Sir Robert Scholey successfully turned the loss-making British Steel Corporation (BSC) from a drain on the Exchequer. In Scotland he was forever cast as the man responsible for closing down Ravenscraig – the former Colvilles plant at Motherwell. The animosity and turmoil that that decision caused had enormous repercussions on Scotland’s industry and economy. It was one of the decisions that left the Conservative Party – Margaret Thatcher and her successor John Major – deeply unpopular.
By the time Scholey took over as chairman of BSC, the vast plant was already an industrial hot potato. It represented a central position in Scotland’s commercial past and employed more than 13,500 men. Despite having a highly skilled workforce, the plant was losing more than £2 million a year and the Thatcher government argued that it was over-manned, too large and, as Ian Lang, a future Scottish Secretary later recalled, “Things at Ravenscraig just had to be resolved.” For a Conservative government, already mighty unpopular in Scotland, it proved a major test.
George Younger, Scottish Secretary, certainly came close to resigning to save Ravenscraig when the BSC chairman Sir Ian MacGregor said he wanted to close the complex to rationalise BSC’s operations. In the tortuous negotiations, Younger extracted a guarantee from Scholey at the time of privatisation that the plant would remain open until 1994.
By 1989 Scholey was under severe attack from many in Scotland. Jim Sillars of the SNP demanded meetings regarding Ravenscraig’s future investment. “The anti-Scottish bias of Scholey and his colleagues,” Sillars said, “is as strong as ever. They are deliberately setting out to turn the plant from profitability to unprofitability.”
Frank Roy, who worked at Ravenscraig and was made redundant when it closed, is now MP for the constituency that contains the former plant. He has gone on record to say: “It was death by a thousand cuts. They gradually cut away different parts of the plant. After Gartcosh closed (in 1986) we knew it was coming and eventually there was just a skeleton staff left.”
Scholey was known throughout the steel industry as “Black Bob” and the downturn in the price of steel in the late 1980s convinced Scholey that drastic measures had to be put into operation. In 1990 he cut the workforce by 4,000.
Two years later, before a general election, Scholey announced the closure of the remaining plant and the Conservative campaign in Scotland hit the buffers. It resulted in the end of one of the historic industrial sites in Scotland – the iconic blue gasometer was soon demolished. Worse, there was a huge loss of jobs directly and indirectly connected with the closure.
In 2010 papers involved with the closure were released and it transpired that Lang had argued that the closure would be “a further example of discrimination against Scottish plants” and a “betrayal” of a skilled workforce.
He campaigned for the plant to remain operating with a skeleton staff until demand for steel increased. Scholey was unmoved and refused to compromise, announcing the complete closure months before the Blair government took over. It was an unhappy, divisive and controversial time for Scottish industry and Scholey was widely pilloried in the Scottish press as “Son of Frankenstein”.
Robert Scholey was educated at King Edward VII School, Sheffield but left at 16 to work with a local steel manufacturer and study engineering at evening classes. He worked with United Steel Companies as a mechanical engineer and when the steel industry was nationalised in the late 1960s, he was appointed managing director of the Welsh division.
In 1972 he moved to BSC’s headquarters and became chief executive the following year.
Clearly the government was not keen to appoint him chairman – he was passed over on three occasions – but 1980 was particularly hurtful. Mrs Thatcher imported the American Sir Ian MacGregor and after a lengthy (and expensive) strike she felt the losses of £1m a day had to be reduced. After a hesitant start the two men – both taciturn and abrasive – got on well and restructured British Steel.
Scholey was a popular figure with colleagues at BSC. He was a blunt and straight-talking Yorkshireman who knew the industry thoroughly. He was passed the poisoned industrial chalice to make the company competitive and get it ready for privitisation.
It was a highly sensitive and challenging operation and his decisions taken over Ravenscraig were just a few amongst many others. Scholey was not one for polite chitchat.
When he became chief executive of BSC it employed more than 250,000 men and was losing £1 billion a year. By 1990 it was making a profit of £733m.
Robert Scholey was knighted in 1987. He married, in 1946, Joan Methley, who survives him with their two daughters.