Blog : What is the truth?

The news that Derek Robinson has died has Ian Nicholls delving into the archive...

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

Derek Robinson
Derek Robinson

One of the purposes of AROnline is to correct the myths about our favourite vehicle manufacturer. We live in a world where admitting to liking British cars is like confessing to liking the humour of late comedian Bernard Manning.

We expose ourselves to ridicule from a populace brainwashed into believing any vehicle manufactured east of the River Rhine is automatically superior to anything cobbled together here in dear old Blighty.

BBC’s Top Gear, to its eternal shame, devoted an entire edition to ridiculing British Leyland. They did not just demean the cars, they demeaned Britain’s industrial heritage and those who toiled away to create a manufacturing future for the nation. The constant Leyland bashing in the media created a climate where the belief that Britain was no good at manufacturing became widely accepted by both the population at large and the Government.

Public opinion is often shaped by newspaper editors looking for a good angle on a story, ill-informed journalists with an opinion on every subject under the sun expressing it on the airwaves or in print, politicians looking for sound bites and Public Relations people, usually ex-journalists who have taken the corporate dollar. This then becomes the history that people remember.

Letting the truth get in the way

The recent death of Derek Robinson, bizarrely virtually on the 40th anniversary of his nemesis, Sir Michael Edwardes, taking over British Leyland, highlights how an individual can be tarnished with something that might not stand up to close scrutiny, but becomes accepted as the truth.

Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the Unite trade union, is quoted as saying:

‘Derek Robinson was a dedicated, life-long trade unionist who fought, as Convenor, for the rights and future of the then British Leyland workforce at the Longbridge plant in Birmingham during the 1970s. History will show that Derek was unfairly maligned by the media as he aimed to find solutions to British Leyland’s industrial disputes and turn around the car company.’

Now I am no left-wing zealot advocating massive state intervention and the nationalisation of everything from financial institutions to road-side burger vans. I would probably describe myself as a liberal Conservative with an irrational loathing of German cars, but I agree with Len McCluskey, Derek Robinson was the victim of a smear campaign by the media who were given the ammunition by BL management.

How many strikes?

News media have regularly repeated the claim that Derek Robinson was credited with causing 523 walkouts at British Leyland between 1978 and 1979, costing an estimated £200 million in lost production.

This claim was first made on 31 January 1980 on a BBC TV programme called ‘Platform One’ by BL Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes. Sir Michael claimed that there had been 523 disputes and 62,000 cars lost in the 33 months Derek Robinson had held office as the Longbridge Convener.

This claim was repeated in a letter on 7 February 1980 by Ray Horrocks, the Managing Director of BL Cars. The letter also claimed that 113,000 engines had also been lost.

This claim has become accepted as fact by the media and repeated over the years, but does it stand up to scrutiny? As Convener at Longbridge it was Derek Robinson’s job to solve disputes, not create them or lead them. Wildcat strikes by small groups of workers often led to mass lay offs, leading to loss of earnings by thousands of other employees.

It was Derek Robinson’s task, like his predecessor Dick Etheridge, to act as a facilitator between management and strikers in order to resolve disputes and get the mass of the work force earning money again. His task was not to lead a workers’ uprising.

‘Red Robbo’ started them all?

It is indeed possible that there were 523 disputes in 33 months at Longbridge, an average of 15 per month, but I do not believe Derek Robinson inspired them, and few of this alleged number of disputes ever reached the ever vigilant news media that had British Leyland under the microscope.

I suspect what lay behind this claim was an attempt by BL management to decapitate the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee. This body, which was not officially recognised by BL management or the trade unions, claimed to represent all BL’s employees. Since 1968, this organisation had effectively resisted rationalisation, redundancies and the introduction of more flexible working practices.

Derek Robinson had succeeded Dick Etheridge as the Committee’s Chairman in 1975. The Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee had welcomed the nationalisation of British Leyland in 1975, the injection of taxpayers cash, but refused to discuss redundancies.

Unlike previous BL management, Michael Edwardes and Ray Horrocks were prepared to take on the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee, probably viewing them as an impediment to the company’s recovery.

An easy target

Derek Robinson made it easy for them, leading an ill-judged strike at Longbridge in February 1979 in protest at BL’s decision not to pay a productivity bonus. This appears to be the only time the Longbridge Convener was actually photographed leading a strike, the images of Derek Robinson speaking in Cofton Park to the assembled multitude have been used ever since to illustrate his status as an agitator.

This error of judgement on Robinson’s part resulted in an official warning from BL in March 1979. Then, in November 1979, he officially backed the booklet ‘A Trade Union Response to the Edwardes Plan‘, which advocated active resistance to Sir Michael Edwardes’ rationalisation plan after the majority of the BL workforce had voted for it in a ballot. This was seen as seditious by the management who had Derek Robinson’s head on a plate.

Derek Robinson’s dismissal resulted in 30,000 BL workers going on strike all played out in front of the TV cameras. BL management got the factories working again by agreeing to an enquiry by the AUEW union into Derek Robinson’s conduct.

It was in this interregnum while the AUEW prepared its report that the 523 disputes in 33 months claim was made. BL management and the media successfully tarnished Derek Robinson as some sort of firebrand agitator out to bring down British Leyland. It was during this period that the name ‘Red Robbo’ first appeared in the media. Was Derek Robinson called that before November 1979 or was it a fabrication of the media?

The agitator ousted

The AUEW found that Derek Robinson should not have been dismissed, but left the final decision to the whole Longbridge workforce at Cofton Park.

The Longbridge workforce then rejected its erstwhile Convenor in February 1980 by a show of hands. I have no doubt that many of those present swallowed the story that Derek Robinson was a dangerous agitator hook, line and sinker. Many had probably never met him face to face.

If the sacking of Derek Robinson was meant to decapitate the Combined British Leyland Shop Stewards’ Committee, it was an ill-judged venture. The whole event was played out in front of the media from February 1979 to February 1980. In 1978, BL had a 23.5 per cent UK market share, in 1979 it slumped to 19.6 per cent and, by January 1980, it was 15 per cent. It was a damaging affair…

So, was Derek Robinson a dangerous man? I think not.

Ian Nicholls

Born in Bedfordshire but now residing in Norfolk, Ian Nicholls is an ardent BL enthusiast. Currently he owns a Jaguar and two classic Minis. A stalwart of the Norfolk Mini Owners Club for nearly a decade he is an enthusiast for all things Issigonis. A stickler for historical accuracy he has recently performed the marathon task of mining the online newspaper articles for all BMC>MG related stories. Ian is unable to help with technical queries – he pays other people to fix his cars!

33 Comments

  1. Next article : Degsy was a fine upstanding citizen who only had the interests of Liverpool’s people at heart

    • All I am asking people to do is question what they are told.
      There are spin doctors, both political and corporate feeding us infomation via the media for us to digest.

      • The reference to the two errors that Robinson made at the time is surely enough to label him as a pretty unhelpful guy when your trying to reconstruct a company!
        All the rest might by spin and hype – but irrelevant?

  2. As a reader of Autocar I have iong thought that it should be renamed The German Car owners magazine. Every week they are praising BMW Porsche and the VAG group up to the hilt.

    • I’ve often thought that too. The sheer volume of praise heaped upon the Germans verges on the sickening. And I know it’s an enthusiast’s publication, as are most car magazines, but far too much emphasis is put on handling and performance which in my daily commute to work through the traffic couldn’t be less relevant.

      • The problem is how cars are reviewed. The press are invited to a race track, gorgeous mountain roads and get a brand new perfectly setup press car. They then rag the crap out of it, talk about power and handling at the limit. This means car companies are under pressure to produce 1.5-2 tonne four seat cars that handle like races cars.

        Great, until people actually buy these machines. They then find they spend most of their time on pot holed roads in traffic jams. Comfort is far more important than handling and they own a car with rock hard suspension and skinny tires. That is back breakingly awful to spend any time in.

        Worse, to achieve the performance figures demanded by car reviewers, all the parts have been unnecessarily over engineered. Meaning they cost a fortune to replace when they go wrong.

        I have lost count of the number of modern cars I have been a passenger in, that spend their time trying to reduce my skeleton to chalk, by finding every bump in the road. Utterly hopeless.

        • Both of my Rover P6s show every modern car I’ve encountered of late the way to go regarding ride quality. The way they smooth things out is uncanny

        • How I agree with Bartelbe ; it is not, however , confined to German made cars : the Jaguar XF – which was splendid at its inception, has gone the same way, with the ride quality deteriorating with each “improvement” , and as for Japanese cars……..

      • What Car is just as bad, every other car, no matter how good, is considered not quite the same as a Volkswagen. Perhaps a conversation with my friend Malcolm about his supposedly invincible Polo, its engine had to be replaced after 20,000 miles due to serious mechanical issues( fortunately inside the warranty period), the electric windows have been troublesome, and the suspension and steering components have caused plenty of problems. Yet its a Volkswagen and has its damped glovebox and nice plastics to compensate for all these faults, which What German Car constantly reminds you of, when they find the switches a little bit hard on the latest Suzuki Swift, which is a cheaper and more reliable car than the Polo, and a lot more fun to drive.

  3. I agree, he can’t be blamed for all the problems. For me, He was just another nail in BL’s coffin. A coffin with a lot of nails that started in the 50’s and finished off in April 2005.
    However, I don’t agree when you say “We live in a world where admitting to liking British cars is like confessing to liking the humour of late comedian Bernard Manning”. Bit of an exaggeration perhaps?
    The love for Jaguar and Land Rover is greater than ever and it’s sales figures prove that fact.

  4. I think he was a target for BL manager’s, as with a target they could intensify the campaign to show they were dragging BL out of trouble. The issue at BL was no different elsewhere at the time – Ford and Vauxhall were striking but they could import cars from the continent to keep the business going. Knowing from my father’s experience at Fords during the 70s and early 80s were terrible for strikes to kick off for the silliest of things – colour of toilet paper, wrong sweets in vending machine etc. My favourite was when a member of staff was sacked as he had been caught stealing – hilarious as nearly everyone was at it – and was someone most people did not like, but because most people were worried they may be next they all went out! It was this attitude along with poor management that destroyed British industry and gave it a bad rep. However now days Unions have no teeth, which is shown by how top bosses wages have grown considerably quicker than the workers and the gap between rich and poor has grown since Maggie T changed the law.

    • The unions dug their own graves in the seventies, the Winter of Discontent was probably where the unions passed the point of no return. No one seriously would want to live through 1979 again, when there were pickets on hospital wards, fuel shortages and even watching television was badly disrupted by strikes, but it seems now management have carte blanche to do what they want and billionaires become ever richer. It has be said, though, the car industry Britain has now is vastly better than in 1979.

  5. Stealing was rife at Longbridge too. I was offered a full set of Mini front suspension, brakes and driveshafts for £100 from an employee once!

    • The best story I know at Ford was a consignment of Jag V8s that were on route and stopped at Dagenham overnight. In the morning the whole trailer had disappeared! The cameras on the gates showed nothing!

  6. The 70s was a decade of complete and utter madness.

    I lived in Birmingham throughout the 70s and saw it all play out. Every day the Birmingham Evening Mail would have announcements of a return to work at s some factory or other, some of them BL, some not.

    Frankly as the 70s drew to its close, most people were thoroughly fed up with constant strikes over nothing of any significance at all. The two trade union leaders Jones and Scanlon would wander around the UK government like a team of inspectors. People openly talked about “when will it all end”. Well, we know that, we got Maggie Thatcher who got so many sacked in every industry in Great Britain that once again, having a job was valued. She also handed Great Britain over to a load of City spivs and completed the wrecking of British industry half-achieved by he unions.

    The only man who caused the demise of Red Robbo was Red Robbo himself. I will not be mourning his passing.

    • I would not say that is slightly more balanced.
      It clearly states that Robinson LED 523 disputes.
      As for people like Ken Loach, they seem to forget that the British Leyland workforce voted for factory closures.Derek Robinson was fired because he advocated active resistance to the closures the people he claimed to represent had endorsed through a ballot.
      One presumes they would have advocated opposing Thatcherism by strike action making the nation ungovernable, a dangerous and divisive place to go.

      • Someone like Ken Loach, who has had a very comfortable living out of writing left wing plays and promoting every left wing cause going, probably never had to lose money through being dragged out on strike against their will, or losing their job as a result of a company being brought down by industrial action, management incompetence and products people were unwilling to buy. It’s very easy to drone on about the class struggle from somewhere like Hampstead. ( Champagne socialists and their oh so left wing views and frequent hypocrisy are a bugbear of mine).

  7. In 1979 strikes had become so prevalent they even interfered with your leisure interests, it was impossible to buy a copy of The Times for a year due to a strike over new technology and watching your favourite television shows was badly disrupted by strikes at the BBC and ITV. Most people,including the majority of Labour voters and union members, had become fed up with the antics of the unions and many workers in the car industry were tired of their wages being lost to industrial action. Fortunately bans on secondary picketing, the introduction of secret ballots for industrial action and the fear of losing your job dramatically reduced the number of strikes in the eighties and nineties.
    The downside has been unions have been seriously weakened as their old power bases in heavy industry have vanished and many employers no longer recognise them, and this has led to the rise of zero hour contracts, agency working and outsourcing that the unions would have stopped in the past. Also I could argue that the economic problems of the seventies were exacerbated by the Thatcher years, when a punishing rise in interest rates in 1980 and a very harsh budget the following year saw 1.5 million manufacturing jobs go and towns like Linwood that were totally dependent on the car industry became ghost towns.

  8. (This is my second attempt to post this comment:)

    Several different obituaries of Mr Robinson made mention of his final interview, given to the Birmingham Mail in 2005 following the collapse of MG-Rover. I was able to track down a mention of the article at http://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/local-news/red-robbo—i-told-you-11014 but not the article itself. Could somebody post it or a link in this thread? I think it would be fascinating to read and his “I told you so” would provide a meaningful counter-point.

    (I had a Triumph TR7 from 1976 to 1985 when I replaced it with — horrors — an E30 BMW. I have had a succession of Jaguars since and have found them to be wonderful and very reliable cars. Given my experience with the TR7, I have always had a fascination with Leyland that has lead me to purchase (and read), amongst other things, the Ryder Report, the Leyland Papers, Back From the Brink, and other such works. I would very much like to add the interview mentioned above to my collection.)

  9. Even with Red Robbo gone, British Leyland still had tense industrial relations until the mid eighties. The Metro’s launch was disrupted by industrial action, Cowley suffered a five week strike in 1983 over working practices, and Longbridge was hit by 22 days of industrial action in 1984. Things were better than the seventies, it has to be said, but union militants at sites like Cowley were still active and management was still arrogant and remote. Only a managing director like Graham Day, who encouraged the workforce to take pride in their work and believe in the company, changed the culture at Austin Rover, and the end of government subsidies and privatisation made the unions realise the government would no longer continually bail out the company

  10. Regarding a closely related but sufficiently different subject Bert Hopwood’s “Whatever happened to the British motorcycle industry” and Abe Aamidor’s “Shooting Star. The rise and fall of the British motorcycle industry” make for interesting reading on frightening managerial incompetence ruining another industry the British once led. John Rosamond’s “Save the Bonneville!” history of the Meriden workers’ co-op shows that workers were no better when they had the chance to run a company

    • Like the car industry, the British motorcycle has undergone a huge revival in recent years by concentrating on the high end of the market and companies like Hesketh and Triumph are doing really well. Yet in the sixties, like the British car industry in the seventies, the Japanese threat was ignored as it was considered everyone would continue to buy British and something from Japan, whose economy was considered backward, was bound to be inferior. Yet Japanese bikes with their lower purchase price, good build quality, lighter bodies and excellent performance rapidly gained in popularity against British models and the industry started to collapse in the late sixties.

      • The British motorcycle industry didn’t collapse because of a Japanese invasion. The Japanese sold motorcycles that were reliable and didn’t leak.
        In order to sell motorcycles they have to be properly built and need to be reliable.
        Because industry managers ignored the changed customers’ expectations towards these secondary virtues they killed their industry.
        Pretty much the same as happened at BL and this was not Red Robbo’s fault.

        • Obviously, though, people were buying Japanese bikes in huge numbers for the reasons you’ve given. Also the reason many people turned to Japanese cars, apart from the excellent reliability and low running costs, was value for money. In 1978 you could buy a Datsun Sunny for slightly less than a basic Ford Escort, but unlike the Escort the Sunny came with a fitted radio, cloth seats, clock, cigarette lighter and tinted glass. To get this level of equipment on an Escort, you’d probably need to get a Ghia, which would cost significantly more than a base model.

        • I’ve heard a lot of older British motorcycles needed a lot of day to day maintenance, not a problem when most owners were mechanically minded, but as the market expanded those less skilled wanted to own them. Having engines where the points didn’t need setting for months at a time was a big bonus.

          Like the later growth in Japanese cars this seemed to happen first in key export markets for British vehicles.

          • Points didn’t need setting for months at a time? You’ve obviously never had something like a RD250 Yamaha then; setting points and timing was a very frequent chore. Also worth remembering that the once large French and German motorcycle industries also collapsed.

  11. I was always out on a limb about the Japaneze car invasion. I thought the whole thing was a massive publicity success in demonstrating equipment (not style) over substance. The Nissan Sunny may well have come with loads of gizmos but the public ignored the fact it has like most Jap cars a horrid interior and was pretty awful to drive. Even now, given the opportunity to drive 500 miles in a Sunny or an Austin 1300 or a Vauxhall Viva – come on, it’s a ‘no brainer’. As a classic and vintage car man I can also tell you that if you have a hundred cars at a classic meeting – there will be a selection of ADO 16’s, a couple of Viva’s and…..no Datsun Sunny’s. We attend over 25 shows a year and I have seen just one in 12 months. With regards to a previous comment on ‘an irrational hatred of Gernan cars’ my dislike of them is not irrational. I despise the ‘aspirational’ element – Audis and BMW’s are good cars – it’s the owners that put me off ever buying one. I’m not interested in impressing my neighbour, one up manship, status or snobbery. I buy cars I admire for their engineering and shape. I’ve no interest in throwing my keys down on the bar and everyone thinking – ‘wow – he owns. BMW!’ The hard truth is that the aspirational aspect of owning one of the cars has over-taken the integrity of the machine a long time ago!

  12. The main battle ground for the Japanese invasion were places where people wanted a car that worked “out the box” & was simple to repair.

    There is a niche of collectors of old Japanese cars, but in some ways they were the first “white goods” cars & treated as disposable when they got too expensive to repair.

    I agree that a lot of BMW & Audi owners are like that, which distracts from how the cars are.

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