British Industry: what’s that all about then?

GKN Automotive, Erdington, Birmingham – Source: Apple Maps

The ironically named Digby Jones Index from Yorkshire Bylines logs the impacts of Brexit on unemployment. A recent entry at No. 189 are the job losses at the GKN Automotive plant in Birmingham.

Based in Birmingham and forming part of the very epicentre of UK high-end engineering, this company has more than 500 jobs at stake, to say nothing of the loss of capacity for skilled production. As a male in his 60s who took exams called ‘O levels’ it makes me both sad and reflective.

From an education-conscious family, I was invited to collect O levels in much the same way as I had collected model Corgi cars in earlier life. The outcome for me was respectable, although sadly for a Europhile I failed French, at a time when you had to re-take a failed modern language to enter university. The mildly truculent teenage me remains grateful to my French-speaking father for fixing that problem!

At my London comprehensive school, a battered O level geography textbook brimmed with sketch maps and grainy black and white photographs. I learned that Britain was superbly endowed with natural resources, and that clever and conscientious people mined, grew, and manufactured all manner of commodities. Numerous coalfields meant we would never be short of energy; well, that was before the oil crisis of 1973/4.

Two brilliant geography teachers and a repaired French O level later, I headed for Sheffield University. I loved every minute, not only because any pressures to indulge in effete southern behaviours were off, but also because I was walking between the pages of my old textbook. For a South London boy, here was Real Britain. Coalfield to the east, Pennines to the west, with Sheffield a hive of industrial activity. When mates from London visited, I would take them on a bus ride, and climbing a hill we observed from the bus the steel furnaces at Attercliffe ablaze in the twilight — a free firework show before the pub.

A couple of years later, and this time clutching a freshlyminted upper second in Geology, I contemplated the National Coal Board, even the oil industry (remember 1974?) but my politics caused me to eschew the latter. Later and along with many, I railed against Thatcher’s attack on working people specifically, and on northern Britain in general. We laughed at ‘The Full Monty’, but the film is less about unemployed men removing their clothes and all about the impacts of de-industrialisation.

By now you will be spotting the contradictions. Our former industrial areas were decimated, with terrible consequences. Next, we would learn that heavy polluting industries were bad for health and that emissions to the atmosphere cause climate change. By the 1980s, I was working with scientists who were uncovering this unpleasant truth. UK could say ce n’est pas moi, nous avons exported all that smelly stuff, just look at China!

My geography textbook was clear that the Midland cities fostered world-class technical skills. Evidently Birmingham or Coventry were not alone, skilled workforces were throughout the Land, and could they not be re-skilled if required? Universities churned out excellent engineers, scientists, technologists and more, and the good old Redbricks (like my own alma mater) were pre-eminent. Mind you, the Further Education sector, providing apprenticeships, then as now, suffered from Cinderella syndrome. Industrial output had initially slumped under Thatcher, although a sometime Captain of Industry testily reminded me (later in the 1980s) that manufacturing output had recovered, even if levels of employment in industry and the proportion of the economy making things had both fallen.

Was there a solution? If there had been a solid programme of regional aid in the 1980s, then maybe many mining and manufacturing areas would have had a better outcome. An electrician in a pit is still an electrician, an engineer in heavy industry may re-train for another sector. Implicitly, and something long-since realised, high-end manufacturing using our skilled workforce could work on ‘greening’ the economy. Green and high-tech might go hand in hand?

Brexit has hit Birmingham once more with GKN Automotive going. Honda at Swindon is going. True, Nissan in Sunderland will specialise in batteries for electric cars and plans to export to the EU; maybe there will be positive developments, but remember Lord Digby Jones of Birmingham thought there would not be any job losses! For example, UK car manufacturing fell 31% during November 2020 and the Independent newspaper certainly thinks UK manufacturing is in peril. Even the Daily Telegraph reports that Brexit is a factor for GKN Automotive’s demise. Youngsters in Birmingham (as elsewhere) with appropriate apprenticeships and degrees could build clean and green high-end industries, while maintaining that ancestral Brummie pre-occupation of making useful things.

I sometimes feel like a general fighting the last war, but no, we don’t need you any more Mrs Thatcher, the Great British Public have Brexit!

Ed: Hadrian Cook is an Executive member of Salisbury for Europe