Billy Elliot won't dance out of the ruins of Port Talbot

EDITOR'S BLOG: Tata's involvement with the UK steel industry is unlikely to have a happy ending.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 19 Apr 2016

Last month I watched my two kids, aged 8 and 6, take part in a production of Billy Elliot at their weekend amateur stage school. It was very good and the transformation of their accents from Sarf London to a loose version of Durham was interesting.

For those unfamiliar with the piece, the musical takes you back to the bad days in the North East during the miner’s strike of the early 1980s. It brought home to me how long ago those events now are - all those bruises and blood at Orgreave. Riot police whose faces you could actually see because they didn’t resemble Robocops. Miners in two-piece denim and adidas Sambas. It was quite weird hearing my pair singing at the tops of their voices about ‘Maggie Thatcher’ when they have no more idea about who she was than they do Marcus Aurelius or Vasco da Gama. Here’s the seasonal song from the miner’s social club:

Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher
May God's love be with you
We all sing together in one breath
Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher
We all celebrate today
Cos it's one day closer to your death.
And they've brought their fascist bootboys
And they've brought the boys in blue
And the whole Trade Union Congress
will be at the party too
And they'll all hold hands together
All standing in a line
Cos they're privatising Santa
This merry Christmas time, so…(etc)

There’s is also some appalling rudery about MT’s owner Lord Heseltine which I’m sure he’s taken gamely on the chin.

This week the Tata crisis is hardly ‘Miner’s Strike - the steel sequel’. I doubt if Elton John has it in him to pen a stirring tune about blast furnaces and rolling mills in Port Talbot. Even if the noble Michael Sheen puts in a cameo. We are a world away from the 80s. The working class can’t fight collectively any more, however much Corbyn dearly wishes it. Many of those working in steel would probably self-describe as middle class, anyway.

And it is primarily Tata’s crisis. They are a private company which has lost many millions on a UK steel punt - an attempt in good faith to make the business profitable. They won on Jaguar Land Rover and lost big on steel. Of course the prospects for the steel towns are pretty bleak.

Where would we be now if the Scargill strike had worked? If the government of the time had relented and agreed the massive open-ended subsidies that would have been necessary to keep the men of the North East down the pits? The advent of vast coal exports from Eastern Europe and Australia drove the price down still further after the NUM was long forgotten. And we are closing coal-fired power stations because they are demons when it comes to global warming.

The new Tesla car announced yesterday does not have steel panels but resin-transfer-moulded ones. Steel is too heavy. I wouldn’t invest my hard-earned cash in UK steel. But many of those places where coal was king have never recovered. They may never do so. We’ve yet to work through our post-industrial phase here and the pain is not to be under-estimated for those who lose careers. Stacking shelves in a local Lidl on minimum wage just isn’t the same.

Billy Elliot is a tragedy. The tragedy of the mining class. It’s a tragedy because it was no life in the first place sending men, and in earlier times children, miles underground in dreadful conditions that damaged their health and sometimes killed them in industrial accidents. It gave them a good wage and pride, solidarity but you wouldn’t want any child of yours spending 40 years down a pit and developing pneumoconiosis. DH Lawrence took one look at that prospect and buggered off to become a teacher in Croydon before even that bored him to death and he departed for Italy and New Mexico.

That is what Billy Elliot realises. He knows the only future lies elsewhere - at the ballet school in London. This may not be much consolation for those who are going to be let go by Tata. Performing Swan Lake is unlikely to be a viable option for many of them. It is the government’s role - in the form of the less than impressive Sajid Javid - to try to do what it can to ease the pain of change. To try to engender some energy and hope for the future. But taking money from schools, hospitals, libraries or defence to prop up or even take outright public ownership of steel mills which cannot compete in a globalised world isn’t the right answer.

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