Sunday, 4 June 2017

Nationalising The Back Yard

In the late 1940's I was around when the new Labour Government put in hand the nationalisations it had promised. So the age of nationalised industries up until the 1980's were integral to my life.

Until cars came along and coach travel expanded if we travelled it was by rail. Until the impossible dream of central heating came true with choices of fuel we had to use coal. The railways used coal to power the great majority of their traction units. Iron and steel needed coal and coal needed iron and steel.

Etc. So what did it mean to the people living very ordinary lives? The answer is not much. The Second World War had meant extensive state control over almost all aspects of our lives. Beer was weak, spirits for the rich and what exactly was wine? Would our neighbour swap eggs for some of our sugar?

When travelling by rail we did not notice the difference except for the some of the paintwork at stations and on the locomotives. The engine drivers and firemen, guards, porters, station masters, district superintendents etc. were all the same people with just some shuffling around senior managers at the top and the legal imposition of politicians making the key decisions.

This appeared to be much the same in other industries. It took decades before real changes began to be made and then not by internal decision or progressive political thinking. It was the impact of economic change, world trade, new commodities, methods and science.

For the most part by the time the centralised control of these industries had managed to persuade itself and the trade unions that it was impossible to deny that real change was needed they were already out of date. So vast sums of government spending went on yesterday's men and their ideas about production, service and management.

At the time in the 1940's it was claimed that profits, that is the surpluses needed to cover interest charges and debt liabilities along with saving for the major future investments that were going to be needed after the ravages of war, would cease and the money would go to the people, or rather the  trade unionists. So who were the greedy profiteers?

Most of them were insurance companies and other UK companies, notably those with pension funds. In the last analysis many of the greedy profiteers were in fact widows and orphans and pensioners invested in funded schemes. Given the compensation paid by Labour they were well and truly screwed. They paid the real price.

Anyone in The City with their head the right way on and the really wealthy had long since ditched railway shares, avoided iron and steel and too many of the coal mines were coming to the end of their profitable lives. We had taken the best and easiest coal in the previous two centuries.

To return to rail, the increasing shortages of good steam coal was one of the problems. Going deeper into thinner seams was very costly and the issues arising from the increasing sulphur levels in the seams of ordinary coals being mined all added to this. A lot of the coal coming up needed expensive "cleaning".

As ever, the whole story is far more complicated that the simpleton statements of 21st politicians suggest. Nationalisation in the late 1940's may have seemed the logical next step from the central controls of the war years.

In fact 1940 to 1950 were lost years when radical reforms and technical change was deferred and delayed and in some cases forgotten because of the war and aftermath. The politics and industrial relations of the next two decades hampered progress.

What is most worrying is that none of the political parties or their leaders have the faintest clue about the realities of the relevant industries and their future beyond 2020.

1 comment:

  1. No they don't have the faintest clue. A political life does not seem to attract many capable people.