The news that the nation is to vote on 23 June as to whether to remain a member of the European Union could be another turning point in the history of the British Motor Industry – one that could result in its final extinction after a strong revival from the depths of the early 1980s.
Those who have read my article, The Decline of BMC – The European Dimension, will have no doubt where my vote will go. For all its faults, and there are many, I will vote to stay in. Remember, Britain joined the Common Market primarily in order to sell its wares in a large single market.
Prior to January 1973, British car exports to the Common Market were subject to a 17.5 per cent trade tariff, which rendered them hopelessly price uncompetitive with other European manufacturers. My fear is that, unless Britain can negotiate favourable terms, an exit from the European Union will result in a return to the pre-1973 situation, and Britain is now a net exporter of cars.
Remember, Nissan, Honda, Toyota, BMW, General Motors and others set up manufacturing facilities in Britain in order to export to the larger EU market. They would not be investing millions just to concentrate on the relatively paltry UK car market. An exit from the EU could put all this in danger, and the big multi-nationals might have to relocate their European manufacturing facilities to within the EU, resulting in mass de-industrialisation in Britain – that’s a horrifying thought.
Much of the press has already backed the exit campaign, assuming their readers are Little Englanders, to whom the British Empire still exists. Other ‘No’ campaigners will focus on the return of powers from Brussels that an EU exit would bring. The loss of constitutional powers from Westminster to Brussels was at the heart of the ‘No’ campaign in the 1975 referendum and, to some degree, the fears of people like the late Tony Benn have been borne out, but the issue that will affect most ordinary people in this country is one of trade, whether we realise it or not.
During the past four decades Britain has transformed itself from the chaotic near-socialist state of 1974-76 to an entrepreneurial trading nation, leaving its 1970s image as the ‘sick man of Europe’ way behind. British goods have now regained their image for quality and reliability. On 23 June 2016 Britons could vote to make UK goods price uncompetitive in the majority of Europe, resulting in a dramatic re-adjustment in British society and a traumatic effect on employment.
One prominent opponent of the EU has claimed that membership costs Britain £55 million per day. However, if Britain leaves the EU, that £55 million might end up being redirected to the Department of Work and Pensions to pay for the upkeep of people whose former employers have relocated to countries that remain EU members – no doubt many motor industry employees would be amongst them.
This article will almost certainly attract some harsh criticism, but we must vote with our heads, not our hearts.