Alf Young: Borderline case a cause for concern

Before its closure in 1981, the Linwood car plant endured its fair share of problems. Picture: Ian Brand
Before its closure in 1981, the Linwood car plant endured its fair share of problems. Picture: Ian Brand
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ON THE day in February 1981 they announced the Linwood car factory was to close with the loss of 4,800 jobs, I was sitting outside the plant in a Radio Clyde radio car.

A rookie journalist of less than two years standing, I was on a mission that was becoming all too commonplace. Delivering the last media rites on yet another failed industrial enterprise. Seeking predictable reactions from those who were about to lose their livelihoods.

I had watched Linwood’s struggle to prosper for years. In the late-Sixties, as a rookie schoolteacher, my first post had been teaching physics at Paisley Grammar School. As was commonplace back then, the job came with a guaranteed council house, in my case a first floor flat in the Johnstone Castle scheme just three miles from the plant. A lot of my neighbours worked on the Hillman Imp assembly lines.

By then, the original owners, Rootes, who had effectively been forced to locate the plant in Scotland by the Macmillan government’s refusal of an IDC, an industrial development certificate, to develop its preferred site, near its main works at Ryton, south of Coventry, had been acquired by the Chrysler Corporation of America. Chrysler saw the acquisition as enabling it, belatedly, to compete with Ford and GM for a slice of the European car market.

However, the clash of Michigan macho management and Clydeside union intransigence proved explosive. I recall meeting one young American supervisor socially. He was openly bragging of walking the Linwood assembly line with a bullwhip stuck provocatively into his back pocket. Little wonder the block with the most incendiary reputation at Linwood was dubbed Crazy-K.

But fractious labour relations were not the whole story of Linwood’s 18-year failed struggle to revive Scotland’s automobile heritage. The Imp, celebrated this week on the 50th anniversary of the first one being driven off the Linwood line by Prince Philip, was plagued with technical problems. I know. I drove an Imp van for a time. With a rear mounted engine, one frequent fault was its long accelerator cable fraying and eventually snapping. When that happened, I occasionally improvised and drove the van home by pulling what was left of the cable by hand, over my shoulder.

Many years later, I even discovered that the first Royal Imp, now in Glasgow’s Riverside Museum, boasted a gearbox that had done 80,000 development miles before Prince Philip got behind the wheel and drove it off the line. I was visiting a small precision engineering plant in a Scottish new town. It was run, on behalf of its Indian owners, by the man who had been in charge of the Linwood gearbox production shop from the start.

He spilt the beans. The night before the royal seal of approval was to be bestowed, they discovered the gearbox on the first Imp had developed a loud and sinister noise. Left as it was, a public relations disaster loomed. It was quickly replaced with the well-worn development prototype. Blushes spared all round. For all I know, it may still be bearing silent witness there in Glasgow’s new transport museum.

Linwood was, of course, only one instance of much-vaunted industrial policy rapidly turning to dust. Think of the Invergordon aluminium smelter or the Lochaber pulp mill. Or assorted silicon chip production plants around Scotland, one in Fife reduced to rubble by a Tyneside property developer, another in West Lothian turned into a Tesco distribution hub.

Then there’s Motorola’s short-lived mobile phone production site and Chunghwa’s cathode ray tube plant, both turned into offices. Or the Portavadie oil rig construction site in Argyll that never landed a single order and is now a marina and leisure base. I could go on. At considerable length. But you get the point. I’m sure Harold Macmillan and Harold Wilson both acted out of the best of intentions when they pushed Lord Rootes and British Aluminium, respectively, into investing in Linwood and Invergordon.

But the gulf between the promise they held out and what their policies came to deliver yawns, with hindsight, embarrassingly wide. Linwood alone cost the 1974 Wilson government £162m in a rescue that simply put off the inevitable.

Governments and their agencies have a pretty patchy record of successfully replacing old industries with new. And what has long been true of industrial policy, under governments of all colours, now appears to be coming to pass on the much larger constitutional issue facing Scotland right now. Whether or not to end our long-standing political union with the rest of these islands.

On issues such as what currency an independent Scotland might adopt; how an independent Scotland in a formal sterling zone currency union would protect full fiscal freedom on how it taxes and what it spends; and on a range of pension issues, notably how underfunded occupational schemes can be protected from EU solvency rules if they are deemed cross-border after independence, we have a growing fog of partisan confusion.

The Yes campaign is now split between promoting a sterling union and adopting an independent Scottish currency. It has little to say, beyond assertion, about the risks around these two choices. How can the SNP claim full fiscal freedom within a formal sterling union, when the weight of historic precedent (witness the ongoing problems of the eurozone) and the bulk of expert opinion suggests otherwise? How would its proponents protect a new Scottish currency from market speculation or currency flight?

The pensions issues raised recently by ICAS, the professional body for Scottish accountants, affect large numbers of Scots. I’ve been a member-nominated trustee of a defined benefit occupational scheme for more than 20 years. And, having listened to the First Minister suggest at Thursday’s questions that the problems of underfunded schemes are all down to one tax change made by Gordon Brown 16 years ago, I can tell Alex Salmond he’s still got a lot to learn about what led so many employers to close their schemes to new members or to future contributions.

One the biggest factors is the infuriating habit of many of us to live longer and longer. That has vast implications not just for the funding of pensions, public and private, but for the long-term sustainability of a host of other services and benefits. Mr Salmond says ICAS posed three options in its paper. I’ve read it carefully. All I can find are three rules that, under the current directive, determine whether specific schemes will be deemed to operate cross-border.

Elsewhere, ICAS raises a series of unanswered questions about how this “significantly complex question” is to be treated, in the event of independence within the EU, and at what cost to whom? Like a lot of people concerned about how a successful vote for independence might affect other aspects of their everyday lives, they are simply seeking some evidence that the proponents of independence have really thought these things through.

The jury – like that other jury on whether 50 years of UK industrial strategy delivered anything like what it promised – is still out. 
Could do better, a lot better, if the Yes campaign wants a majority of voting Scots to follow its lead.