Labour Governments and Private Industry: The Experience of 1945-1951

By H. Mercer; N. Rollings et al. | Go to book overview
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Nine
The motor car industry

NICK TIRATSOO

In September 1954, New Commonwealth published a detailed survey of the post-war British car industry and its export trade. 1 Manufacturers, it suggested, had 'dashed out into yawning overseas markets' after 1945 and won a substantial slice of world trade. On the surface, this looked like a great success story, but in reality the position was far less satisfactory. Complaints from customers in Britain's key overseas markets -- about their vehicles' lack of size and power, fragile suspension and inadequate dust-proofing -- were legion. On investigation, many of these turned out to be 'justified'. What made this all the more serious was the growing re-emergence of foreign competition, and the unflattering comparisons that were now to be heard about the British car and its international competitors like Chevrolet, Volkswagen, Opel and Citroën. The industry, it was concluded, stood at a crossroads and major changes would be needed to secure its healthy future.

This chapter looks at how and why such a situation had arisen. In particular, it will be concerned with Correlli Barnett's recent claim that the real responsibility for what happened rests with the civil servants and politicians of the Coalition and Attlee administrations, since it was this cohort, in the rush for a New Jerusalem, that had shirked its responsibility to develop the kind of cohesive industrial policy for motor cars that alone could have guaranteed long-term health. Barnett's thesis seems plausible, not least because it so coherently distils assumptions and insights that are almost common sense to many of those engaged in the wider, long-standing debate about the reasons for Britain's industrial decline. But is it a fair interpretation of the evidence? 2

Barnett's argument rests upon a number of interrelated propositions. He suggests, first, that government officials recognised quite clearly at the end of the war that the motor industry was riddled with weaknesses. There were too many companies, and the likelihood, on pre-war experience, of too many models and not enough standardisation of production and parts to ensure low costs. Moreover, export possibilities, again going on previous experience, were likely to be compromised by poor design, limp marketing and an inadequate service and spares organisation. In short, official inquiries painted a picture of an industry

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