On the other hand it has to be admitted that times change and the economy has to move with those times. Once there were a lot of boilermakers working in this country. No amount of state support would have kept those jobs alive. Industry was moving on and jobs were changing. New technology doesn't wipe out employment - it simply changes who is employed, how much they get paid for it and what they do for a living. Unless of course machines have suddenly started to get paid. Despite constant waves of technological change and the use of massively smarter machines there are now more people employed in the UK now than at any time in history.
So are Cameron & Osborne right to decide that the loss of jobs in steel at Scunthorpe is just one of those things and nothing much can or should be done about it? I would say no. There is a lot more that can and needs to be done than simply shrugging your shoulders and saying we can do nothing except admire the wonderful wisdom of the market.
You only have to spend a very short time in Scunthorpe to realise what the impact on the community will be. There aren't a lot of alternative sources of employment for people to turn to and the steel mills dwarf the rest of the town's economy. If you close down the steelworks in places like Redcar or Scunthorpe there isn't much else to do.
If what we are dealing with is a temporary downturn in a market that tends to go through extremes of boom and bust and will recover then there is a strong case for action. If you believe that the problems with the steel industry are short terms ones then the sensible thing to do is to provide subsidies. Obama did this for the US car factories after 2008 and it worked.
But subsidies are very expensive and there is absolutely no point in subsidising something if it won't ever come back to profitability or it will take so long to do so that government investment would be much better used elsewhere.
I don't happen to believe that the problems in every part of the steel industry are short term or that the level of subsidy that it will require to keep those jobs alive is the best choice for future UK investment. If I am right then backing subsidies for the steelworkers simply plays into the Conservatives hands. It makes them look like the party of the future and the supporters of subsidy for heavy industry look like people who want to waste money on trying to preserve the past.
That doesn't, however, mean that I think we should shrug out shoulders and decide that nothing can or should be done for Scunthorpe and that we should applaud the Conservatives refusal to do anything genuinely constructive. The real attack that we should be making on the Conservatives is that they aren't seriously investing in helping the affected areas to go through a really difficult change. There are real practical things that can be done to set many of the most badly impacted places up for a really strong future. The Conservatives aren't doing them.
For example, Scunthorpe is on an estuary and just up the coast it joins the North Sea which is one of the best potential locations in the world for offshore wind power. There are excellent ports in Hull and Grimsby that can service deliveries to massive sites on the Dogger Bank and a great many of the people being made redundant in the Scunthorpe steel works have excellent engineering skills which with a bit of help on re-training costs could prove to be exactly what is needed to form the basis of a really powerful wind and solar energy production centre. The crisis in a struggling heavy industry is accompanied by a real opportunity to turn the fortunes of the town round by being at the forefront of one of the most obvious growth industries for the future - green energy.
What is required to achieve this is:
1. Investment to create new production facilities that goes well beyond what the private sector can generate unaided.
2. Training and retraining of workers to switch over to the next phase of technology.
3. Subsidy from the government to support the operation of solar and wind energy production for the duration of the period of time it will take before it begins to beat conventional power without subsidy.
4. Investment in science and technology so that UK industry is more advanced in this field than other countries.
5. Prioritising government investment on northern towns where there is plenty of housing but little work.
6. The determination to use the power of the state to guide the British economy instead of giving in to market forces
None of these things is likely to happen because Cameron and Osborne have a real ideological block over using the state to guide the economy. The Conservatives argue that we cannot turn back the clock and if UK steel won't sell then it is a harsh ugly reality but the factories will have to close. That is a really difficult argument to counter because it contains a lot of truth. But they can very easily and successfully be attacked for their serious lack of action to help prevent communities going to the wall. They are wide open to the accusation that they are doing far too little to help any transformation and the result is they will force the young people living there to move to London and further increase house prices there whilst the elderly are left to rot in a town reeking of decline.
It is perfectly possible for a government to direct resources to solving a problem. Our recent Chinese visitors do it rather well because they aren't scared of using the power of the state to change their economy in a consciously planned way.
Cameron and Osborne ought to be using that power flat out to help create new low energy consumption high tech jobs in communities that are losing their old jobs. Instead they are doing the exact opposite. What we have at the moment under their leadership are:
1. A refusal to use quantitative easing for investment - they only want to use it to bail out banks
2. Cuts in training budgets for further education colleges thus seriously weakening retraining efforts. Over 70 colleges are in serious financial deficit.
3. The removal of all significant subsidies from green energy
4. Cut backs in spending from the Department for Trade and Industry of up to 40%
5. A complete ideological blockage over the idea that the state might be able to do anything to influence the power of the market.
You may notice that this is almost exactly the opposite of the previous list of sensible actions. Apart from one point that is. The northern powerhouse. At the election there was a lot of talk about creating this. Since then there has been talk but no money. A strong northern rail network has downgraded and kicked into the distant future. There is no sign of a serious programme of investment to help places like Hull, Scunthorpe and Grimsby to secure the jobs that are there to be grabbed in the most promising of future technologies - green energy.
Oh but I nearly forgot. There is one bit of progress. Osborne is telling several northern cities that they must re-organise and create a mayor. I am sure that the good people of Scunthorpe will have every confidence that a mayor with no money is the answer to their problems.