It was a shiny new 750cc motorbike, and the brand on the petrol tank said ‘Yamaha’. I was surprised. My patriotic friend had for years been extolling the virtues of British motorbikes, riding a reconditioned Triumph, but by his 18th birthday had switched to the Japanese marque.
This was the late 1970s/early 1980s, a period of British history recently revived in the collective memory following media coverage of the death of Margaret Thatcher. Nothing more clearly symbolized the decline of manufacturing in the UK, and the superior industrial leadership, skills, teamwork and product quality of Japanese (and also German) companies at the time. Even the most fierce patriots had to succumb. British police rode BMWs.
Most of the recent coverage falls into a partisan pattern: the Iron Lady either rescued the country from union militancy and bankruptcy, or savaged it with class war and unemployment. There is an alternative perspective; that it wasn’t the unions or the Thatcher Government who destroyed large swathes of British industry, so much as the fight between them; an ugly left-right sectarianism that prioritized inflicting damage on the other constituency ahead of building businesses with good pay and prospects, strong teamwork and skills. This was a colossal and historic failure of leadership – both of industries and of unions.
It culminated in the restructuring of the coal industry being settled in quasi-Mediaeval battles between flying pickets and policemen, in the hideous – and largely gratuitous – year-long strike in 1984/5. This was no way to modernize an industry, and Thatcher’s description of miners as the ‘enemy within’ was shocking and undeserved for communities who had served their country with courage in peace-time and war. But the idea that the industry didn’t require modernization was unrealistic.
At least as much blame falls on the unions for the decline of industry. Much of the militancy was gratuitous, with political ambitions. In the 1980s I was talking with a Workers Revolutionary Party veteran who said that during the 1970s their members, fired up by the protests of 1968, were directed to go into unions in targeted industries: automotive, ship-building, etc, with a view to disrupting entire industries and preparing the way for revolution. They spent long days door-stepping the mining communities. It is possible to overstate this influence, but it was a shocking revelation that tales of revolutionary activism in left-wing unions was not, after all, dreamt up by the Daily Mail. It’s an aspect of the history of those times that you won’t find in The Guardian or the New Statesman. Manufacturing was destroyed by class-based, short-termist management and Marxist-influenced unions. Thatcher was merely the undertaker.
Another under-reported feature of the era concerns the fall in support for the parties of left and right. To hear them talk, then and now, you would think that they represented the whole of society between them. In fact, millions of voters deserted both. In the election of 1970, Conservatives and Labour had polled nearly 90 per cent of the votes between them. By the election of 1983 this had fallen to just 70 per cent: a 20 percentage-point fall during the years of militancy. Of the two, Labour lost much more.
While class warfare and employer-union militancy are thankfully now reduced – Triumph are even exporting motorbikes again! – the cynical theory that you can only win by exploiting the other side lingers on. My new book New Normal, Radical Shift, co-authored with Neela Bettridge, points to a future based on an understanding of inter-dependence; not in a romantic way, but as a pragmatic approach to building better organizations.