Margaret Thatcher changed the face of Britain. When she became Prime Minister in 1979, the traditional industries of coal, steel and shipbuilding dominated the economy and provided jobs for hundreds of thousands of people. When she resigned in 1990, the country – and the North-East in particular – was a very different place. Among the first to taste the bitter wind of change were the steelworkers of Consett

BUZZ words and catchphrases peppered the vocabulary of the Thatcher years – monetarism; privatisation; Cabinet wets; no alternative; trickle-down effect; deregulation; market forces; lunatic left; enemy within.

One of the first to be launched – and one that was to have devastating repercussions in the North- East in particular – was “lame duck industries”.

The lame ducks were companies – usually heavy industries and usually in the public sector – which could not survive without huge public subsidies.

The Northern Echo:
The Consett steelworks in action shortly before it closed

Margaret Thatcher’s monetary philosophy, based on the Adam Smith doctrine of laissez faire – the theory of non-intervention, of government allowing market forces to dictate events – ensured that these industries either shed jobs by the thousand or sank into oblivion. One of these industries was steel.

The steel industry during the Sixties and Seventies was grossly overstaffed, with too much production flooding a shrinking world market.

Steelworks closures on a huge scale had, it was argued, become inevitable, especially after the oil crisis in the early 1970s which put prices at an all-time high.

But when they came they had a devastating effect on the communities that served them – and no community was more devastated, none more evocative of the struggle for survival and eventual rebirth, than Consett.

The demise of the County Durham steel town was slow and agonising. There had been cut-backs in the coal and steel industries before Margaret Thatcher came to power, adding to the spiralling unemployment and growing deprivation, but with the advent of Britain’s first woman Prime Minister, and the appointment of her close friend and confidant, Sir Keith Joseph, to the position of Industry Secretary, the pace of closure was accelerated.

The Northern Echo:
All in favour: Steelworkers cast their vote, June 1980

News of Consett’s inevitable shutdown was leaked by Bill Sirs, general secretary of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, early in December 1979, only a few months after James Callaghan’s Labour Government was swept from power by Mrs Thatcher.

The effect was immediate and emotive, with local Labour MPs and MEPs siding with the unions to fight for the 3,700 jobs at the century-old plant and save a town from economic and social catastrophe. They faced an opposition of British Steel Corporation chief executive Bob Scholey, Sir Keith Joseph, the newly appointed BSC chairman Ian McGregor – later to become synonymous with the defeat of the miners – and Mrs Thatcher herself.

Consett was more than a steel town on the brink of uncertainty.

It became of symbol of what the new political doctrine stood for.

It was a victim of the new philosophy in action, a philosophy that promised to clear away the old to make way for a better and a brighter future.

The Northern Echo:
A march for jobs: 'In the black faced with the sack' says one of the steelworkers' banners as they march through Consett to defend their jobs

To those in power, Consett steelworks represented commercial failure and was, therefore, unsustainable; it should be sacrificed for the common good; market forces should be allowed to have their way; the steel industry would have to modernise if it was to survive.

But according to the unions, there was a serious flaw in this argument – Consett steelworks was making a profit.

AFTER an acrimonious and high-profile national steel strike during the early months of 1980, the Consett steel men set about organising a campaign of protest demonstrations, direct action and economic argument to save their plant from destruction.

It was a campaign that went right to the heart of government, and if it accomplished anything at all, then it was this: it revealed to the world that in May 1979 the political landscape had changed; that the Conservative government was different from its predecessors under Heath, Douglas Home and Macmillan; that a new set of rules had been put in place and the goalposts moved; that under Margaret Thatcher things were never going to be the same again.

During the summer of 1980 the unions pushed their case that Consett was a profitmaking plant. But whether right or wrong, they came up against a wall of indifference and a BSC management that refused to review Consett’s finances or discuss the issue constructively.

During July, when there was talk of riots on the streets, The Northern Echo reported: “Mr Sirs yesterday attacked the repeated refusal of BSC’s controversial new chairman Ian MacGregor to even listen to the case for saving Consett and Sir Keith Joseph’s refusal to intervene.”

The union leader said: “What more must the men and women of Consett do?

Must they overturn lorries, kidnap and burn to get attention? Must they rampage and smash and turn to violence before they can even get ten minutes with BSC’s new chairman?

“Consett has by its own efforts become one of the lowest-cost, most productive and profitable plants in BSC.

And its reward? Closure.”

Consett had made a profit of £187,000 the previous month, and economists at Durham University claimed the works could raise this to £7.5m profit if it was allowed to produce steel until the end of the year.

BSC responded with: “Consett is working at an artificially high loading at the moment because of our undertaking to keep production up in the period leading up to the closure.

“This enabled Consett to make a profit in June, but it is not a performance that can be sustained.”

Frustration mounted.

There were marches, protests, even a demonstration by rebel steelmen in London which disrupted traffic and business in the Houses of Parliament, and resulted in several Consett workers being arrested and locked up in the House of Commons cells.

And where was the Prime Minister in all this, the woman who only a year earlier had stood on the steps of Downing Street and promised to bring harmony where there was discord and hope where there was despair?

Mrs Thatcher distanced herself from the issue. The decision to close Consett was taken on commercial grounds by BSC and was not a government matter, she said. This was a stance she would take again four years later when another commercial decision would be taken by another nationalised industry, and again with catastrophic economic and social consequences for the North- East.

In August, a month before the official closure date, an appeal to save the doomed plant was rejected by Mrs Thatcher.

The Northern Echo reported: “The town’s death warrant was signed in a letter from the Prime Minister to Consett MP David Watkins in which she refuses to order the British Steel Corporation to review its closure plans.

“The letter was her response to the petition signed by more than 20,000 people and handed into Downing Street by last month’s Save Consett march to Westminster.”

The fight went on, but people knew the end had come. What they did not realise, and what can be viewed only with hindsight, was that the Consett closure represented a turning point in British history, that it stood at the dawn of a new political, industrial and social era.

Lame duck or not, when Consett closed, the old ways had gone. Mrs Thatcher’s way had come.


MARGARET THATCHER on Consett: “I am deeply saddened by the industrial and human distress that lies behind the BSC’s decision to close a works such as Consett, the more so when the local community has been so heavily dependent on it for employment.”

DAVID WATKINS, Consett MP, on Margaret Thatcher: “She refuses to do anything about a situation that arises as a direct consequence of her government’s policies. It is an insult to more than 20,000 people of all political persuasions.”

BILL SIRS, steel union boss, on BSC chairman Ian MacGregor: “BSC are contemplating the absolute rape of a town. Closing the steelworks will kill off Consett. But the man in charge does not appear to be that interested.” JOHN LEE, Save Consett campaign leader: “It is a disgrace when the livelihoods of thousands of families are at stake the man who is in charge of BSC doesn’t want to know.”

JOHN LEE Jr, after being released from the House of Commons cells: “We have achieved more than all the lawful persuasion of the past. Some might say we were irresponsible, but the irresponsible ones are the Government and the BSC for closing down a profitable works and leading a community to death.”

BOB HOWARD, TUC regional secretary, after it was announced the closure date was being brought forward: “This is a bombshell that further compounds the serious damage that the closure of Consett will do to the region.”

BILL THOMPSON, Save Consett campaigner: “This is a disgraceful way to behave. British Steel are nailing up the coffin before the talks are even finished. This is a dirty psychological trick to try and undermine our will to fight. BSC can do what they like but we are not going to give up that easily.”

AIDAN POLLARD, steelworker: “When you consider it, we have done everything the Conservative Government asked. We trimmed the labour force and we have become profitable.”

DENNIS SKINNER MP, after marching with the steelmen through Consett: “I want the TUC leaders and MPs to get tougher and fight with you. We will all be united then, and even if we come up against an army of police we will also fight them.”

ROLAND BOYES, Durham MEP: “The only way to save jobs is through militant action. Next time the police try and stop us we won’t walk away. We have got muscle power and the unions behind us.”