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Remembering the Austin Allegro

 

Thatcher was the first politician I noticed. In 1979, when she won her first election, I would have been 22. I probably had just accepted the job that meant moving away from home. I was making my way in the world. My father told me, 'she will be good for British industry, she is a chemist you know'. I was impressed, a politician with some engineering qualification. My father should have researched more - yes a chemist, but then she went on to study law. Chemists don't do that. As with so-called engineers who move to management or worse still, marketing, they are not really engineers and should be viewed with deep suspicion - much more so than if they are just incompetent.

It is easy to view Thatcher's legacy lazily - she destroyed industry in the UK, steel, shipbuilding, coal, car manufacturing, etc. etc. But to infer that without her these industries would now be thriving would be optimistic to say the least. Manufacturing in the UK was dead already. Surely you remember the Austin Allegro car which epitomised all that was wrong with UK industry. It had a certain amount of innovation, a body shape that was about to become dominant over Europe (the hatchback, but British Leyland decided to keep a boot for no apparent good reason) but it was a Friday afternoon car, no matter what day it was manufactured.

But the memory I have of that time is not the manufacturing innovation - think of Inmos and the Transputer - but of the trade unions. Scargill, the face of the unions then, was not a likeable man. Unions are a necessary evil, and that is an ideal world. It is much better to speak to a few representing the views of the many than try to disseminate the views of the many yourself. The unions are the single coherent voice of the workers that liaise and communicate with the management; or they should be. It should be a two way process. But the unions in the UK were born for the wrong reason. Managers in turn of the twentieth century companies or services were usually upper class with little real experience, a figurehead whose only hands-on experience was with their scullery maid. Latterly the managers of British Leyland, put there by the government, probably didn't know how to drive a car, much less how to make one. Manufacturing in the UK has always been an us and them situation, a legacy of the class structure of the UK, white collar and blue collar workers and never the twain shall meet. The chances of the blue collar worker rising through the ranks to run the company were not just remote, but non-existent.

This antagonistic attitude on both sides can only bring about one outcome, and it came to a head in the seventies with the three day week, and the unions apparent striking over anything and everything. Something had to be done and Thatcher did it. She broke the unions. She sold off the state owned services and companies to ensure there was no return to that war. Unions could continue to exist, within new parameters, but there was no need of them because there was no industry anymore - at least none that was British owned. Any that bought the old industries could enforce their own new rules and regulations, managers were king and the worker should do as he or she is told and had no comeback if they didn't like it.

At the time this was almost a relief. There is a limit to how many times you want to share bath water, and we were a small family. At the end of the miner's strike our family breathed a sigh of relief that we wouldn't need to hear Scargill's rants anymore. We could get on with our lives without being held to ransom by the unions. Of course that feeling didn't last long.

Britain was probably already bankrupt at this time, partly because of WWII, but also because the manufacturing we had was inefficient and uncompetitive. But to believe that the way to recover was to become a service industry was a strange leap of faith and one that no other country followed. The bath water had gone but so had the baby. If you don't make anything you have nothing to sell and nothing to barter with. That is not going to change. Maybe some can live by selling imaginary pieces of paper, but like the emperor's clothes it was only a matter of time before you are found out. And so it proved.

Remembering the bile of the various union leaders of the time there was no doubt something had to be done. I very much doubt it was possible to negotiate with these men. But the managers were no better; aloof, unintelligent and just as belligerent in their way. For a hundred years Britain had reinforced this us and them attitude and it was not about to be broken down now.

Thatcher was Britain's last chance. A grocer's daughter with a degree in chemistry, a woman, who had broken through this glass ceiling herself, she used the last sheets of British steel to weld it shut again. Within a couple of years of her breaking the miner's union we had Yuppies in their Porsches driving around London. Personal greed was given its freedom. And that is Thatcher's legacy.

 

 

 

 

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