…when we are gone the waters close over our heads without so much as a gurgle
the capitalist system [is] the best available protection for the interests of the working man, since it is this very flexibility of labour, and mobility of capital, that allows new jobs to be created and all the joy and excitement of industrial innovation
these labour-market conditions .. make the future job prospects of these car workers so much better than on the Continent
thanks to the vibrancy of the industry, and the flexibility of the labour market, your columnist will happily find employment writing headlines for Poultry Breeders Weekly
Ryton workers have a better future than French brothers
It is no consolation to the workers of Ryton and their families who face the misery of a factory closure that one day this column must, with Darwinian inevitability, face the same extinction.
I do not wish to diminish the gravity of events at the Peugeot plant when I say that there will also come a time when the forces of international capital will decree that there is no longer any economic justification for this space to be filled by the manual labour of this particular semi-skilled artisan.
The ancient word-plant will be shut. The gerundive turning-sheds will fall silent. The lathes will cease to hone the metaphors, and no sound will be heard in the vast grammatical assembly lines save the drip-drip-drip from the cracked skylight and the scuttling of rats in the stock of unused similes.
It will be a sad day, my friends, but no matter how tragic the prospect may now appear, it would be very odd to expect any kind of solidarity from my journalistic brethren. Will they down tools at the News of the World? Will the Sun come out in sympathy? Could I even expect any kind of secondary picketing from the lads and the lasses in The Daily Telegraph sports and arts departments? I rather fancy not.
Every columnist, every journalist, is impelled to write by the terrifying knowledge that ranged beneath us, smacking their chops, are hordes of brilliant and pustulant young thrusters, only too keen to show what magic they could produce in our places. Whatever delusions we may have about the affection in which we are held by the readers, the truth is that when we are gone the waters close over our heads without so much as a gurgle.
That is why I very much fear that Tony Woodley of the T&G and Derek Simpson of Amicus are laughably mistaken if they believe that the workers of Peugeot in France will strike in protest at the loss of 2,300 jobs in the UK.
It was in 1864 that Karl Marx stood up in London and announced that the hour of the international proletariat was at hand. If only they could see their common class interest, he raved, the workers could unite across frontiers, dispossess the bosses, and throw off their shackles.
As we all know, Marx was completely wrong. So strong was the feeling of national particularism that, far from uniting, the workers of the world spent much of the next century slaughtering each other. Indeed, the international proletariat has consistently shown that it is loyal to family, community, factory, country – but never to the international proletariat.
The workers of France and Spain will not go on strike for the workers of Ryton, for the simple prudential reason that they know that international capital will always be able to relocate, just as Peugeot itself is building a new factory in Slovakia and global manufacturing is moving to China, and whatever their sympathies for families in Coventry, the workers of France will feel that their first duty is to themselves and their families.
Now put like that it sounds cruel and ruthless; and yet what Marx also failed to understand was that this capitalist system was, in fact, the best available protection for the interests of the working man, since it is this very flexibility of labour, and mobility of capital, that allows new jobs to be created and all the joy and excitement of industrial innovation.
It is frankly rubbish to say that the Ryton closure is a “body blow” to British manufacturing, or even to the British motor-car industry. The amazing truth is that this supposedly services-obsessed economy is currently producing about 1.6 million cars a year – almost an all-time record, and far more than were being produced in the 1970s.
Look at Land Rover, free from the ossification of its design, now going through the biggest sales boom in its history. Look at those wonderful new Minis – brilliant, burly, bustling scarabs – most of them made by the ingenious workforce of south Oxfordshire. The German parent company is planning to pump in another £100 million, pushing sales up from 200,000 to 250,000, and we wouldn’t be able to attract that kind of German money if it were not for the labour-market flexibility now being denounced by Amicus and the T&G.
No one would have the confidence to invest so much in the car industry, and to employ so many people, if they did not have the simultaneous confidence that they could also lay people off when the market became difficult.
The Ryton Peugeot 206s were no doubt excellent machines, and no doubt produced to a very good standard, but they were not only rolling off the assembly line at a time when there is a car glut, with five vehicles being produced for every potential consumer: they were also being created in a piece of industrial heritage.
It is no criticism of the Ryton workforce that they were being asked to build competitively in a 1939 factory that had once produced the Sunbeam Talbot and the Hillman Imp. That is why I am suspicious of the unions’ claim that the factory was otherwise perfect, and only closed because it is easier to lay off workers in Britain than it is in France.
But let us suppose, for a moment, that this was the reason, and that the workers of Ryton are being penalised for our easy-come-easy-go employment law.
The key point, the point the unions wilfully ignore, is that it is precisely these labour-market conditions that make the future job prospects of these car workers so much better than on the Continent, and (as I think I said two weeks ago) it is those 1980s reforms that mean we in Britain have unemployment running at about four per cent, as against 10.2 per cent in France.
One day, perhaps one day soon, shiny new products will emerge from gorgeous refurbished factories on the Ryton site; just as one day this columnar factory will gracefully yield to some gorgeous pouting new agony aunt or sudoku variant, and thanks to the vibrancy of the industry, and the flexibility of the labour market, your columnist will happily find employment writing headlines for Poultry Breeders Weekly.
It’s the market and it’s the only way.