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Jaguar Land Rover’s £355m engine plant is a boost for the coalition’s hopes of rebalancing the economy: George Osborne’s “march of the makers” has been looking a little ragged of late. It shows there is life too in the motor industry’s traditional West Midlands home.
The plaudits though, must go to India’s Tata Group, JLR’s parent. Just months after it bought the company from Ford in 2008, it was rocked by tumbling demand for its luxury cars and 4x4s and came close to closing a West Midlands plant. Now it is hiring thousands of people and investing £7.5bn to expand its product range.
Tata UK is now the country’s largest manufacturer, employing 40,000, with a further 5,000 in services such as consultancy. In little over a decade it has bought JLR, the Corus steel business, Tetley Tea and the Brunner Mond chemical works.
Steel has proved the most difficult, with job cuts and closures. But any fears that Tata’s aim was to strip out technology and ship it home have long since been banished. Attracting other emerging-market investors must be a prime aim for the UK.
1926 and all that
There is nothing like the past to give us the collywobbles. Trade unions are threatening a dispute over public sector pensions, which some say will be the biggest since the 1926 general strike.
To be fair on Dave Prentis, the Unison leader who originally made the 1926 parallel, he meant the number of workers involved rather than working days lost – and even then he was not saying it would be as big. Up to 1.75m are said to have taken part in the first day of the general strike, though I have yet to find an authentic source.
The general strike was an unmitigated disaster for the unions. It began when miners were locked out in a dispute over working longer hours for less pay, but the Trades Union Congress abandoned it after nine days with few concessions. The miners gave up a few months later.
The strike divided Britain bitterly along class lines, played out again in literature. In Evelyn Waugh’s 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, the main character, Charles Ryder, returns from France to London to fight against the striking workers.
Hugh MacDiarmid, the Scots poet, in A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, describes the strike as a “reidreid rose” that “shrivelled suddenly/As a balloon is burst”. A socialist town councillor in Montrose, MacDiarmid was addressing a mass meeting of railwaymen when news of the TUC’s humiliating settlement came through. “Most of them burst into tears and I am not ashamed to say
I did too. It was one of the most moving experiences I ever had, weeping like children because we knew we had had it,” he said. No one in his right mind would want to return to those days.
That is not what unions are suggesting, of course. They plan a “ day of action” on November 30, followed by months of “smart strikes”. Nonetheless, they face an uphill struggle. Not only must they persuade low-paid members to vote for strikes, their ballots must also be watertight to avoid legal challenges.
Polls suggest the battle for public opinion has been surprisingly even so far, but unions have a tough job to win this convincingly enough to make the coalition back down. Notebook suspects many people will share the sentiments of The Kinks’ Ray Davies in his 1974 song “Nobody Gives”, which has many references to 1926: “Why can’t we talk it out, why can’t we sort it out?”
A better year
One year Notebook is happier to repeat, in one aspect, is 1934, the last time Lancashire won cricket’s county cricket championship outright until last week, when it ended the 77-year wait. Will Lanky fans feel bereft now? Some Boston Red Sox fans are said to have felt deflated when they won baseball’s World Series in 2004 after an 86-year drought.
Manchester United went 26 years – from 1967 to 1993 – without winning the football championship. If Lancs can emulate the Red Devils’ performance since then, I will die happy.
“The old school days of [cricketers] getting drunk every night are long gone,” asserts Michael Vaughan, former England captain. Just as well, then, that the rugby players are there to rescue England’s hard-won reputation for boorishness in sport.