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The closure of Gartcosh steel works

The closure of the mill and the long walk to London.


The closure of the Gartcosh finishing mill in Coatbridge, North Lanarkshire in 1986 represented one of the most significant single episodes in the transformation of Scotland's industrial and employment landscape in the 1980s.

Its announcement caused a public outcry, prompting demonstrations, debates in Parliament, and, most dramatically, a protest march from Gartcosh to London. The economic impact of the Gartcosh's closure was clear: some 700 workers would lose their jobs. But Gartcosh would also have a political effect by amplifying the view among many that the Conservative Government of Margaret Thatcher had no sympathy for Scotland, leading to increased calls for Scottish self-government that would be realised with the creation of a devolved Scottish Parliament in 1999.

Steelmaking in West Central Scotland was deeply tied to the history and culture of the region as well as to its economy. The Gartcosh mill had its origins in the Woodneuk Iron Works, which was established in 1865 and later renamed Gartcosh Iron and Steel Company, before eventually coming under the ownership of the Colville family who dominated the Scottish steel industry. In the early 1960s, the Colvilles opened the cold reduction strip mill at Gartcosh, where steel was formed into flexible sheets that could be the shaped into finished products such as kitchen sinks or automobile components. This new cold reduction strip mill fitted into a dense network of interconnected coal and iron ore mines, steel plants, and heavy industry and manufacturing facilities largely concentrated in the Central Lowlands.

Post-war steel industry

Scotland's post-war steel industry experienced significant shifts in its ownership structure. The post-war Labour Government under Clement Attlee nationalised the industry in 1950 under the Iron and Steel Corporation of Great Britain, but it was de-nationalised by the Conservatives later in the decade. Hoping to curtail the growing unemployment in Scotland, the Tory Government urged the Colvilles to build the new Ravenscraig strip mill, offering a £50 million loan to help develop it in the 'Steelopolis' of Motherwell, which had long been the site of other Colville facilities.

The global market for steel also changed dramatically in the first decades after the war. New competition, including from West Germany and Japan, contributed to Britain's share of world steel exports dropping from 15.1 per cent to 7.9 per cent during the 1950s. By the mid-1960s, the Colvilles were facing bankruptcy as a result of the export decline as well as the production costs associated with the new Ravenscraig site. In 1967 the Labour Government returned to a policy of nationalisation, taking over the 14 largest steel companies — including Colville — under the newly created British Steel Corporation (BSC).

The economic crises of the 1970s sharply affected the steel industry. Competition, coupled with new European Community rules after Britain's 1973 accession, led to even more contraction. Between 1974 and 1979, steel industry employment dropped from 25,570 to 18,860, a decline of more than 25 per cent. The privatisation policies and reductions in state intervention under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher after her Government's election in 1979 were seen by many as compounding rather than remedying the industry's ills and a series of industrial actions — including a national steel strike in 1980 and the coal miners' strike of 1984/85 (which pitted miners against Ravenscraig's steelworkers) — further set the industry back.

Closure announced

The hammer finally fell on Gartcosh in August 1985. Arguing that the mill was uncompetitive compared to other cold pressed mills and that it would need £20 million in upgrades to raise its productivity, BSC maintained that closure was the only option. As with previous announcements involving plant closures and mass job losses, the news about Gartcosh mobilised Scotland's deep reservoir of civic, government, and professional organisations to action. Groups including the Scottish Trades Unions Congress, the Churches Council, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and the Standing Committee for the Defence of the Scottish Steel Industry (which had been formed following an earlier set of mass layoffs at Ravenscraig in 1982), spoke out against the proposed closure and expressed their concern over what the move foretold for the future of the steel industry in Scotland.

Workers at the Ravenscraig facility were mobilised by the Gartcosh news. At the same time the BSC announced the Gartcosh closure, it provided a guarantee to keep Ravenscraig open for at least three more years. This promise, however, did little to soothe the anxieties of the Ravenscraig workers, who recognised that with Gartcosh gone, much of their steel would have to be transported to Shotton in north Wales for finishing, which would be certain to increase production costs and lower competitiveness.

Protest march to London

Among those Ravenscraig workers raising concerns was shop steward and Iron and Steel Trades Confederation convenor Tommy Brennan. As a protest gesture against the closure and to generate public interest in the plight of Scottish steel workers more generally he helped to devise a plan to walk the 450 mile distance from Gartcosh to London. Brennan would be joined on the march, which was routed along the east side of the UK to pass through other steel sites, by 11 representatives of churches, workers and political parties. These included Jim Wright, the Scottish National Party (SNP) spokesman for steelworks, Jim Bannerman, who would later become the first convenor of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, future Glasgow Celtic Chairman and Labour MP John Reid, and the former chairman of the Conservative parliamentary candidates' association Iain Lawson, who resigned from the party over its position on Gartcosh and would later join the SNP.

The march was to culminate with a visit to 10 Downing Street and a presentation to the Prime Minister of a petition protesting the closure. The group also hoped to influence a debate on Scottish steel closures scheduled to be held on 14 January (1986) in Parliament.

To help ensure publicity for the event, the marchers arranged to be joined along the route by Evening Times reporter Ken Smith and photographer Craig Halkett, who would submit daily missives describing the marchers' experiences. Walking in relay teams in bitterly cold winter weather, the marchers bunked in three small caravans that followed them, stopping along the way to speak with fellow steelworkers and supporters, and even rendering assistance to a family involved in a car accident. By the time the Gartcosh marchers approached London, their walk had become a national event, covered by newspapers, radio and TV stations across the UK.

The marchers finally arrived at Downing Street on 14 January. In front of rolling television cameras, they sought to present their petition to the Prime Minister, but were told she was unavailable. Unwilling to turn over their petition to a member of Downing Street staff, the marchers then made their way to Buckingham Palace, where aides to the Queen — who was away at the time — accepted the petition on her behalf. The Queen later responded to the marchers with a letter in which she indicated she shared their concerns about the closure.

The parliamentary debate the marchers had hoped to arrive in time for was rescheduled to the following week, as a result of the Westland Helicopter scandal and Michael Heseltine's subsequent resignation from the Cabinet. Unable to remain in London after a two-week absence from Scotland, the marchers returned home.

When the issue of Gartcosh was finally debated in the House of Commons on 23 January, the new Secretary of State for Scotland Malcolm Rifkind described the closure as 'part of a wider strategy announced last August, the aim of which is to bring the British Steel Corporation to a level of profitability that will make it financially self-sufficient within the current planning period and with no more state aid after 1985'. To help the region recover, Rifkind offered the help of the Scottish Development Agency, which had been created in the 1970s to assist in furthering economic revitalisation in Scotland.

The Government's stance

To Coatbridge MP, Tom Clarke, such offers were 'blandishments' that were 'in the context of this debate, quite offensive. To tell us, in view of the devastation we have seen and are about to see if Gartcosh is closed,' he told the Commons 'that the Government will help by way of the Scottish development agency and in other ways reminds me of the man who went along to Sweeney Todd and was assured by him that he was going to do him a favour by cutting his throat. I am afraid that such logic will not find much acceptance among the people of Lanarkshire … If the Government continue to pursue their course on Gartcosh, may God forgive them because history will find it difficult so to do.' (HC Deb, 23 January 1986, c482, c483).

For the SNP, the Gartcosh closure and the perceived indifference of the Conservative Government at Westminster to Scottish concerns created a political opportunity for the party to emphasise what it viewed as the costs to Scotland of remaining in the United Kingdom. Speaking in the House, Gordon Wilson, the MP for Dundee East who led the SNP since 1979, argued: 'If Gartcosh closes … I do not believe that the political map of Scotland can remain the same after that betrayal. The attack on Gartcosh and the Prime Minister's contemptuous refusal to meet the marchers shows that Scotland has no future within the Union, and the Union is rapidly turning sour within Scotland.' (Hansard vol: HC Deb, 23 January, 1986, c496).

The view that Mrs Thatcher's Government was dismissive of Scotland was further registered in a letter to Prime Minister Thatcher by Donald Stewart, the MP for the Western Isles and Parliamentary Leader of the SNP during the 1980s, in which he wrote that the PM's unwillingness to reverse the BSC's decision on Gartcosh, 'is interpreted by Scots as a willingness on your part to sacrifice the Conservative seats you hold there at the present moment. Some Scots Tory MPs have already realised their predicament, as have their Constituency Association who now realise that, in your eyes, Scotland is of no consequence.' (from the miscellaneous papers of Donald James Stewart, 1976-1986, 7 February 1986).

In her response to Stewart, Mrs Thatcher indicated that she recognised 'the strength of feeling in Scotland about the closure', but argued that the 'experience of the last five years has sadly shown that measures such as this are sometimes necessary to help preserve the future of the steel industry in the UK; the same is happening in many other countries.' (from the miscellaneous papers of Donald James Stewart, 1976-1986, 21 March 1986). The Gartcosh mill closed its doors on 31 March 1986.

Although the Gartcosh mill was not saved, the march's participants still viewed the march as a partial success by helping to pressure the Government to keep the Ravenscraig mill operational until 1992, some years beyond the date the BSC guaranteed when it announced Gartcosh's closure. Many more Scottish steel industry sites would close in the years that followed, but the long walk to London would continue to be remembered as one of the high points in the fight to keep steel in Scotland.

Further reading

  • 'Employment change in UK steel closure areas during the 1980s: Policy implications and lessons for Scotland' in 'Regional studies', v.26, no. 7, by R Hudson, D Sadler and A Townsend, (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1992) [National Library shelfmark: QJ9.966 SER].
  • 'Fighting for survival: the 1980s campaign to save Ravenscraig steelworks' in 'Journal of Scottish Historical Studies', v.25, no.1 by D Stewart, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005) [Shelfmark: HJ4.645].
  • Miscellaneous papers of Donald James Stewart, 1976-1986 [National Library reference: Acc.13100]
  • 'The Path to Devolution and Change: A political history of Scotland under Margaret Thatcher' by D Stewart, (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2009) [Shelfmark: HB2.209.8.700].


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