How our industry was changed by Thatcher

May 3rd 1988.''The shadow of Yorkshire Colliery blight.
May 3rd 1988.''The shadow of Yorkshire Colliery blight.

Like her or loathe her, no-one can deny that Margaret Thatcher had a massive impact on South Yorkshire, its industries and its economy.

Steel, coal and engineering, transport and local government would never be the same – and nor would the trade unions.

After years of appeasement and softly softly negotiation, Margaret Hilda Thatcher arrived in Downing Street paraphrasing the prayer of St Francis.

“Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope.”

The reality was somewhat different. Where there was discord, she would neutralise it by sidelining it, legislating against it or, if she felt it necessary - with the steelworkers, the miners, the unions, the councils and, ultimately, General Galtieri of Argentina - meeting it head on.

Where there was doubt, she made the divisions clearer and, for many who lost their jobs, there was despair - although debate will continue to rage long and loud over whether that was a historical inevitability and she simply lanced the boil, shortening the time it would take to cure the patient.

When Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979, Sheffield was at the heart of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire.

Trade unions were massive and powerful. Shop stewards and convenors at all the large and many of the medium-sized steel and engineering plants were full-time union officials, with wages paid by the company that notionally employed them.

And, at some plants, while being a card-carrying member of the Communist Party wasn’t a requirement, it was a distinct advantage if you wanted to climb the union ladder.

The clash between Margaret Thatcher and NUM president Arthur Scargill, the year-long Miners’ Strike and the subsequent pit closures, will stand out as the defining moment of the Thatcher era for many.

However, it was the 1980 steel strike and its aftermath that set the scene and, arguably, had the biggest impact on the heart of the region.

A straightforward pay dispute, called without a ballot – although nobody took much issue with that, back then. The steel strike lasted around three months and ushered in Margaret Thatcher’s man, Sir Ian MacGregor, as head of the British Steel Corporation and, then, the National Coal Board.

Many in management – and latterly even some militant trade unionists – would admit that the British steel industry could never have survived without radical change – and, after the strike, that is just what happened.

A series of what became known as ‘Phoenix Privatisations’ followed, with Margaret Thatcher’s Government forcing private and public sector plants into often uneasy marriages and hiving the merged businesses off.

Massive redundancies also followed in steel and engineering. Redundancies which might have been fought with some success in a previous era, but not by a union movement that was haemorrhaging members and facing new laws which outlawed knock-on action at suppliers and customers, limited picketing and slashed benefits for strikers.

Steel and engineering had to face a new and unpleasant reality, and both are stronger today as a result.

While steel and engineering survived, irreparable damage was done to the mining industry as the Government and the NUM – or Thatcher and Scargill, if you please - squared up for what soon became a fight to the death, initially, at least, over a pit on the border of Rotherham and Barnsley that was all but played out anyway.

The Thatcher Government’s obsession with privatisation and the removal of state intervention destroyed South Yorkshire’s popular cheap public transport and, in the longer term, a highly-regarded apprenticeship training system that is only now being rebuilt.

Margaret Thatcher also had a major impact on local government with the abolition of South Yorkshire County Council – home of the Socialist Republic and architect of the cheap fares policy.

The Government did make some attempt to alleviate the impact of the mass redundancies with the creation of Enterprise Zones.

When the rump of the Socialist Republic in Sheffield City Council spurned an Enterprise Zone in the city, the Thatcher Government sidelined them, establishing Sheffield Development Corporation, beyond the council’s power to control.

The Government did the same over business rates. With firms tearing the roofs off serviceable, but empty, factories, in a bid to avoid paying burdensome local rates, it took the power to set rates away from local councils and created the Uniform Business Rate.

At Margaret Thatcher’s passing, there is more of a hint of irony that a coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats has re-introduced business rates on empty commercial property, imposing a new burden on companies.