The 'Overton Window' is a political term that refers to the relatively narrow span of policies that are acceptable to the public at any one time. In some periods, the window moves to the left (the US in the 1930s, the UK in the 1940s); in other periods, the window moves to the right (the UK in the 1980s, the US in the 2000s). It's named after Joseph P Overton, head of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy think tank, who argued that, regardless of the views of a particular politician, at any given time of the whole range of political views only a small section of them will be acceptable; this section is the Overton window.
Are we seeing the Overton window on the move? Britain used to have a nationalised steel industry. British Steel was created by the Iron and Steel Act 1949. This nationalisation was reversed in the 1950s but then re-reversed in 1967, perhaps at the height of confidence in nationalised industries, when the Overton window was somewhat to the left. British Steel operated right through the 1970s and 1980s. But in 1988 the Overton window had moved; it had taken a lot of effort by think tanks, politicians, commentators, advertisers, but now nationalisation was widely seen as a bad idea; the slogan for this, which emerged in the early 1970s was that the government should not prop up 'lame-duck industries'. A lame duck industry was one that was not making a profit and that, therefore, the government was having to subsidise to keep afloat.
But this spread until it became pretty much any publically-owned company; after all, if there's an argument for putting an industry in public ownership it must suggest that its interests (or the public interest) is not best served by having it in the public sector. The clever trick of the free market fundamentalists was to turn this around and denounce these as lame ducks for the same reasons: why should the government pour money into industries just because they can't stand on their own two feet?
(In a reductio ad absurdum oeconomicum, this has led to the peculiar idea that even healthy companies that are bringing money into the government should be divested as soon as possible. At a time when George Osborne is apparently desperate to pay down the deficit, he is rushing to re-privatise the banks that were nationalised in 2008 - even though they are now profitable again. So, the logic is that the taxpayer should if absolutely necessary pour money into ailing businesses but never benefit from them when they rally. And let's note that when I say indecent haste, it's been calculated that Osborne's hurry is costing the taxpayer £22bn. This at a time when Osborne's got into huge trouble for slicing £4.4bn off disability benefits.)
Edward Heath's government of the early 1970s was associated with this idea though it broke its own rule by nationalising Rolls Royce in 1971. When Heath was replaced by Thatcher, he was replaced by someone with an implacable ideological commitment to privatisation and to the private sector as both the only real test of the viability of an industry and also the near-perfect mechanism for saving a saveable industry.* Thatcher tested the waters with some relatively 'safe' privatisations in her second parliament - British Telecom in 1984 and British Gas in 1986 - before taking her foot off the brakes in her third parliament: Rolls Royce (1987), British Airways (1987), Regional Water Authorities (1989), the railway network (1989), the Electricity Generating Boards (1990), Right in the middle of this came the privatisation of British Steel in 1988 to form British Steel plc. A decade later in 1999, it merged with the Dutch company Koninklijke Hoogovens and became Corus. And a decade after that, Corus was bought out by Tata Steel.
And it's Tata Steel that is now proposing to sell or close its massive plant in Port Talbot. Why? Because it's making a loss. £1m each day apparently.
What's interesting is that the response has immediately been that the government should intervene to save our steel industry. There have even been calls - on all sides of the political debate - to renationalise the steel industry. Jeremy Corbyn and Angela Eagle have called for the plant to be taken into public ownership to save jobs and a key industry. Union leaders like Len McCluskey of Unite and Roy Rickhuss of Community - have echoed this. These you might expect. But less expected was Anna Soubry, Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, who told the Today programme that if a buyer could not be found immediately the Government could take it into public ownership to buy more time. Anna Soubry's a pretty centrist Tory but who's this? 'If it is to survive, it needs help – just as Rolls-Royce did in the 1970s, before it recovered to become the world’s second largest builder of aero engines.' It's the Daily Mail, in an editorial headed 'Bankers were saved ... we can't let steel die'. These are, as the Mail says, 'freak times'.
And although the Government, after a day of dither and delay, has now ruled out nationalisation, note the limpness of the expression: 'We are not ruling anything out. I don’t believe nationalisation is the right answer' said David Cameron; Sajid Javid also offered his view that 'I don't think nationalisation is going to be the solution because I think everyone would want a long-term viable solution' though he also insisted that he was looking at 'all viable options'.
There are, of course, the hardliners out in force, insisting that the state must never intervene, though even they feel obliged to express mechanical sympathies for the workers before bringing down the guillotine of economic ideology:
The state should not be the buyer of last resort. Tata's decision may prove devastating for the communities affected, but the government would do better to put money into reskilling and helping with job searches than undertake a risky and potentially counterproductive intervention. (Financial Times editorial 30.3.2016)
Of course one feels for those that will become unemployed, however, the contribution to the UK economy does not make the steel industry in its current form a worthy case for state aid. The UK has bitter experience in this area as all nationalised industries are cursed with moral hazard through state ownership and captive customers. (Stephen Pope, market analyst, 31.3.2016)
But these voices are not in the ascendent. There are many more calling for intervention (even if short of nationalisation) than there are for letting the grim neoliberal reaper do his worst.
But the grim neoliberal reaper has been the unquestionable arbiter of industrial policy for almost forty years. Thatcher let coal die.
Why this change? Well, several things. First, the Scottish government bought the endangered steelworks at Cambuslang and Motherwell to broker a deal with a new buyer and prevent closure. Second, for some on the right it has been possible to pitch this as a story about the nasty Chinese and their cheap steel** (boo!) or nasty EU and their regulations*** (boo!) - this is in fact what the Daily Mail editorial is really about. Third, the resignation of Iain Duncan Smith has put the Government on the back foot, currently extremely sensitive to any suggestion that they are callous in their disregard of the poor. Fourth - relatedly - when the banking system tottered in 2008, the Tories 100% supported the nationalising of some key financial institutions and pouring billions and billions of taxpayers money into that industry. If it was good enough for the banks, why not steel?
But fifth, when Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader, some of us wondered if this might be a moment in which the centre of British politics might be dragged back towards the liberal-left of politics, away from the hard-right neoliberal consensus that has dominated the two main parties for 25 years. Are we seeing the beginning of that consensus breaking down? Is the Overton Window on the move?
* Note the circularity of this. How do you know if an industry can truly flourish? Give it to the free market and see. How do you know the market has given you the right result? Because it's the only test that works.
** Well yeah, China has been flooding the international markets with cheap steel. (Though actually we don't buy all that much of it - in 2014 we imported nearly 7 times as much steel from Europe than from China, though, sure, we're buying almost three times as much as we were three years ago.) The shrinkage of the Chinese economy has created a crisis of overproduction in the Chinese steel industry so they've decided to sell their steel very cheaply on the international market instead. Basically, it'll keep them afloat and - who knows? - if other steel manufacturers go out of business as a result, they will then become much more dominant in the world and will cash in amazingly when steel prices recover. But this is interesting isn't it? But this creates a terrible dilemma for your evangelical freemarketeer, caught between two very unwelcome arguments (a) that competition is a bad thing because it's not fair to dump cheap steel on the market (isn't that competition supposed to create efficiencies in the system?) or (b) that China isn't playing by the rules because it's supported by its government (in other words, the free market can't compete with a command economy).
*** This might be a good argument except that it isn't. For three reasons: first, Cameron could have used the crisis in our steel industry to argue for concessions in his famous EU renegotiation. He didn't. Of course he didn't, because he has blinkers on when it comes to government intervention in industry; his whole negotiation was about trying to make the EU more right wing not less. Second, he'd have been pushing at an open door, because other EU countries (Germany is the thundering example) don't interpret EU rules to mean they can't support their industries. Britain does that, for ideological reasons of its own. And thirdly, time and again George Osborne has used the British veto to block EU attempts to prevent China from flooding European markets, because he is blinkered about trade regulation - even to the extent of letting the British steel industry die. Which is now happening.