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Margaret Thatcher and the BL years

publication date: Apr 10, 2013
author/source: Tony Lewis



By Tony Lewis

We don’t make anything in this country anymore.

Those are words I have heard so often over the last few years I’m almost fed up of having to explain that we do have a healthy car industry.

And while the component industry isn’t what it was, it still exists. 

I was chatting to Robert Lea, industry correspondent at The Times at the Geneva show this year; he manages to get more car industry news into the paper than many colleagues at rival newspapers.

But Robert points out that it is a hard sell.

The news editors still think we don’t have a car industry.

Peter Collins, industry editor at The Economist (who covers cars and aerospace) has a similar gripe.

It’s much easier to place aerospace stories than it is car industry stories.

Why is this?


Tony Lewis considers Mrs Thatchers wish to go on P1

I had just started to write this when the death of Margaret Thatcher was announced. She was, of course, prime minister 30 years ago and came to power on the back of the 1978-79 Winter of Discontent which many commentators traced to the wildcat strikes at British Leyland and Derek Robinson, the union convenor known as ‘Red Robbo’.

Mrs Thatcher visited Bristol in the run-up to the 1979 general election. I was chief sub-editor on the Western Daily Press at the time (see picture) and had recently taken over the weekly motoring column. 

Leaving politics aside, I was impressed by her grasp of local issues and her ability to summarise what she stood for. Her parting words were along the lines of: ‘I hope you’ll put a picture of me on the front page.’ We did.

Within six months of Thatcher’s Conservatives coming to power, Red Robbo had been booted out of BL, a company that in 1975 had been bailed out with Harold Wilson’s Labour administration taking a majority stake when it ran out of credit. When BL was formed in 1968 it was the world’s fourth largest car maker but throughout the 1970s it was beset by industrial strife despite the best efforts of its combative chairman Sir Michael Edwardes.

Rover Group was shortlived and eventually went to Chinese owners


He left in 1982 to be replaced by Harold Musgrove who once remarked to journalists on a press launch (Rover SD1 in Switzerland) that ‘we don’t talk about the past and we won’t discuss the future.’ Hardly a good starting point for a press conference. BL became the Rover Group in 1986 and two years later Thatcher ran out of patience and sold the government’s stake to British Aerospace – the car park at the Filton, Bristol, headquarters was full of Range Rovers within weeks. 


This all happened more than 25 years ago but the perception, not helped by Ford shutting assembly operations in Dagenham in 2002 and Vauxhall ending car production in Luton in the same year, is that we still don’t make stuff in the UK.

As the SMMT points out, the UK automotive sector employs some 750,000 and we have more than 30 manufacturing sites.

News editors take note.







© Tony Lewis

 Tony Lewis

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