Every BMC/BL/Rover fan has heard of Lord Stokes, Sir Michael Edwardes and Sir Graham Day. They were the most famous chairmen of British Leyland.
However, three other men occupied the post after Lord Stokes: Professor Sir Ronald Edwards, Sir Richard Dobson and Sir Austin Bide. Here’s the story of the second. By Ian Nicholls.
Sir Richard Dobson
After Professor Sir Ronald Edwards untimely death on 18 January 1976, the post of Non-Executive Chairman of British Leyland became vacant. On 28 February 1976 it was announced that the job was going to Sir Richard Dobson, the retiring Chairman of British American Tobacco, who once exhorted shareholders to spread the gospel of private enterprise.
The appointment would take effect from 1 March 1976. Richard Portway Dobson was born on 11 February 1914. He later said in 1976: ‘My father was a professor and, said ‘my boy, if you want to get rich’- having been brought up relatively poor as one of five children, not all that poor, but I literally bought my first whisky after I joined BAT, not before – you won’t do it in the academic profession.’
‘My maternal grandfather was a businessman of some considerable success in his way making for churches or Nissen huts tubular stoves. Later on they went into ovens and central heating and grandpa made for those days a lot of money. My mother inherited a certain amount of financial acumen, as well as being an academic herself, so there is nothing shameful in my family about going into trade.’
He joined BAT from Cambridge University in 1935. The company posted him to China where he remained until the outbreak of the Second World War, during which he served in the Royal Air Force in the Middle East, Burma and Italy, flying Spitfires. After his war service in the RAF, he returned to BAT, working in China and then Rhodesia. He was appointed to the board in 1955, became Deputy Chairman in 1962, Vice-Chairman in 1968 and was made Chairman in 1970, a post he held until 1976. He was knighted in 1975.
He was President of BAT from 1976 to 1979. He was a tough team player in a diversifying multi-national group facing increasing pressure from the anti-smoking lobby. Sir Richard remained an unrepentant smoker of both pipes and cigarettes. He retained other directorships with the Exxon Corporation, Lloyds Bank International, the Tobacco Securities Trust and others.
Sir Richard Dobson admitted that his first reaction when offered the British Leyland chairmanship had been doubt about whether he could do the job. At a press conference, flanked by Alex Park, the British Leyland Chief Executive, and Sir Robert Clark, Chairman of Hill Samuel, who had been acting Chairman since Professor Sir Ronald Edwards death, Sir Richard said that “wiser people” had told him there was nobody else in prospect and ‘I found myself in a corner.’
In 1974, Sir Richard had attacked the Labour Party’s nationalization proposals and said it was inconceivable a body of “faceless men” could run BAT. He commented at the press conference: ‘I don’t know much about the motor industry, but I hope I know how many beans make five in British industry. I think there is a great difference between getting colleagues like Alex Park and me to run companies and the straight nationalization approach. But no one could call Lord Ryder faceless.’ The civil servants he knew were intelligent and sensible people, he said, ‘and the way to get them out of our hair is to manage things successfully and profitably.’
During this period, Alex Park and Derek Whittaker became the public face of British Leyland. Derek Whittaker had the unenviable task of running the strike-prone Leyland Cars division. The part-time Sir Richard Dobson did represent British Leyland when questioned by politicians. On April 28th 1976 he told a Commons sub-committee that ‘a situation could easily arise where neither I nor the board could recommend that the Government put more money into British Leyland. That is not too remote a possibility.’
Later, in evidence to the sub-committee examining the rescue of Chrysler UK, Sir Richard replied: ‘If you are asking me if there is a real possibility of the Government finding it unwise to give more money to British Leyland, I must say I think there is. The more people who understand that the better.’
On 10 May 1976 The Times newspaper published an interview with Sir Richard Dobson. He said of his chairmanship of British Leyland. ‘I look at this as a bit of national survival. It is of enormous importance to the country that British Leyland should continue to exist and should-be restored to health, which is going to take years at best. It is also important that somebody like me should have been available to come between it and the Government, in case the Government should take it into its head to try to run the day to day details of the business, which to be fair it has not done in the weeks in which I have been the Chairman.
‘I think it could be said that it was better for Leyland to have a businessman and a Tory at the head of it than to have a civil servant or even a committed Socialist. My dream would be to see Leyland so profitable that its shares could again be distributed, perhaps under a different Government, perhaps under a similar one, to the general public as a worthwhile investment. But it is a wartime situation as far as I am concerned. One didn’t object to the Army being nationalized and to that extent I feel about Leyland that if I can help it and I am still not sure that I can, I ought to do so. I don’t think my political principles have anything to do with it. The only alternative is to let it disintegrate and disappear with the awful disruption involved and as so often, the punishment of innumerable innocents for the crimes of a small number of guilty.’
The call to British Leyland came more or less out of the blue.
‘On about February 11th I had received my knighthood from the Queen. I had enough plans to keep me happy. My wife and I were saying “if it’s a fine day on Monday we can go off to South Wales for a couple of days, we’ve always meant to.” And then I got a telephone call from the United States, from a member of the board of Leyland’s. I thought ah, ah, I hope this isn’t what I think it is. Well, it was.
‘The next thing I knew, other people were telephoning and my first objection was well look, there is nothing I can contribute to this. I don’t know anything about motor cars. I don’t know very much about labour relations, why me? Well, it became apparent that there was a job to be done which was probably worth doing. So I wrestled with my conscience and my wife’s, who I must say supported me, and I suppose it was a little bit like enlisting in the air force when one was in Shanghai. One didn’t think it would be very much fun but one thought one would feel worse if one didn’t.’
Sir Richard Dobson was appointed as Chairman of British Leyland by Lord Ryder, who did not consult members of the National Enterprise Board, the Government organisation responsible for the nationalised industries of which he was Chairman.
Sir Richard was invited to take up the post of British Leyland by board member Ian Macgregor who phoned him from New York. Chloride Chairman and NEB member Michael Edwardes called on Sir Richard Dobson at the BAT offices in London to invite him to join the Chloride board shortly after the Macgregor phone call. Michael Edwardes had seen Lord Ryder only the day before and was completely in the dark about an approach to Dobson. Michael Edwardes cautioned against Dobson taking up the British Leyland post in a part-time capacity. Sir Richard Dobson discussed the post-Ryder Report British Leyland in his Times interview.
‘It has been divisionalized after the Ryder Report in quite a sensible way. You can on the whole say that a motor car has something in common with another motor car but doesn’t have all that in common with a lorry or a bus. It is the same with tobacco, you can’t sell cigarettes to the same salesman as you sell cigars, they go through a different kind of shops. You can’t sell cars in the same way as you sell buses, so you want a different approach.
‘You may get an order for 100 buses from Venezuela whereas cars are going through your dealers one at a time. There is a good deal of coordination now in British Leyland. It hasn’t got over the perils inherent in putting together lot of different businesses in a lot of different towns. One reason we can’t get over these troubles is poorly explained policies. There are still people who in their minds have legitimate grievances because they are not paid’ as much as somebody else doing the same job.
‘We would love to try to iron all that out, but there is a long history of indifferent labour relations, to put it politely, though we have some factories that never have struck at all in 29 years. We’ve now got four divisions in Leyland, which I inherited, I may say, which are cars, lorries and buses international, and then there’s a thing called special products, which is a bit of a conglomerate which is very profitable and is also run by one man. Each of those four divisions has its own financial staff, it has its personnel managers and so on. I know the head men, that’s about as far as I’ve got now: I have tried to see them present their activities to me and to the National Enterprise Board in the annual review.
‘I don’t believe it is necessarily unmanageable. Lots of people have said ‘if you start again you’d never have a single factory of more than 3,000 people. I think the economies of scale can be exaggerated. I understand that one of the assembly lines at Leyland takes you something about an hour to walk along. This absolutely staggered me when you think of 22,000 motor cars a week being churned out, it’s a hell of a lot of motor cars.
‘I think we can be fairly profitable if the people can be persuaded to work regularly and to bottle up more grievances until circumstances allow them to be corrected. But of course as far as one man is producing two cars instead of three he will not be as well off as the man who produces three. It is just elementary mathematics just as faced with the nightmare thought that in a few years time we may nationally start working a 35-hour week instead of 40 it is impossible to suppose that other things being equal a man who works 35 hours is richer than a man who works for 40.
‘But if you are prepared to labour for somewhat less rewards, then I think the thing can become viable. After all the Japanese have even less rewards in some ways than our people and work much harder. Hence their rather rapid overtaking of us industrially. I know the target can be achieved and I know the senior union officials in this country are as anxious as the management that it should be achieved. Mr Scanlon, who has really chanced his arm lately, has persuaded certain strikers who thought they had a legitimate grievance and have certainly thought so for some time, to go back to work.
‘All power to him. It is some time since I can remember a very senior trades union official taking a lot of trouble to get people back to work without any more pay, in face of the Government’s pay restraint policy. It can be done, but I think we shall know by the end of the year if Leyland has a future or whether it doesn’t. It will be politically impossible for the Government to give us the necessary money for capital re-equipment, which we must have if we are going to be competitive at all in the face of industrial disturbances.
‘We are expecting our new tranche of money in August or September. If we were faced again with a close down of Austin and Morris, which we very nearly were faced with recently, I don’t see how Lord Ryder could ask for the money or the Government could give it. I don’t see how I as Chairman could put my hand on my heart and say this is a good use of public money. It is absolutely crucial over these next few months.
‘If we get through this year and we get to our 22,000, then I think the sort of impetus will probably carry us along. I mean we are not paid too damn badly. Nobody else is liable to pay them more than they are going to get anyhow and there might even re-enter a certain pride of morale into parts of Leyland, which have been demoralized for some time. But if we really get the sort of classic reaction to the introduction of a new model, for example, in August and then a heavy strike immediately afterwards, then I think I shall be out of a job first and I shall be followed by a whole lot of others.’
Sadly, Sir Richard Dobson’s tenure at British Leyland was dogged by industrial disputes. The Rover SD1 was introduced in June 1976, but was not produced in the quantity and quality required. It was public knowledge that Leyland Cars was developing a new Mini, the ADO88, and there was even talk of converting Longbridge to a one model plant producing 350,000 new Minis a year. But Leyland Cars could not produce enough vehicles because of disputes and as a consequence market share went into freefall.
In early 1977 the Castle Bromwich car body plant went on strike, crippling production and, when it resumed normal working, the British Leyland tool makers walked out, virtually bringing Leyland Cars to a standstill. In the summer of 1977 Lord Ryder resigned as Chairman of the National Enterprise Board to be replaced by Leslie Murphy. In late summer 1977, just as British Leyland was recovering from the tool makers strike, production was again gradually brought to a standstill by a 10 week strike by tool makers at Lucas Industries, a component firm that Leyland Cars was heavily dependent on. Sir Richard Dobson was finding that customers were not as addicted to the products of British Leyland as they were to those of British American Tobacco.
On 27 September 1977 Sir Richard Dobson was invited by the Twenty Club to give a talk at the Dorchester Hotel in London.
The Twenty Club was a group of retail businessmen who met regularly on a private basis. Its president was Mr John Fenwick, of Fenwick’s, Newcastle upon Tyne, and the secretary was Mr Anthony Pedlar, of Broadbents’ Southport. The Chairman for the evening when Sir Richard addressed the club was Mr Richard Burgess, of British Home Stores.
His speech was secretly recorded and later released to the media. Apologies in advance for the use of an offensive term, but this is what Sir Richard said. During his speech Sir Richard referred to allegations that British Leyland had a ‘slush-fund’ for making payments to foreign countries to assist orders. He said that those allegations were accusing the company ‘of the perfectly respectable fact that it was bribing wogs.’
Sir Richard also discussed the Grunwick strike, a dispute over a demand by workers for union representation at a photographic laboratory that had become a cause celebre for the labour movement and had attracted mass pickets. He said: ‘You can’t tell me that the ordinary British worker is passionately concerned that a number of blackish people in north London are being underpaid.’
Referring to the finding of the Lord Scarman inquiry that Mr George Ward, Managing Director of Grunwick, was anti-trade union, Sir Richard went on: ‘Would the position of the United Kingdom in the world market be better or worse if the unions hadn’t multiplied? In fact, have the unions benefited their members at all? Or have they in fact done total damage in the last decade? I think it’s worth asking.’
In the speech Sir Richard attacked what he described as ‘the rising tide of hypocrisy’ in Britain, particularly on the subjects of race and the unions.
By the late 1960s there was a growing feeling in the country that the trade unions were getting too bloody big for their boots. They were getting altogether too powerful, not only for themselves, but for their own members.
He said that the ‘overriding motive’ for the unions has been ‘we must keep our Labour Government in power.’
Sir Richard added: ‘All I can say is that trade unions are bastards and they can say management are bastards or that I am a shit- but I can’t say anything like that.’
Sir Richard’s speech also contained some indiscreet remarks about the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, referring to the tension within the Labour Party over In Place of Strife back in 1969, he said: ‘Well, it got a bit hot, and Mr Callaghan turned and ran. It’s not the first time in our history that it was thought that if you could run fastest you were therefore a leader whatever direction you happened to be running in at the time.’
A few days later the Chairman of the NEB, Leslie Murphy, telephoned Michael Edwardes at his Chloride office and asked him to take over British Leyland.
Murphy had decided British Leyland needed a full-time Chairman. While Edwardes dithered over the offer and extracted his terms from the NEB for total control the Schweppes hit the fan. On 19 October 1977 the magazine Socialist Challenge, edited by Tariq Ali, published a transcript of the speech Sir Richard Dobson had made to the Twenty Club on 27 September. The use of a racist word and the anti-trade union stance of its speaker caused a furore at a time when many observers thought Britain was heading in a socialist direction.
When he heard that a secret tape recording had been made of the speech, Sir Richard said: ‘I very much regret that certain remarks made off the cuff at a private gathering may have caused offence when taken out of context.’
Tom Litterick, the Labour MP for Birmingham, Selly Oak, asked Eric Varley, the Secretary of State for Industry, to dismiss Sir Richard. Mr Litterick had listened to the tape recording of the speech in the offices of Socialist Challenge magazine. He said: ‘Sir Richard’s attitude to trade unions is clearly outmoded and counter-productive. I do not think he is a proper person to hold a high office in a public company.’
A petition calling for Sir Richard’s immediate removal from office gathered 200 signatures from Shop Stewards at British Leyland’s Rover plant at Solihull. It described his speech as racist and anti-union and called for an inquiry to discuss the facts about bribery and the extent of racist and anti-union views in the British Leyland management.
Tariq Ali, the Editor of Socialist Challenge, made a formal complaint about Sir Richard’s speech to the Commission for Racial Equality. Sir Richard Dobson managed to tell the media: ‘You must have a very, false impression of the sort of man I am. You must remember that I was talking to a small audience of about 30 and that it was an after dinner speech. In speeches of this kind one deliberately tries to be provocative and amusing. That helps to encourage discussion, which is a good thing.’
On 21 October 1977 Sir Richard Dobson resigned as Chairman of British Leyland Limited.
A resignation statement was issued jointly by the National Enterprise Board, British Leyland and Sir Richard Dobson which said: ‘Arrangements have today been made for Sir Richard to relinquish his appointment as Non-Executive Chairman of British Leyland and a director of British Leyland. In enabling such arrangements too be made, the National Enterprise Board recognizes and greatly appreciates that Sir Richard Dobson is exclusively moved by and concerned with the good relationship between management and employees. Sir Richard Dobson states that the recent unauthorized disclosure of extracts from a light-hearted and unscripted speech made to a private club after dinner has been used to convey a totally false impression of his personal and social attitudes and business ethics.
Such an impression would be known to be false to those acquainted to him and his career, particularly in regard to labour and race relations. It is a matter of special satisfaction to Sir Richard that during the course of his chairmanship British Leyland has received a very high degree of cooperation from all union leaders, a fact to which he has made grateful allusion both in public and private. However, his principal concern is to avoid any damage to the delicate labour situation now prevailing and on that account he accepts that a change of chairmanship at this moment might have benefits.’
Mr Tariq Ali, the Editor of Socialist Challenge magazine said his resignation was a victory for the paper and the International Marxist Group. Tariq Ali disclosed that the International Marxist Group had kept a file on Sir Richard and was preparing to publish articles in Socialist Challenge to coincide with the vote going on within British Leyland about the company’s proposals for national pay bargaining.
‘I think it is the first time a left-wing paper has brought about the sacking of a top industrialist’, Mr Ali said.
Tom Litterick MP, who cooperated with the International Marxist Group in calling for Sir Richard’s dismissal, said managers in nationalized industries who were hostile to the principles of public ownership were saboteurs.
‘What I want to see is ideological discrimination in picking managers for the public sector. After all, it exists in the private sector’, he said. Mr Litterick welcomed the way the International Marxist Group had involved him in their campaign to force Sir Richard’s resignation. He added ‘They need someone to fire their bullets for them and no doubt they will call on me again. As soon as anyone presents himself as a target, as Dobson did, I will home in on it.’
Mr Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, said: “Sir Richard’s appointment was a form of patronage; the lesson is that the next man must be appointed after long and exhaustive consultations with all the trade unions at Leyland.’
Sir Richard Dobson said before leaving Heathrow for Canada on the day of his resignation. ‘I joined British Leyland in the hope that I could do more good for them than harm, but it now appears that I am doing more harm than good. I regret that the statement was not published in full. I stand by what I said in full, but only an isolated paragraph was printed.’
The next day, 22 October 1977, Michael Edwardes of Chloride telephoned Leslie Murphy of the NEB to accept the job offer to become full-time Chairman of British Leyland.
The day after it was revealed that the man who had tape recorded Sir Richard Dobson’s speech was Peter Cooper, the 27-year-old son of Twenty Club member John Cooper. This John Cooper is not to be confused with the former motor racing constructor who was now running a Leyland Cars garage in Ferring in Sussex. An unapologetic Peter Cooper was tracked down by the Daily Express newspaper.
He told them: ‘I took the tape recorder because I had always suspected that what captains of industry say in public is different to what they say to other businessmen. I did not know what Sir Richard was likely to say and I did not have any clear idea myself what I would do with such a tape, but I still thought it would be interesting to get on record the sort of things these people say.’
There were about 30 people at the businessmen’s dinner, and Cooper sat only eight feet away from Sir Richard. Cooper; who worked at a law centre in North London, said: ‘I did not realise at the time what the consequences would be of my action, but I have no regrets. I have no sympathy whatever for the man. The fact that he has the audacity not to regret or withdraw his remarks clearly shows he is a racist and virulently anti-trade unionist. My sympathies lie entirely with the victims of Sir Richard’s obnoxious statements. Despite the fact that what I have done has cost him his job, he obviously must genuinely hold these views because he has not retracted them in any way.’
‘Even I was taken aback to see my suspicions – about what businessmen say in private confirmed in such a startling fashion, I had no idea what Sir Richard was going to say. It was his racism and anti-trade unionism which ultimately left me with little choice but to reveal what he had said. I hate racism in all its forms. I hate the fascists even more and I am proud to have taken part in the famous Red Lion Square demonstration of June 1974 against the National Front. It would have been irresponsible of me to keep Sir Richard’s speech secret.’
This then was Peter Cooper’s 15 minutes of fame. What became of him?
On 25 October 1977 at 2.30pm it was announced that Mr Michael Edwardes, the 47-year-old Chairman of the Chloride battery and electric vehicle group, was to be the new full-time Chairman of British Leyland from 1 November. On the day of the announcement Michael Edwardes attended the annual luncheon of the British Institute of Management. He sat next to Sir Austin Bide the Chairman of Glaxo, who he promptly invited to join his new management team. Bide in turn would succeed Edwardes in 1982.
The reason that Leslie Murphy, the Chairman of the National Enterprise Board, had been able to move so quickly in replacing the departed Sir Richard Dobson became apparent. Michael Edwardes had been offered the job three weeks earlier. Contrary to published reports at the time, Sir Richard Dobson resigned the day before Michael Edwardes finally accepted the job.
Whether Sir Richard knew Edwardes had been offered the job is not known. With his various directorships, Sir Richard Dobson had no need of the British Leyland job and he faded from the headlines. He died on 24 October 1993 aged 79 years. He was survived by his wife Betty and one stepdaughter.
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Nine : 1972 - 6 February 2021
- History : The Austin-Morris story – Part Eight : 1971 - 14 December 2020
- The cars : Jaguar XJ (X350) development story - 29 November 2020