Yesterday saw the end of Margaret Thatcher. Here, in the UK, it’s fair to say that there’s not a single person alive that’s been untouched by Thatcherism in one way or another – and that’s quite a legacy. AROnline‘s not the place to discuss the wider social implications of her 11 years in power, but there can’t be many readers who would say that the Great Britain of 1990, when she left Downing Street, saying ‘it’s been emotional’, was a very different place when she swept into Downing Street in 1979 quoting St Francis of Assisi.
One thing that we can be confident of discussing with the benefit of three decades of hindsight is the long-lasting effect that her 1979-1990 administration had on the British car industry. Regular readers will have already seen Ian Nicholls’ excellent essay about Westminster’s involvement in the managed decline of British Leyland and it’s well worth a read if you’ve not done so already. That’s because, in one way, Ian’s piece does partially put aside the common-held belief that the Tories destroyed industry in the UK.
British Leyland aside, the Conservative Government’s greatest legacy to the British car industry was the policy of encouraging Japanese manufacturers to base themselves in the UK. Thatcher’s government was more than aware that the Government-controlled car company was in a spiral of decline – and had pretty much decided that it was irreversible in 1979 – and that the Japanese would fill the vacuum created by a retreating BL. We now can see evidence of this policy today – Nissan is now the UK’s largest car manufacturer, having built half a million cars in the north east, selling a range of products not only built here, but also developed and designed in Bedfordshire by British engineers. Toyota and Honda also have significant installations in the UK, so the success of this 1980s policy is plain to see.
During the past few weeks I’ve been sifting through National Archive documents concerning the 1979 Conservative Government’s involvement in the affairs of BL following Margaret Thatcher’s election victory. And it’s amazing to see just how close the company got to closure, even in the wake of company Chairman Sir Michael Edwardes getting the company’s workers to vote in favour of the 1980 corporate plan. And that was explosive, because it effectively meant that management gained the agreement of the workforce to close factories, lay-off staff, agree to new working conditions, and invest in its future.
Much of the 1979 Conservative cabinet felt that Britain could afford to lose BL for the sake of a £130m investment, even if it meant a potential 200,000 jobs and a huge impact on the country’s balance of payments. It was a cliffhanger of a situation, and we know the outcome – ultimately Margaret Thatcher signed the cheque and safeguarded the future of BL.
You can read the full feature and the National Archives documentation on Honest John – there are some amazing revelations in there – especially Margaret Thatcher and Sir Michael Edwardes’ personal interventions in events and their opinions and standpoints. Whatever your opinions on Margaret Thatcher and her handling of the car industry, it’s clear we’re in better shape now – in 2013 – than any of us would have dared to dream about in 2005, when MG Rover’s flickering flame was finally snuffed out.