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A test-pit for industrial rise and decline

The Black Country led the world into industrial prowess and then economic decline - what does it tell us about today's world?

The Black Country is not a place many people think about. Most of the population of Britain would probably have difficulty finding it on a map, which wasn't helped by the Ordnance Survey formally recognising the area only in 2009. What took them so long may have had something to do with the fierce internal debate about the Black Country's true boundaries; something about which no one seems able to agree. Not even the Ordnance Survey - they may now name the area on their maps, but they refrain from plotting the borders of the geographical, as opposed to the political, Black Country.


The political boundaries of three Black Country boroughs (Dudley, Sandwell and Walsall) within the West Midlands conurbation and the UK (insert)

Yet the region's importance to the nation and the world is undeniable. After all, this was the true birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. With a thick coal scene running just 6 foot (2 metres) underground, as well as ready supplies of iron ore and limestone, the villages of the Black Country were a centre for iron smelting as early as the 16th century. They supplied arms to the Royalists in the English Civil war of the 1640s, helped greatly by 'Dud' Dudley's innovation of using coke to smelt iron ore. By the 1660s, 'Dud' had recorded the presence of some 20,000 blacksmiths of one persuasion or another within a 10-mile radius of Dudley Castle.

In 1712 the Black Country hosted another world-shattering innovation when Thomas Newcomen's steam engine was installed in Tipton to became the first such engine in the world, and herald in the age of steam.

And it gets better! Although most locals would argue that it's not strictly within the region, in 1779 the world's first bridge ever constructed solely of iron was put up in the appropriately-named Ironbridge, 20 miles from the Black Country's unofficial capital of Dudley.


Left: A working model of Newcomen's Engine at the Black Country Living Museum. Right: Ironbridge

Yet the area's decline was long in coming. The iron ore ran out in the 1850s and the last of the coal mines closed a century later, while in between there was still time for Tolkien to base his nightmarish industrial Mordor on the region. In 1982 the Round Oak Steelworks in Brierley Hill shut its doors for good after 125 years of iron and steel production. That the Merry Hill shopping centre was built on the ruins of the old works says everything there is to say about the neo-liberal economic logic which Thatcher was forcing through at the time, and which all her successors have duly endorsed.

Merry Hill was designated an 'Enterprise Zone' under plans for regeneration of the area. To the developers, the government offered the kinds of tax breaks which could've saved Round Oak, but the Tories had other ideas. The mistake they made then, which the powers that be continue to make to this day, was to consider all numbers to be equivalent, regardless of the fine details. If a supermarket made 10 million profit selling mostly imported products, that was equal to a factory making the same profit. One person employed stacking shelves for 5 an hour was the same as a steelworker on 30,000 a year - one less number on the unemployment statistics.

Gone were the concerns about trade balances which had so preoccupied Keynes and his post-war contemporaries; out of the window went old economic priorities - Round Oak was actually making a profit and keeping tens of thousands employed in and around the factory; in came a religious adherence to GDP growth and monetary policy, and with all that went the last of England's aspirations to be the world's industrial powerhouse.

This was the new world of the service sector - the idea that the country's economy could exist purely by providing 'services' to the world, where class-struggle was the language of a by-gone age. And what services we could offer! Finance, retail, finance, call-centres, computer games, consultancy, finance; basically anything based around money but nothing which we could actually physically sell. In this world, wealth would accrue to the wealthy and the trade balance would be allowed to slide until Britain found itself with the second highest trade deficit of any country on the globe, behind only the gluttonous United States.

It is through this lens which we have to view recent news of the plight of the UK's last steelworks. Yes, billions are available to financial institutions through mechanisms like Quantitative Easing; yes, some banks were nationalised to save them from closure; yes, tax breaks and incentives are regularly offered to multinationals thinking of relocating here; but no, there is not a chance Britain's steel industry can be saved from the ravages of globalisation which the Tories seem to adore. Class struggle may have disappeared from the language of the Left, but the Eton boys in charge seemingly hold the suppression of all working classes, and organised labour in particular, as their main priority - why else go after the teachers, nurses, train drivers and steelworkers?

The European Commission, through its globalisation adjustment fund, hands out hundreds of millions of Euros to ameliorate the kinds of problems seen in Scunthorpe, Scotland and South Wales, yet apparently Britain has never even applied for such funding, unlike the Dutch, French and Germans. Both Merkel in Germany and Matteo Renzi in Italy support their nation's steelworks through subsidies and bailouts, while Britain appears to have made a deal with the Chinese to block import tariffs on Chinese steel in return for the most expensive energy project in the history of the planet. You may wonder whether the reason the EU is disliked by some in Britain is that we neglect all the good parts and focus only on the ridiculous. You should certainly consider whether Cameron and Osbourne's claim that we're all in this together carries even an ounce of truth.

Because Jeremy Corbyn can shout and scream as much as he likes, the Eton set is not going to reconvene Parliament for something as trivial as the loss of a few thousand manufacturing jobs in non-target constituencies far, far from London. They'll try to organise the sell off of the plants to whichever bidder is willing to buy them, for whatever reason. The silly neo-liberal retort of 'there-is-no-alternative' trounces everything else, whether we be talking about health, education or industry. And these Tories seem to delight at the ruinous path down which they're taking us.

Adam Mathews, Budapest, 31 March 2016

How not to run an Economy

"What choice do we have?" It's a common refrain these days; while the economic cracks in the system have been proliferating and widening, the explanations are generally seen as incomplete, and the solutions as little more than useless. In order to build a better economy and reform the system, we need a better understanding of the fundamental causes of the pickle we find ourselves in. This series addresses a number of such topics, including governments' favouring of big over small enterprises and the increased financialisation, largely through debt, of our world. The aim is to create an awareness whereby precise solutions can be proposed and worked upon, because answering the question 'what can we do?' cannot be done in a single two line soundbite.

This fifth article in the series looks at the way neo-liberal ideas have affected the real world, namely the heartland of the industrial revolution< The Black Country.

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Also in the series

Part 4: Utilities and Resources
Rising dependence on gas and ballooning prices are not a path towards a sustainable energy policy

Part 3: Growth and Debt
To cover our huge debts we have to grow our economies, but for how long will that be physically possible?

Part 2: Government as a Corporation
When financial markets become a measure of the well-being of an economy, what are the consequences in the real world?

Part 1: Ownership
How does the ownership of our most powerful companies affect our communities and our economy as a whole?

Further Reading

Why don't we save our steelworkers, when we've spent billions on bankers?
- Aditya Chakrabortty, The Guardian, October 2015

The world's first successful steam engine born in the Black Country
- Justine Halifax, The Birmingham Mail, May 2015

Tata Steel crisis leaves government ministers in 'disarray'
- Graham Ruddick, Anushka Asthana and Heather Stewart, The Guardian, March 2016

The Black Country is being included on OS maps for the first time
- The Daily Telegraph, August 2009

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Elsewhere on
the Aimless Wanderer

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