Who Really Destroyed Britain?

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Photograph: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg. Found at https://www.irishtimes.com/news/politics/sinn-f%C3%A9in-does-not-rule-out-union-flag-flying-in-a-united-ireland-1.3617940

“Men in cloth caps and overalls built this country; men in suits with briefcases destroyed it.”

There is, of course, an underlying truth in the statement. It’s relevance to the EU, or the UK voting public’s wish to leave that institution, is hard to see, however.

What the author of the statement was really referring to was the UK’s manufacturing industries. But the “men in suits” that destroyed it were nothing to do with the EU.

In order to explain I need to delve into my own past as an Engineer working in British manufacturing. I spent all of the 1970s and most of the ’80s working for what was then a modestly successful British conglomerate with interests across the UK and further afield. Most of the managers in that company were professionals in disciplines other than management. Where I worked, in a plant where the product we manufactured was based on a chemical process, the managers had doctorates in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering. As young men they had been part of the team that developed the process, now they were overseeing its translation into large scale production. They were highly educated and knowledgeable about the process and the hardware that contained it, but had little or no idea about management, least of all the management of the men that operated the machines.

Management and workers rarely communicated directly with each other. Instead they used intermediaries, either the foremen or the shop stewards — trades union representatives. Shop floor workers and management had separate toilet and canteen facilities; shop floor workers, however highly skilled, worked longer hours for less money than managers. Managers had better funded pension plans, longer holidays and much more generous arrangements for when they had to take time off through ill health.

The professional classes rarely mixed socially with the “men in flat caps and overalls”. They tended to live in separate communities, the former in leafy suburbs, the latter in Victorian terraces or council estates, constructed to a high standard for the time, but tightly packed to minimize land use.

All of this was the norm in British manufacturing at the time. Little wonder that the trades unions were constantly chipping away to secure better pay and conditions for their members, a situation that led to frequent work stoppages eroding productivity and company profits.

In some essential industries, notably steel and energy, the unions achieved a stranglehold on management. The standard of management skills available in the UK was so poor that, when Margaret Thatcher set out to break that stranglehold, she recruited an American to do it.

When I and my colleagues were sent on short management training courses in the 1980s and ’90s it was to learn techniques developed by the Japanese and honed by Americans.

As for British manufacturing conglomerates, some may recall a series of television advertisements in the early 1990s featuring “a great company from over here doing rather well over there.” Hanson began as a building materials supplier but expanded by acquisition to include chemicals, tobacco, brewing and mining. In the late ’90s these businesses were demerged, leaving once again a successful building materials business. This, in turn was sold to a German company who recently sold it to a US based private investment company.

The conglomerate for which I worked was similarly demerged in the 1990s. The business I worked in is now owned by a Swedish company. It is they who now pay the pension I earned whilst working there.

Another friend who is firmly entrenched in the Brexit camp recently bemoaned the fact that machinery being installed in a new power station near his home was sourced from Germany. I couldn’t help wondering if it was in fact sourced from the German company that took over a great British turbine manufacturer based in Lincoln.

Virtually every great British brand that I remember has either disappeared or been similarly acquired by foreign businesses that have a better understanding of management. And our homes and roads now feature brands whose origins are Japanese, Chinese, Korean or European.

I have written elsewhere about the way in which higher education was reserved for a privileged minority, 8 out of 10 adolescents leaving school at 15 or 16 as late as the 1970s. In general only the children of professionals had an academic education fitting them to follow their parents into the same professions, mostly law and accountancy, although even those professions often involve on-the-job training and part-time study rather than full time degree studies.

The real heroes of British manufacturing were the entrepreneurial Engineers. Watt, Stephenson, Brunel and Telford, among others, in the 18th and 19th centuries and the great automotive and aeronautical designers in the 20th. They inspired the men who worked alongside them.

One of the ironies of the opening quotation is that often the “men in flat caps and overalls” were not Englishmen at all. In the nineteenth century they were Irish. For the great post-WWII reconstruction effort they were from the Commonwealth: India, Pakistan/Bangladesh and the Caribbean. In the 21st century they are Eastern European. And at every stage they were resented and shunned by a significant sector of the poorly educated British working class. The Irish, too, were ever present. A good friend of mine spent the 1980s and ’90s working alongside fellow Irishmen constructing tunnels in various parts of England.

There is irony, too, in the fact that the early growth in Japan of one of the most successful automotive manufacturers in the UK in recent decades, Nissan, was thanks to the (British) Austin Motor Company.

Another irony is that the man to whom the statement is accredited became famous for his skill in demolition. In the late 1970s and the early ’80s television audiences watched as he and his team of experts — in hard hats and overalls — set about the careful but spectacular physical destruction of many iconic buildings originally constructed by those men in flat caps and overalls. In fairness he also undertook a great deal of repair work on high buildings.

No-one could doubt that Dibnah, a workaholic, admired the British capacity for hard work. The assertion that men in suits with briefcases were responsible for the demise of British industries is only partially true, however.

My comment that “the EU came to the rescue.”, is also only partially true. It refers to the fact that such revival of manufacturing as has happened in recent decades came about because foreign investors saw the advantage of having a base in an English speaking part of the continent. They also understood the fundamentals of management, treating all employees the same and harnessing the British capacity for hard work in a way the typical British “men in suits” never could.

Using the opening statement as a justification for the UK leaving the EU is to ignore the fact that it is “men in suits” who are leading the charge, in order to further their own careers and to avoid paying a fair tax on their earnings.

Written by

Frank is a retired Engineer from England now living in Ireland. He is trying to learn and share the lessons of history.

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