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Saturday, 1 July 2017

Defence Spending in context

The United Kingdom has some pretension - still - to be a major military power, by virtue of the nuclear arsenal that Jeremy Corbin so ardently wishes to destroy. Were he to have his wish, Britain's decline, far below the status of 'the world's fifth-biggest economy', would instantly be apparent. No sane living person who has breathed since the end of the war with Japan in 1945 has ever wanted nuclear weapons to be used. Many people deplore the use of two atomic bombs to 'bring the Japanese to their senses' and thereby save many millions of lives by enforcing the surrender of the Empire of the Sun. But the Corbyn ideal of mutual nuclear disarmament is not going to happen within decades; so to undertake unilateral disarmament would diminish Britain further than it has been diminished under Thatcher and her successors would be an act of harebrained vandalism.

Millions of people in southern England have been told so often that Thatcherism was a great restorative of the country's power and of its pride, that they at least half-believe it. I had the benefit of a Sheffield perspective, where the truth that I beheld was totally different from the myth that enabled Blair and Cameron to continue the craze for deregulation and the dissipation of economic and political cohesion that made inevitable the Grenfell Tower tragedy.

The Thatcher government deliberately stood back from the steel industry, when fellow members of EFTA [notably Austria and Sweden] took simple measures to protect their equivalent production facilities. Thus the greatest concentration of skill and capital intensity in steel and related technology in the world was exposed to cheap, short-term competition; and destroyed. More than 60,000 skilled jobs [out of around 80,000] in the steel sector in South Yorkshire were redundant within three years; while the government rode high in the polls on the post-Falklands euphoria. In Sheffield the loss of HMS Sheffield during the campaign to recover the islands was a salutary symbol of what was to come when a previously-unpopular government was returned with a sufficient majority to press on with its destructive policies.

The primary target of the returned Tories was the coal mining sector. The oil industry was riding high globally. High inflation in the industrial countries had counteracted the negative impact that the OPEC oil price hike of 1973 had had on the oil price relative to that of coal; and awareness of the detrimental effects of carbon-based atmospheric pollution was increasing throughout society. In various corners of the state-owned coal and electrical power industries experiments were being undertaken - successfully - to find ways of using coal to produce energy with minimal polluting effect; and with a realisable end objective of being able to use coal indefinitely [mostly mined from the abundant resources under these islands] as a primary source of electrical energy. The oil lobby was empowered hugely by the development of oil wells in the North Sea, and their arguments against investment in coal resources had weight with a government hell-bent on simplistic privatisation of electricity generation and distribution without the successor companies being lumbered with the obligation to fund research on 'clean coal'.

A more urgent reason for the Tories' ideologues to oppose the coal sector was, of course, the National Union of Mineworkers and their influence over the whole trade union movement. The Labour government of the late 'sixties had encouraged union membership, and the weakness of the Wilson and Callaghan governments in the 'eighties meant that they could not resist the pressure from their trade union supporters [and funders] greatly to empower unions to recruit members in the workplace and demand negotiating rights between firms and their employees. Millions of people were members of unions under 'closed shop' types of arrangement, where people who could not prove a conscientious [usually that meant a religious] objection had to join the union to get the job. The government was keen to sweep away all such obstacles to a 'free market' in labour: and saw the Mineworkers as the inevitable block in their way. So they decided to tackle it directly, and a plan was carefully devised simultaneously to stockpile coal where it was still needed - mostly at the power stations - as the necessary preparation for a strike that would probably cause coal production to cease for a protracted period.

The National Union of Mineworkers was controlled by a clique of hard leftists, led by Arthur Scargill, who were on their side so determined to have a strike that they alienated their colleagues in some regions that those regions' miners stayed at work when a strike was called without a formal ballot and at the time of year -spring - when the demand for coal at the power stations was declining. The dispute then turned into an uprising. I saw this for myself. Hundreds of the police who were drafted in to confront the miners and their violent leftist supporters stayed in the hall of residence where I was the warden, during the vacations. Non-miner supporters of the strike [and of the revolution that they hoped it would ignite] came along for the rough-stuff; and the strike took on another political dimension when the already heavily-exploited miners of the Soviet Union were levied a portion of their wages to support the supposedly-starving families of British miners. No ordinary miner saw any of that money: it vanished into bank accounts for which no explanation nor audit has ever been issued.

People spoke openly of a potentially revolutionary situation. Those around Scargill included a cohort who believed that the mineworkers were the last mass workforce who could spearhead a revolution in the UK. From being a sympathiser with the union, I became a sceptic and then - regretfully - an opponent of the extremism that the confrontation bred. In the end, enough people went through the transition that I experienced myself for the government - despite its destructive motives - to have the strength and support to drive the miners to surrender, and return to work until the pit closure programme could be implemented.

The attitude that closed the steelworks went on to shut the shipyards and aerospace plant, and allowed the demise of the potteries and a series of other regionally-based industries. Much of industry was tied up with national defence - steel for ships and aircraft and guns, as a prime example - the rundown of the nation's defences became inevitable as the real economy slowed down. The bubble of financial services and the poison of consumer credit were encouraged as means of claiming 'economic growth' through the expansion of consumer spending: increasingly on imports.

I have warmed too much to my theme and gone on too long. Apologies to anyone who actually does read this.

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