Strategic Industries

Steelmen protesting in Redcar

Steelmen protesting in Redcar

By Stephen Green

First Published in Christian Voice November 2015

1Sam 13:19 Now there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel: for the Philistines said, Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears:

The British Steel Industry is in crisis at this time of writing.  In September, Thailand’s SSI announced it was closing down its Redcar works with the loss of 2,200 jobs.

In October, parts of Caparo Industries’ steel operations went into administration putting 1,700 jobs potentially at risk.

Also last month, India’s Tata Steel announced nearly 1,200 job losses at its plants in Scunthorpe and Lanarkshire.  Two hundred and fifty jobs at Llanwern in South Wales were also put at risk.

The steel industry has been hit by a perfect storm of factors: at this time of writing the pound is at a high against the Euro and the Dollar.  Electricity prices are high and made higher by the extra cost of climate change policies.  Finally, competition from China, even without ‘dumping’ (selling below production price) is undercutting our own steel industry.  The global demand and the price of steel has been falling for twenty years.

GOVERNMENT SUPPORT

The industry itself is clear what it needs. UK steelmakers want lower business rates, a relaxation of carbon emissions targets for heavy manufacturers, more compensation for high energy prices, and a commitment that British steel is used in major construction projects.

Gareth Stace, director of UK Steel, says the sector needs: “A clear and unambiguous commitment to fully implement the energy intensive industries compensation package, which will go some way to rebalancing the crippling costs of electricity for British steel making firms.”

Even if they wanted to, the Conservative Government is prohibited from doing very much to support strategic industries such as the UK steel industry.  EU state aid rules do not allow aid such as emergency loans or government guarantees on loans to steel manufacturers in financial difficulties.  Nor do they allow subsidies on energy or preferential tax or rates structures.  That could and should change with Brexit, of course.

But they could cover right now all the additional climate change energy costs, as other European countries do.  Even with some UK subsidy, the steel industry is still paying about 70% of the additional costs.  Some competitors in other European countries are having all of the additional costs covered.

COSTS OF FREE TRADE

Many in the Conservative Party, and perhaps many of our members, would be inclined to let our steel industry go.  If we can buy from China at less than our own production cost, why should we not?  Perhaps we can sell the Chinese financial products in return.

But I feel this ‘free-trade’ argument neglects several key factors.

Inside a modern steel-making plant

Inside a modern steel-making plant

Firstly, and you might think this is lightweight, there is the emotional factor.  I was genuinely saddened by the news that the administrator had to turn off the blast furnaces on Teeside.  They needed to keep burning to protect their structural integrity.   Turning them off actually destroyed them.  But no buyer could be found.

Secondly, the free trade argument neglects the costs of unemployment benefit for the men involved.  I haven’t done the maths, but there must be a significant cost to the taxpayer to set against the cost of a subsidy.

Thirdly, there is the social cost.  It was only after the man was given his work in the Garden of Eden that the Lord found it unsatisfactory that he was alone.  Even though many families today need two incomes, a man’s job gives him the ability to support his family.  That brings him self-esteem.  And that brings a benefit to society.

IMPORTANCE OF STRATEGIC INDUSTRIES

Fourthly, I want to suggest that the economist Adam Smith, the man who wrote ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and after whom the eponymous Institute is named, neglected the strategic importance of key industries.

In a time of peace, our nation may be better at making widgets than another which can produce cheaper corn.  It makes some kind of sense, other factors neglected, to trade our widgets for their corn.  But if we fall out with them, unless we can find another supplier of corn, our people may starve.

If Britain had not had a steel industry in the 1930’s, we should not have been able to build armaments.  If we had not had flourishing aluminium-smelting businesses, we should have been stuck for aircraft.  We could hardly go to the Germans and ask them to build fighter-bombers for us.

CANAANITES IN THE IRON-AGE

Funnily enough, this subject of strategic industries is addressed in scripture.  If we look at the book of Judges, we see the Canaanites had advanced into the Iron Age faster than the Israelites.  This disparity in military technology was causing problems for the tribe of Judah, to name but one.  We know the Israelites preferred infantry battles to cavalry charges, but the Bible specifically blames Judah’s lack of advance into the valley on the superior equipment of the Canaanites:

Judges 1:19 And the LORD was with Judah; and he drave out the inhabitants of the mountain; but could not drive out the inhabitants of the valley, because they had chariots of iron.

Of course with the Lord, all things are possible. He made a powerful and specific promise to Joshua that despite the strength and iron chariots of the Canaanites, he would be victorious:

Joshua 17:18 But the mountain shall be thine; for it is a wood, and thou shalt cut it down: and the outgoings of it shall be thine: for thou shalt drive out the Canaanites, though they have iron chariots, and though they be strong.

But if the Lord is not with a nation, because of their corporate sin, they cannot rely on him to help them defend themselves.  In the book of Judges there is ebb and flow in the progress of Israel according to which has the ascendancy: their sin or their acts of repentance and righteousness.  We read of their oppression by Canaanite king Jabin:

Judges 4:3 And the children of Israel cried unto the LORD: for he had nine hundred chariots of iron; and twenty years he mightily oppressed the children of Israel.

THE LORD FOUGHT FOR ISRAEL

In his grace and mercy, God raised up Deborah at just the right time.  She was given a command from the Lord to send her general, Barak, into battle against Sisera, the Canaanite general, and a prophecy of victory:

Sisera may have had a chariot like this vintage iron-age model

Sisera may have had a chariot like this vintage iron-age model

Judges 4:7  And I will draw unto thee to the river Kishon Sisera, the captain of Jabin’s army, with his chariots and his multitude; and I will deliver him into thine hand.

The Bible makes a point of repeating that Sisera had at his disposal a huge amount of much more advanced iron-age military technology than Israel:

Judges 4:13 And Sisera gathered together all his chariots, even nine hundred chariots of iron, and all the people that were with him, from Harosheth of the Gentiles unto the river of Kishon.

Despite that, Barak and his army routed the Canaanites, but only because the Lord was fighting for them:

Judges 4:15  And the LORD discomfited Sisera, and all his chariots, and all his host, with the edge of the sword before Barak; so that Sisera lighted down off his chariot, and fled away on his feet.

The dearth of iron weapons was a problem for the children of Israel over three hundred years later  The Israelites still had bronze-age technology, while the Philistines had continued to develop iron weapons and tools.

The Philistines were smart enough to want to keep this up-to-date weaponry away from the Israelites:

1Sam 13:19 Now there was no smith found throughout all the land of Israel: for the Philistines said, Lest the Hebrews make them swords or spears: 20 But all the Israelites went down to the Philistines, to sharpen every man his share, and his coulter, and his axe, and his mattock. 21 Yet they had a file for the mattocks, and for the coulters, and for the forks, and for the axes, and to sharpen the goads. 22 So it came to pass in the day of battle, that there was neither sword nor spear found in the hand of any of the people that were with Saul and Jonathan: but with Saul and with Jonathan his son was there found.

MORE CARE NEEDED WITH EXPORT LICENCES FOR WEAPONS

The people of Israel had some iron tools, and the latest weapons had found their way into the hands of Saul and Jonathan, but that was it.  Perhaps our government ought to be a smart as the Philistines when deciding whether or not to award export licenses to various nations for weaponry.  That is a matter for another day.

It appears that it was king David who brought Israel fully into the iron age.  In 1Chronicles 22:3 we read that David prepared iron nails ‘in abundance’ for the temple.  In verse 14  both the brass and the iron laid up be David for the temple were ‘without weight’.

Then from 1Kings 6:7 we know that iron tools were used to fashion the stone in the quarries simply because the verse tells us they were banned at the temple building site itself.

So the scripture shows us how an industry may be of such strategic importance to a nation that they will go to great lengths to achieve it and also to deprive their enemies of its benefits.  No iron-age nation would have given up their own smelting and forging industry because the iron could be purchased cheaper from South Wales.  Yes, South Wales had a smelting industry in the Iron Age.

Today, it is South Wales, together with Teeside and Yorkshire, whose combined steelmaking and rolling mills are under threat or have already closed.  Other steel processing plants at Motherwell, Deeside, Birmingham, Corby and Sheerness look to be in danger.  On a brighter note, at the time of posting this article, in January 2017, the price of steel as a commodity was rising, and the blast furnaces at Port Talbot had been saved.  Nevertheless, the principle remains.

UK STILL NEEDS NATIONAL REPENTANCE!

Many of us are persuaded by the arguments for ‘free trade’, but I believe the Bible is showing how dangerous it is for any nation to give up strategic industries (and also the perils of freely exporting valuable technology).  If that is right, it follows that for all the reasons given, and in such a volatile world, the UK Government should be doing everything it possibly can, including subsidy, protection and purchasing British steel for British projects, to ensure our steel-making capability is retained.

I am not saying that maintaining domestic steel production is a substitute for obedience.  Our nation is deep in sin and the judgment of God is falling upon us.  National repentance is a necessity.  It may even be argued that the loss of a great strategic industry and the resultant vulnerability could be another aspect of God’s judgment.  But even while we call for repentance and urge righteous law-making, I believe we should also prophesy about practical matters, and I think this is one of them.

 

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