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.
Latest posts by Ian Nicholls (see all)
- Opinion : A little bit of politics, 2019 edition - 12 November 2019
- Opinion : Is the sun setting on the age of the car? - 9 October 2019
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part One : 1968 - 22 September 2019