Book review: Surrender: How British Industry Gave Up The Ghost 1952-2012

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There will be many ways of celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this year, but documenting the collapse of British industry over the 60 years since her accession may be one of the less popular ones.

SURRENDER: How British Industry Gave Up The Ghost 1952-2012

by Nicholas Comfort

Biteback Publishing, 354pp, £20

Nicholas Comfort has had a ring-side seat as a commentator on British industrial policy as a lobby correspondent, as well as being inside the DTI and Scotland Office as an adviser. His experience gives the book a ring of authenticity. This is a detailed account of our industrial fortunes or, for most of the period, misfortunes. Much of the interest is being reminded of trade names that used to be part of our daily lives and have disappeared totally or left to go abroad. Whatever happened to Bryant & May, J Lyons & Co, Meccano, Morphy-Richards or Slazenger?

A surprise of the book is to be reminded that industry after the Second World War was very buoyant as the country re-equipped after six years of war. Demand grew for household goods, utility furniture, clothes and cars. Sadly, the boom didn’t last: these goods were also only marginally updated versions of products available before the war. In Japan and Germany, industrial rebuilding went further, encompassing new ideas and production methods and forecasting of likely consumer demand. Only the car industry benefited briefly after MOT tests were introduced in 1960. House building had a brief boom both to replace destroyed stock and cope with the increasing birthrate but that stopped when the need was met.

Comfort is even-handed in apportioning blame. A fair share of goes to the trade unions which blocked any advance in working practices between 1964-79. The Baltimore Sun needed three workers in its print warehouse when the Daily Telegraph was employing 160 and there are many similar examples in the book. The taming of the unions in the 1980s came too late.

Business leaders, however, also share some of the blame. They showed little expertise in handling union power or in looking for new opportunities abroad. One of the saddest examples was when a new Rover car was taken to Tokyo for a car exhibition; British Leyland sent a left hand drive model, not knowing that the Japanese used the right-hand version. Remember Hoover’s offer of plane tickets which cost more than the vacuum cleaner they came with ? People bought extra cleaners to finance their holiday flights!

Government policy is examined carefully and a number of ministers are named for their incompetence. Lord Young, Margaret Thatcher’s industry secretary, does not come out of the story at all well. Comfort notes that having the same party in government from 1979-97 should have ensured continuity. Instead, as every civil servant knows, it is the individual minister whose views are more important than the party he represents and ministers are changed every two years or so, bringing in yet another switch in emphasis.

Then there is blame attached to civil servants for their pursuit of policy as an end in itself. Comfort notes that they deliver a policy to the minister with no background in the subject matter, then decline to get involved in implementation. “The implementation of these policies is all too often viewed as a grubby if regrettably necessary exercise not worthy of men and women with Firsts in Classics.”

Comfort deals with a range of other influences on industrial decline. Europe is not held to have been a major factor, bringing as many opportunities as disadvantages. But we only have ourselves to blame for many of the reasons businesses left these shores: NI contributions, taxation, local authority intransigence on planning or union refusal to consider new working practices. Even inward investment offered no panacea: when government subsidies ended, businesses often left. Comfort also blames the education system, noting that providing the skills needed by employers takes a low priority (the poor proofreading of his own book makes the point for him). He also questions the value of the drive in the 1990s to push students into universities when many would have been better having vocational training.

Where does this analysis leave our economic prospects? Comfort is not downhearted. On the one hand, he concedes that “No country’s industrial base is free of problems – but we in Britain have been slower, and less successful, than our key competitors in overcoming ours.” He also believes that “British manufacturing industry enters the seventh decade of the new Elizabethan age with much to congratulate itself on: far higher quality, acceptance of revolutionary new working methods, a virtual end to strikes.” Perhaps there will be more to celebrate at the Queen’s Platinum jubilee.