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Cerberus: Virtue signalling comes at a cost. The closure of the steel industry


When I was at school in the 1960s, just about the worst thing you could be called by your classmates was a show-off. Boys who boasted of their achievements, real or imagined, on the sports field or exam room were widely ridiculed and avoided. As one wag put it: “I used to be conceited but now I’m perfect.”

Telling the world just how wonderful you were was just not done. That was for others to judge. And those who persisted in showing off could expect to be the butt of jokes and humiliating pranks. As a self-policing means of social control it worked pretty well. They were few show-offs in those days.

Not so today. Showing off has been commercialised and institutionalised. Much of the ghastly social media phenomenon exemplified by Twitter and Facebook is an exercise in non-stop showing off. It is particularly common on the progressive Left and among the so-called modernising Conservatives to be found at the court of King Cameron. It is all about me, and not very much about you, save to say you clearly are nowhere near as good as me. We have come to call it virtue signalling. It is really a particularly virulent form of showing off, bathed in oceans of piety and self regard. But virtue signalling gets the point across. And it is costing us dear.

So dear that the 40,000 jobs set to go at Tata Steel are, at least in part, the price we are paying for our elite’s addiction to virtue signalling, to seeking to demonstrate that they are guided by higher motives than the common herd and prepared to make sacrifices to build a better world. Actually, it is not they who make the sacrifices, but other less enlightened souls.

There are a lot of reasons behind the collapse of Britain’s steel industry. About 150 years ago, we produced almost 40 per cent of the world’s steel. Now, with Tata on the brink, we are down to less than one per cent and that will soon go. The country that gave the world the Industrial Revolution is about to bow out of just about its most fundamental activity.

The dumping of subsidised Chinese steel on world markets and the extraordinary indolence of ministers in the face of a clear and present danger to the industry’s survival are contributory factors in the almost certain demise of Port Talbot and other Tata plants.

But it is Britain’s virtue-signalling policy of advertising itself as a world leader in combating climate change and reducing greenhouse gases – by 80 per cent by 2050 – that lies behind the agony of the steel industry. The colossal blast furnace at Port Talbot soaks up masses of energy and the losses of £1 million a day are, in part, down to the fact that UK energy is so expensive – twice that of the EU average and four times that of shale-gas rich America.

In a nutshell, our steel industry is to be sacrificed on the altar of the virtue-signalling obsession with decarbonising our energy supplies. As Dominic Lawson points out in a splendid piece in The Sunday Times, the air in Britain will soon be a whole lot sweeter – but only because there won’t be any steel mills (or indeed power stations) belching out noxious gases in a few years time. Other countries, particularly those in the EU, are also caught up in this madness, though they seem to have the habit of paying lip service to pious carbon reduction schemes while quietly protecting their heavy industry.

But it doesn’t stop there. We are virtue-signalling at a global level with our obsession with meeting the UN’s target of devoting 0.7 per cent of our GDP to overseas aid. We are now handing over £12.2 billion a year to less fortunate lands – or at least the leaders, sometimes despots, of less fortunate lands. This is over £500 million more than in 2014 – quite enough to keep Port Talbot going for more than a year. We are the only major economy to be hitting the virtue-signallers’ mark of 0.7 per cent, apparently, according to The Mail on Sunday, because the PM did not want to upset the latter-day saint Sir Bob Geldof.

Then there is the money we pay for our membership of the EU – a snip at £300 million a week (including Margaret Thatcher’s rebate). That too could keep Port Talbot afloat for nearly a year or be diverted to far more deserving causes than propping up the pretensions of Brussels.

But none of this is about economics or prudent management of the nation’s cash-strapped finances, which are only kept afloat on a sea of borrowing from overseas investors. It is entirely about politics, in particular delivering David Cameron’s brand of right-on Conservatism. As Lawson points out in his article, one of Cameron’s first acts was to replace as his logo the gas guzzling blue Tory torch with an innocent child’s idea of a green tree. At the time, critics saw it as an empty gesture, designed simply to advance Tory rebranding as no more the “nasty party”. With steel heading for the scrapheap, it doesn’t look so empty now.


(Image: Ben Slater)

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Cerberus writes a blog every Monday on the state of modern Britain.

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