufacturing, and in infrastructure construction. In an era in which locally grown food and energy self-sufficiency have been repeatedly touted as critical elements in boosting diplomatic power over unfriendly nations, it’s ludicrous that the Tories have been actively reinforcing a Chinese steel monopoly. To say getting through to the Tories on this point is like banging your head against a brick wall would be an understatement; this has been like banging your head against solid steel. Even Peter Hitchens gets it.
At it’s very heart, the problem is that the Tories are free market obsessives. They don’t just like the free market, they’re enslaved to the idea of it. So the idea goes: if only we could cut red tape, strip back taxes and remove obstacles, then Britain will prosper. It doesn’t matter if the red tape is worker’s rights, the taxes fund the services we all rely upon, and the obstacles are vital strategic British industries. If the market can’t support something unaided, it is surplus to requirements. Free markets, according to David Cameron, don’t just support business, they actually improve “human wealth and happiness”, “lift people out of poverty” and even – and this is particularly galling as the residents of Port Talbot look to be plunged into destitution – “promote morality”. This is why, as the British steel industry has been collapsing around us under the weight of millions of tons of dumped Chinese imports, the Tories have been systematically destroying any chance of the British steel industry being able to stand on its own two feet.
We all know the free markets don’t always work. That’s why we have the EU Common Agricultural Policy to protect farmers, it’s why we bailed out the banks before our economy collapsed. It’s why Brits run screaming in the other direction from America’s broken, expensive and socially-catastrophic healthcare system, and instead worship at the altar of the NHS. Sometimes, the free market approach is just inferior to protecting things that are worth more than the quick passage of money, people and goods for the sake of it. In fact, we see these market interventions as beneficial to our lives on a daily basis. The minimum wage, immigration control, social welfare; these are all examples where there is political consensus that market controls are not some necessary evil, but actually a desired intervention for the common good. Market controls protect us from exploitation, ensure more balanced prosperity, and could – if the government looked past its ideological inclinations – rescue British steel. This does not mean communism in our times. It simply means that where the market has failed to achieve the desired effect, we shouldn’t be afraid to intervene where necessary. We already have done, time and time again, to great effect, and our society is better off because of it. Even America, the undisputed champion of free market ideology, has slapped trade tariffs of 256% on Chinese steel to protect their pummeled steel industry. Cameron’s Britain, it seems, has other ideas.
Perhaps the most hideous revelation of the past week is the news that China on Friday imposed an import duty of 46% on the type of steel made by Tata in Wales. Astoundingly, as the Prime Minister and the Chancellor do everything they can to smooth the pathway for China to dump their surplus steel in swamped British markets, the Chinese have been ensuring the impact of their domestic steel crisis is minimised by blocking imports from the British factories they have essentially destroyed. This shouldn’t be seen merely as an industrial disaster, it’s a national humiliation for Britain, and one that has been almost entirely crafted by government incompetence. Let’s be clear: the Tories needing to suck up to China is a domestic political consideration, not a necessity. By tying themselves to needless, self-imposed fiscal rules that bar them from investing in British infrastructure, the Conservative government needs to go begging for investment from suspect foreign powers like China. It is for this reason that they have fallen so deep into their pocket.
It’s not too late to rescue the British steel industry. A combination of the sale of viable assets, state investment, temporary nationalization, and a push for tariffs at an EU level could revive this British powerhouse when the Chinese steel surplus slows down. This will take long-term planning and the loosening of the Conservatives needlessly tight purse strings. Sadly, however, I fear there is little political inclination to take the steps needed to protect this vital British industry, and all the will in the world to ensure that Britain slips further and further into second-grade status in a future dominated by Chinese steel. But – and I never thought I’d say this – Peter Hitchens may be the light at the end of the tunnel. From Corbyn to Trump to Sanders and now Hitchens, people across the political spectrum are ganging up on the free trade establishment. Could this be the first sign that the neoliberal consensus is coming to an end?