Ravenscraig

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:14 pm on 23rd January 1992.

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Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden 7:14 pm, 23rd January 1992

The nationalists want Ravenscraig to operate—hon. Members will correct me when they speak if they believe that I have got the detail wrong—on two blast furnaces, tied to the Dalzell plate production, with a pipe mill on an unnamed Motherwell site. The problem is the market.

Dalzell, expanded to 1 million tonnes—two or three times current output—could survive only on the assumption that British Steel was not competing in the market. Plans for a new plant at Teesside would have to be abandoned. Plate production at Scunthorpe would have to be closed, together with the welded pipe mill facilities at Hartlepool. Ironically, the whole scheme would depend for its viability on British Steel's acquiescence.

There is no escape in myth-making about the North sea market. Every authoritative commentary tells the same story. Structural steel, tubes and plates for the North sea are not required in sufficient quantities to breathe life into the SNP headlines. All the signs are that the market will fall sharply over the next few years. It is—to use a perhaps unhappy phrase—no more than a nationalist pipe dream.

This is not a plan to rescue Ravenscraig. It would be left as a slab producer, in effect tied to one outlet. If it runs on one blast furnace and produces 1 million tonnes, the cost base will be wrong. If it loads effectively at 2 million tonnes, there will be a surplus for which there is no demand. The European hurdle on competition policy would be formidable. An operating subsidy would simply not be available.

I say all that with no pleasure, but I do so because I am not prepared to be dishonest and go down a road that I do not believe is open. The SNP claimed initially that its target was the restoration of Ravenscraig, complete with a hot mill, cold reduction plant, relined blast furnaces and much work done to such facilities as the coke ovens.

In order to discredit the pointed attack, on grounds of cost, by the Ravenscraig stewards, the SNP has been reduced to confusing market capitalisation with British Steel's asset value—as it does in the most blatant way in this pamphlet that I am holding. It is nonsense to pretend that the share capitalisation of the company is relevant to the argument in favour of putting plant on the ground. It is a deliberate attempt to falsify the argument, and suggests a certain desperation. The back-up has been to dispute the integrity of the stewards whom they were once proud to praise and who are universally seen as having fought a sustained and courageous campaign in defence of the steel industry.

The SNP once did a lot of running in and out on Scottish industrial matters, including nationalisation. I remember when the nationalisation of the shipbuilding industry was on the agenda. SNP Members sat in the Chamber tearing up telegrams from the work force on the grounds that they did not believe in that particular form. The scheme that has now been produced has changed shape and content several times.

It is worth remembering that there is no provision for this adventure in the ingenious sums cobbled together by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) to form his so-called Scottish Budget. The scheme has only one essential virtue for the nationalists: it gives them something to say.

The debate takes place on the day that The Sun has declared itself the house journal of the SNP. I fear, although I may be a little over-confident, that that will turn out to be something of an embarrassment to the party. In the context of this debate, the party might care to remember that, on 9 January, The Sun considered the future of the steel industry and claimed that that particularly misbegotten group of men, the socialists, could only throw money at problems. It went on to pronounce: Sure, 12 hundred jobs could be saved at Ravenscraig. But in the end the price would be the loss of ten times as many jobs elsewhere.The Sun's principal columnist happily contributed the thought.

Ravenscraig should have been shut down years ago. All that I can say about The Sun and the company that it is now keeping is that, if it is a conversion, it is not one based upon principled conviction. I predict that the future of that misalliance will be private grief for the SNP.

We must look to the future. There is much that must be done to rebuild and strengthen the Lanarkshire economy. Although I can only sketch what needs to be done, I shall try to state what I believe are the most important points. The sites must be dealt with and reclaimed. It is no use the Government paying lip service to the principle that the polluter pays when the Secretary of State for Scotland announced on 13 January, as though it was good news, that British Steel would clear the Ravenscraig site down to ground level and … leave it in a tidy condition".—[Official Report, 13 January 1992; Vol. 201, c. 672.] The Government must not be allowed to cover their retreat with a handful of grass seed.

I believe that the enterprise zone was scrambled into the frame only when the closure announcement loomed. The Sunday Mail reported that the Scottish Office had indeed been pushing for that, and that there would be £100 million of investment, but that has now been reduced to £50 million.