Monday, 17 August 2015

British Leyland Blues

As unreadable as it may be to blog about a throwaway comment Yvette Cooper made over a week ago, 'unreadable' is generally what I aim for with my infrequent postings, so I might as well remain consistent with my ramblings, if nothing else.So, to start with, we have Ms Cooper,  Labour leadership non-entity, and as a friend of mine once said 'someone who talks with a lot more conviction than she votes.' She, among the other two candidates (I think the last time I checked they were an android minus a personality chip and a female Dick Dastardly) are spending the majority of their leadership campaigns either maligning, bitching (or otherwise comparing to a baby-eating lizard) at the only genuinely socialist candidate within the whole proceedings, Jeremy Corbyn.Now, the strengths, principles, and luxuriant facial hair of Mr Corbyn have been commented on in far greater detail in other areas by far better writers, so I'll just concern myself with the matter at hand. Cooper, along her other candidates, poured scorn on recent statements made by Corbyn regarding his desire to see utilities and other erstwhile public services such as the railways to be re-nationalised. Again, aside from the fact that this is something widely supported by both the general public  (not to mention Labour members) I shan't comment much on that.No, my attention is drawn more towards a comment made by Yvette Cooper regarding Corbyn's mooted plans. She said- "The British economy needs new high-tech entrepreneurs, innovation and growing business, not a return to the days of British Leyland."What a stupid thing to say. What a moronic, wilfully ignorant, mind-numbingly stupid thing to say.
British Leyland has been a punchline for decades. It shall be for decades to come. Ever since the cheap, boring gags the Two Ronnies made in the 70's, up until now with the cheap, boring gags that Jeremy Clarkson et al make today. Everyone's heard the horror stories. Of the Allegro with 'the square steering wheel.' Of militant trade-unionism, endless striking and 'Red Robbo.' And of course of  'the nationalisation.' I mean, of course, that's what ruined it in everyone's eyes. Nationalisation doesn't work at all! Look at British Leyland! Look at those strikes! Look at those crummy cars! It must have been nationalisations fault! I mean, why else would such a big company go down the plug hole like that?
Why indeed. 
What absolutely no-one seems to understand at all is that nationalisation wasn't the thing that destroyed British Leyland. Oh no. Nationalisation was the thing that saved it, that allowed what was one of the largest employers in the UK to remain afloat. British governments did this quite a lot at the time. The bankrupt aerospace division of Rolls Royce was nationalised by Heath's government in 1971. The bankrupt British Aerospace was nationalised by the Callaghan Government in 1977. The bankrupt defence company Johnson Matthey was bought by the Thatcher Government for £1 in 1984. Politicians don't tend to mention these companies when rallying against the evils of nationalisations, for they were successful, nor do they tend to make such a large hub-bub against the bail-out and nationalisations of Northern Rock and RBS during the last financial crisis. Those are sacrosanct and kosher. I mean, those are 'high-tech entrepreneurs, innovation and growing business'! The protection of the banking and financial industry comes before all else! I mean, it's not as if the protection of hundreds of thousands of jobs and strategic industrial capacity with the nationalisation of British Leyland is in anyway comparable to these nationalisations! Oh no.
What people refuse to understand is that British Leyland was doomed, not because of its nationalisation, nor indeed because of its militant trade unionism (a factor which anyone with even an inkling of industrial history can see is greatly over-emphasised) but due to its sheer size. At the time of its formation in 1968, British Leyland was a business that encompassed everything from refrigerators to Rovers, from double-decker buses to dump-trucks. It had over 25 factories in the UK and over 100 overseas. It was the second largest company in Europe, and the fifth largest in the entire world. Exactly the sort of bloated, jumbled and confused company that New Labour would have liked to cosy up to. It would need an exceptionally talented team of managers to keep such a behemoth under control. Unfortunately, it had no such thing. A series of woefully out-of-their-depth executives, more interested in paying dividends to their share-holders (whilst meanwhile their continental competitors re-invested the majority of their profits instead) and pursuing severely lacklustre models, already outdated by the time of their release (the Allegro, Morris Marina and Maxi were already established parts of the model range by the time of the nationalisation) It didn't help of course, that any focus on industrial diplomacy with a growingly militant workforce was abandoned. I mean, in the face of such dizzying size and wealth, who wouldn't?
Perhaps it wasn't a question of what caused British Leyland to become bankrupt and then nationalised, but more why didn't it occur sooner. Even after the nationalisation, Leyland continued to decline. A proto-Thatcherite manager in the shape of Michael Edwardes closed down perfectly usable factories (some only built less than ten years previously), slashing the workforce and destroying well known brands such as Triumph and MG for good. I would say it's only by luck, renewed success in the early 1980's with the introduction of the Metro, Maestro and Montego, and the successful re-privatisation of companies such as Jaguar and Land Rover that any component parts of what was once British Leyland still exist today. 
And all this, all this tortured and complex (and unless, like me you have a thing for industrial history) and boring history is merely skimming the surface. I dare not even approach such topics as the 1975 Ryder Plan, which rationalised a monstrously over-bloated company down to size for instance.
This is what irritates me so when Yvette Cooper makes her ludicrously simplistic comments. It's all well and good to say what is effectively "BUSINESS GOOD, 1970'S BAD", but to do so is to willingly ignore the truth of what actually occurred, to wilfully ignore the fact that nationalising a bankrupt business is completely different to nationalising something within the public interest like the railways or utilities, and it is holding the manufacturing heritage and history of this country in complete contempt. Shame on you.

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