Essay : Strike hard, strike sure

Ian Nicholls assesses the industrial relations endured by British Leyland throughout the 1970s.

Please note: This article touches on politics. First of all it is not my intention to criticise or condemn any political viewpoint sincerely held by individuals, merely to understand why people believe in the various credos that affected British Leyland, Ian Nicholls.

(Picture: Ian Nicholls)
(Picture: Ian Nicholls)

THE 1970s was a time of industrial strife, when wildcat car strikes and walkouts within the BL empire featured nightly on the TV news. Build quality and reliability of all British-made cars went down the toilet, while imported cars gained ground – indeed, the public’s perception of British goods has never recovered. How did this come about? In 1965 BMC was selling all it could produce, winning rallies and was at the cutting edge of automotive development. By 1980 it was a loss-making, state-owned concern with appalling labour relations. All the cars launched since BL’s creation in 1968 had been plagued with reliability and quality issues that had masked the continuing creative engineering that the company offered to buyers. How did this happen?

I believe the turning point was in 1968. Before 1968 Britain had a political consensus between the Conservative and Labour parties that believed in a mixed market economy. If one believed in social justice one voted Labour and if one believed in free enterprise one voted Conservative. In early 1968 Britain had a Labour government under Harold Wilson, who was encouraging BMH to merge with the Leyland group. The big international story was the Vietnam War, and in early 1968 the siege of Khe Sahn airbase and then the Tet Offensive exploded on to our television screens. The sight of a South Vietnamese general shooting a Viet Cong suspect in the head in front of the world’s media inflamed opinion both in the USA and western Europe.

Europe’s capital cities saw widespread anti-Vietnam war protests, directed both at the USA and the European governments that diplomatically supported the American war effort. May 1968 saw France paralysed by student protests and a wave of strikes that brought the country to the brink of civil war. President Charles De Gaulle’s government survived, but it had to make reforms. Britain was not immune to this wave of unrest. Grovesnor Square in London – home to the US Embassy – saw a huge anti-war protest and strenuous police efforts to contain it. The Vietnam war had inspired many people to engage in left-wing politics and I believe that in that pre-Internet era, the anti-war movement acted as a unifying focus for those individuals who had a vision of British society that was further to the left of Harold Wilson’s.

What did this new generation of political activists believe in? That the capitalist system was rotten to the core. That workers should control the means of production. That the citizen should be looked after by the state from the cradle to the grave. The right to work. In other words a philosophy completely at odds with mainly capitalist Britain.

In 1968 British Leyland was formed and both Donald Stokes and Harold Wilson had every reason to be optimistic. BLMC’s forecasts were based on the relatively calm industrial relations of the preceding years. BLMC’s decision to end piecework may have been the catalyst for the strife that was to come, but strikes started to become more common. 20,000 Vehicles were lost through industrial action in 1968/69 rising to 40,000 in 1970/71, but BLMC wasn’t alone in having such problems; other firms were also having their troubles. The earliest record I can find of industrial turmoil in the motor industry is the Daily Mail Motor Show Guide of 1969. At BLMC the shop stewards controlled recruitment and so were able to bring into the workplace political activists who were able to preach dissafection to employees. One retired Ford manager has remarked that they had representatives of every hard-left group imaginable in their UK factories. Ford had only agreed to build a factory at Halewood on Merseyside if MI5 vetted every job applicant, however after a few years the filtering process ceased and then all Hell broke loose. Trawling photo agencies on the Internet I find the earliest visual evidence of strife in BLMC is a strike vote on 31 July 1970.

1970 saw the election of the Conservatives under Edward Heath. It was easy for militants to portray Heath as an enemy of the working class, and strikes increased. The early 1970s saw rampant inflation, which fuelled wage demands, leading to strikes, followed by wage settlements… which fuelled inflation and thus further wage demands. In 1972 unemployment passed the 1 million mark, a year which also saw a miners strike with one Arthur Scargill prominent in the National Union of Mineworkers’ successful prosecution of their case. In a knee-jerk reaction the Heath government pumped money into the economy to reflate it. That summer saw a shock floating of the Pound, supposedly to stop its slide, but in January 1973 the Stock Exchange saw huge falls and by March counter-inflation measures were in force. 1973 also brought the Yom Kippur Arab-Israeli war which resulted in huge oil price increases and economic instability in the West. Within BLMC the dissafection preached by militants had resulted in employees losing pride in their work. Cars were not assembled properly, nuts and bolts were not tightened as much as they should have been. Why should they graft hard for management who were portrayed by activists as fat cats getting rich on the workers’ underpaid efforts? The dealers often had to rectify faults. I have heard of a case where a Mini gearbox was removed from a car and found to contain oily rags! In September 1973 foreign cars outsold those of BLMC in its home market for the first time.

Attempts to reason with the militants failed. Attempts by both the Wilson and Heath governments to legislate were portrayed as an attack on workers’ rights. A few activists went to jail and became martyrs to the trade union movement. I argue that one cannot rationalise with shop stewards to co-operate, when they fundamentally disagree with the capitalist system that firms like BLMC were operating in.

1974 saw another miners’ strike which led to the defeat of Edward Heath’s Conservative govenment following a 3-day working week from December 1973 to March 1974. Whatever one’s opinion of Heath’s tenure of office, many activists believed that strike action had brought about political change and a Pandora’s box had been opened.

Britain’s economic woes continued unabated. Between January 1974 and January 1975 petrol prices virtually doubled, and by the summer inflation was running at 16% and the FT Index was going down. By October 1974 the average wage had risen by 21% in 12 months.

The return of Harold Wilson’s Labour party to government did nothing to stop the wave of strikes sweeping Britain, and in late 1974 BLMC financially collapsed and was nationalised. Lord Stokes blamed industrial action for fatally weakening the company, but could in hindsight could anything have been done to change things? I think not. The vast majority of disputes that affected BL were unnofficial, and to their eternal credit, national union leaders such as Terry Duffy, Moss Evans, Len Murray, etc did everything they could to avert industrial meltdown.

In 1975 inflation reached 25% and unemployment was at its highest level since 1940. The following year bankruptcies reached record levels and the value of the Pound was collapsing against the Dollar, slipping below $2 for the first time and descending to $1.63, while interest and mortgage rates soared. Against this chaotic background perhaps we should not be surprised at the number of strikes occurring in Britain as working people sought to maintain their standard of living.

By the mid-1970s Britain was divided by the “Unions” issue. Politics was polarised around one issue: the unions and their role in society. Nothing else seemed to matter and it would remain like that until perhaps 1994 and the arrival of new Labour. There were two possible outcomes:

1. Britain would become a Socialist state;

2. There would be a right-wing backlash.

In British Leyland, despite its being owned on behalf of the people, the wave of industrial anarchy continued. Every car the company launched from the Maxi onwards flopped. Build quality issues deterred customers in their droves. The Rover SD1 is a case in point: had it been built in any other country but Britain in the 1970s it would have been a roaring success. It was the right car at the right time, but was built in the wrong place. Perhaps it was the point of no return for BL.

British Leyland seemed to symbolise everything that was wrong with Britain in the 1970s, the only news about the company that was reported was bad news; there were constant stoppages, and the cars that were built in between were badly assembled and unreliable. There were stories about night shift workers using sleeping bags and chairman Sir Richard Dobson was forced to resign after being tape recorded making allegedly racist remarks at a private function. The company became a political football between Left and Right, its customer care-less policy contrasting with that of the profitable, private and market-led Ford UK. BL loaned cars to TV producers Brian Clemens and Albert Fennell for the filming of their series The New Avengers, including a pre-production Rover SD1. The cars were woefully unreliable and according to Brian Clemens who had owned a succession of Jaguars, “I have never bought a British car since, and I doubt that anyone associated with The New Avengers drove a BL car for a long time after that.” When the contracts expired at the end of 1977 Fennell and Clemens defected to Ford for their next series The Professionals, turning the Ford Capri into a cult car.

In 1976 Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister and he was replaced by James Callaghan, who in late 1977 replaced Richard Dobson with Michael Edwardes as BL chairman. In his BL memoirs “Back from the Brink“, Edwardes claims to have dramatically reduced the stoppages. The late British politician and historian Alan Clark once remarked that the memoirs of Second World War German generals were “self justificatory” and I think the same can be applied to those of politicians, military commanders, sportsmen and businessmen. Edwardes may have reduced the stoppages, but did the workforce respect him and understand what he was trying to do?

Let battle commence: BL chairman Michael Edwardes and union activist Derek "Red Robbo" Robinson.
Let battle commence: BL chairman Michael Edwardes and union activist Derek “Red Robbo” Robinson.

The fact is that after 1977 BL cars continued to be badly built. BL may have installed a retired army officer as quality controller at Cowley, but even he couldn’t watch over every employee to make sure every nut and bolt was tightened. Edwardes had three serious disputes with the shop stewards. The first was in 1979 and was over the sacking of Derek Robinson, the Communist shop steward known as “Red Robbo” to the tabloid press. Robinson was a gifted orator who knew how to talk to the Longbridge workforce. We now know that Edwardes had the help of MI5, who had been bugging the HQ of the Communist party of Great Britain. MI5 infiltrated Robinson’s inner circle to spread anti-Robinson feeling amongst the workforce. Would Edwardes have succeeded but for MI5? The other two disputes were over pay in 1980 and 1981. On both occassions the shop stewards nearly succeeded in bringing the workforce out on strike, and in the 1981 dispute many opposition Labour MPs openly called for Edwardes’ sacking.

Back in the late 1970s the Callaghan government borrowed heavily to prop up Sterling, resulting in the humiliating position whereby the International Monetary Fund was dictating British economic policy and expenditure cutbacks. Although this was a U-turn it did paradoxically lead to some short-lived stability.

By late 1978 the Labour government had been successfully tackling inflation in partnership with the Trades Union Congress (TUC). The TUC had been persuaded to restrict wage demands to an agreed percentage. For the 1978/79 wage round the agreed limit was 5%, but the TUC rejected this figure at their Autumn 1978 conference, arguing for “free collective bargaining”; this put it on a collision course with the Government. The first real test was at Ford UK where, after a wage dispute, the company agreed to settle above the Government’s 5% limit. This opened another Pandora’s box and workers up and down Britain struck for higher pay, in both the public and private sector. Rubbish piled up in the streets and in hospitals, towns were blockaded and the press soon dubbed the whole episode “the Winter of Discontent”. Middle-class, car-buying, mortgage-paying Britain recoiled in horror; 1979 was an election year…

In hindsight the Winter of Discontent has to be looked on as an extraordinairy act of self destruction by the Labour movement that was to cost them 18 years in opposition. Cabinet minister Peter Shore remarked some 20 years after the event that the conduct of the trade unions invited legislative reforms by the incoming conservative administration. Certainly the Winter of Discontent had some influence on the thought processes of the founding fathers of New Labour.

May 1979 saw the return of the Conservatives to power and the long-awaited right-wing backlash. The Tories brought in a whole rash of anti-trade union legislation under their leader Margaret Thatcher. Thatcher is someone who polarises opinion in Britain. Her supporters see her as a savior who smashed union power and ushered in an era of consumerism and freedom of choice, while her detractors see her as Satan incarnate, destroying great chunks of Britain’s industrial base and creating great inequalities and social division. I would argue that without the industrial strife of the preceding decade Margaret Thatcher might never have got to Downing Street: her political opponents inadvertantly did everything to engineer the election of a hard-line right-wing premier with an anti-trade union agenda.

In 1979 the Islamic revoloution in Iran and then the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 helped kick off a second oil crisis, followed by recession. In Britain a combination of recession, high interest rates and the Thatcher regime’s moneterist policy resulted in rapidly increasing unemployment. Factory closures seemed to be a daily occurrence. I actually think it is unfair to wholly blame Thatcher for the destruction of Britain’s industrial base. Many of the strike ridden factories that closed had for years been producing poorly made goods which had been deserted by customers. The recession was just the final coup de grace. In the end Margaret Thatcher could not be blamed for poor assembly of manufactured goods. Firms like Ford UK and Vauxhall had partially solved the problems in their British plants by importing cars from their EU factories. The Ford Granada and Capri were eventually made in Germany, for example.

In 1980 the workers in the state-owned British Steel Corporation struck for pay. A long running dispute saw secondary picketing of private steel firms not involved in the strike. This was another practice that incensed middle class Britain. I think at the time many on the Left thought that they would finish off Mrs Thatcher just like they had dealt with Edward Heath. Certainly things were going against the Conservatives. In 1981 with unemployment worsening, Britain’s inner cities exploded into violence: Brixton, Toxteth and others went up in flames.

Meanwhile after their 1979 election defeat the Labour party embarked on a civil war. Left-wingers like Tony Benn argued that they had been defeated at the polls because their policies had not been left-wing enough. Policies like nuclear disarmament, giving more power to the unions, higher taxes and a general hostility to any form of private enterprise only served to drive a wedge between the Labour party and the middle classes who had once voted for Harold Wilson.

Back at BL, Michael Edwardes embarked on the factory closure programme which had been agreed with the preceding Labour government. Although he was a Callaghan appointee and his contract was not renewed by the Conservatives, many people now see Edwardes as one of Mrs Thatcher’s hatchet men, inflicting mass unemployment and misery on thousands of workers.

By the spring of 1982 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives seemed doomed to defeat at the polls at the hand of Michael Foot’s left-wing Labour party. Mass unemployment – the like of which had not been seen since the 1930s – engulfed the country. But events far away in the South Atlantic were to change things.

British victory in the Falklands War changed the whole political spectrum. The Tories wrapped themselves in the union flag, and Britain was engulfed by a wave of patriotism. Mrs Thatcher was able to paint her opponents as the “enemy within”; it was a strange time to be alive. Even so, during the war Rolls-Royce aero engine workers had refused to work overtime.

The spring of 1983 saw the Conservatives re-elected with a 147-seat majority… and the launch of the Austin Maestro. For the last time the BL shop stewards managed to sabotage the launch of an important car. The Maestro replaced the flop Allegro and it was vitally important to BL. Its launch went okay until the Cowley factory producing the car came out on strike on what seemed to be trivial issues.

I recall day after day seeing senior shop steward Mr David Buckle being interviewed on television. The dispute was resolved, or so it seemed, and then David Buckle led the workforce out on strike again. Combined with negative stories of initial Maestro unreliability this only convinced middle class Britain that BL was not on the road to recovery, that dissafection in the workplace was still widespread and that the cars were as badly produced as ever.

The final big confrontation between the doctrines of Capitalism and Socialism was the 1984/85 miners’ strike. In one corner was Margaret Thatcher and in the other the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill. Scargill was and is a gifted orator whom I believe to be sincere and honest in his beliefs, even though I don’t agree with anything he says. Scargill’s openly Marxist beliefs, which he outlined to Michael Parkinson on his BBC TV chat show, made him another bogeyman to middle class Britain. To many observers the miners’ strike revealed Britain to be a nation engaged on an industrial civil war for the hearts and minds of its people. The country was sharply divided over the issue; it was the only issue. But unlike 1974, the rest of the union movement was not prepared to strike in sympathy and bring down the government, and after a year it was over. In hindsight it was an awful time for Britain.

For BL 1984 saw the launch of the Montego and in 1986 the Rover 800. 1986 also saw some wildcat strikes over silly issues which made the national press, showing that BL hadn’t quite put the bad old days behind it and that there were still problems on the factory floor. Indeed, early Rover 800s were badly built, including the example given to the BBC’s motoring programme Top Gear to evaluate.

In the late 1980s the industrial strife that had swept Britain seemed to fade away as quickly as it had appeared. Perhaps it was the fear of mass unemployment, the need to work to pay off large mortgages or even that common sense had prevailed. Maybe Britain was just exhausted by two decades of industrial turmoil. For the first time in twenty years the Rover Group was able to launch a car, the R8 Rover 200/400, knowing that it would not be sabotaged by wildcat strikes and that it would be built by a motivated workforce with pride in their work. The fact that the R8 sold in large numbers was just reward. Even the issue of the trade unions’ role in British society faded away. The 1997 general election was probably the first since 1970 where “the unions” was not an issue. Normal debate has now resumed.

In writing this article it is my contention that between 1968 and 1985 Britain was engulfed in a political civil war for the hearts and minds of its people, between Socialism and Capitalism. In all wars there are casualties. One of them was Britain’s industrial base and the thousands of jobs that went with it. Another was the British public’s faith in its own manufacturing industry to produce reliable goods. Today, farmers drive Japanese 4X4s, families drive VW Golfs, pensioners drive far-Eastern superminis, executives and professionals drive BMWs. “Made in Britain” used to be a proud boast, whereas now “made in Germany” has more appeal. I am reguarly told that Rover’s K-series engine is unreliable; if that’s true, how come Britain’s council estates are amply populated with high-mileage Rover R8 214s that probably recieve poor maintenance?

From 1973 to 1985 I lived in a Bedfordshire village. It was a staunchly Conservative area and I know how middle class Britain reacted to the strikes and figures such as Derek Robinson and Arthur Scargill. They changed their unreliable Rover SD1 2600 for a Saab 900. They voted for Mrs Thatcher. The area now has a Labour MP. In the end power is won by those who appeal to the middle classes. That is an electoral reality: Harold Wilson knew it; Margaret Thatcher knew it; Tony Blair knows it.

In reviewing what I have written I can’t see how anything could have been different, it seems to have been set in stone, an inexorable chain of events that got out of control. I actually think it is a miracle Britain has any industry left. I hope the country never has to go through it again.

Ian Nicholls
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  1. Well written and researched.

    It always makes me laugh when people state that Thatcher destroyed British Industry when in fact it was a combination of Unions, poor Management, poor Labour Governments, poor products and Thatcher being allowed to help it on its way thanks to their actions.
    In fact, for all those who like to blame the Tories for everything it should come as something of a sobering thought to know that in fact Industry declined more rapidly and damagingly under Tony Blair than it did under Thatcher and Major.
    I’m certainly no Tory, but I am a realist.
    We have a long way to go to rebalance the economy and build up a strong manufacturing base again.
    Let’s hope than as we do, the lessons of the past are not ignored.

  2. Hear hear, The unions were the biggest drain on this (and many other) companies in the 60’/70’s, helped i’m sure by weak management and weak governments but putting enemies within like Benn in charge of trade and industry was like a green light to those toytown trotts in the unions…According to the BBC, “between 1978 and 1979 Mr Robinson was credited with causing 523 walk-outs at Longbridge, costing an estimated £200m in lost production”. And that’s one man at one plant!

  3. What people forget is that the UK is further round the industrial cycle than most other countries on this planet, the contraction of industry was needed as the country was moving to a different type of economy. That was filled by the service sector with certain areas such as banking being given too much of a share, with inadequate regulation and globalisation we have the current situation we face. Even now UK firms are moving outsourced areas out of China, rising prices and poor quality are the usual factors, while Germany’s need to be seen as the powerhouse of Europe is forcing them to outsource more and more components, driving down quality, even Japanese firms are following suit, hence big recalls on Toyotas and Hondas….

  4. Reading British Leyland:Chronicle of a Car Crash makes interesting reading on this subject,the much castigated(not without reason)Derek Robinson even conceded strike actionwas getting out of hand-a lot of the strikes were not union sanctioned-militant lunatics was a big player in stoppages as was outside suppliers.I believe Mr. Robinson did truly believe what he was doing was in the best interests of the workers however misplaced and in some interviews,in particular with CAR magazine he made well rounded cogent arguments.

    The mergers should never have taken place,it ended up a behemoth beyond management,instead,all the firms should have withered on the vine as markets move on.

  5. Yet what remains of the British car industry, largely run by foreign companies, is now a huge success with not a single day lost to industrial action for 20 years. Nissan, Mini, Honda, JLR and Toyota make reliable products that people want to buy with Britain a net exporter of cars again. No one wants to go back to the bad old days of the seventies and British cars are as good as anything from Germany.

  6. They used a sub contractor recommended by Geely; hmmmmm….. sounds like a recipe for disaster oh and look.. it is. The only thing that surprises me is how …

    1. they allowed sub contracting for probably the most important part of the mechanicals other than the engine block itself and…
    2. if they absolutely had no choice in the matter why they did not have a team of english/mandarin fluent speakers on the shop floor of said sub contractor every single day of the working week. I Manufacture in China and I have a permanent staff of 2 on the shop floor because they do screw it up unless you are there ALL THE TIME.

  7. However, while I believe Red Robbo and his comrades caused immense damage to British Leyland and many of the strikes were politically motivated or laughable( a strike at Solihull over the colour of overalls), bear in mind the period from 1974 to 1979 was dominated by double digit inflation and rising unemployment, so the unions naturally thought they were helping their members by asking for large pay rises and trying to save their jobs through demarcation disputes.

  8. Since I wrote that article, I have accumulated stacks more info. But Glenn Aylett was spot on about the double digit inflation.
    I don’t believe Derek Robinson was the bogeyman he was made out to be. During 1976 he helped to solve disputes. I’ve seen no evidence that he was a cancer gnawing away at British Leyland.
    I think his dismissal was down to the paranoia of Sir Michael Edwardes who came from South Africa where whites saw communism as a threat to their way of life. I am not saying Edwardes believed in apartheid, but people like him saw communists as their enemy and that’s why Robinson was sacked. Derek Robinson was not labelled Red Robbo until February 1979.
    BL issued a claim that Robinson had been behind 524 disputes since 1976 and nobody questioned it. The whole Red Robbo bogeyman business has been accepted as fact by even the most left leaning contributors, but I can see no evidence for it.

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