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Margaret Thatcher and the British car industry

Margaret Thatcher and the British car industry

From inadvertently saving British Leyland to beginning its demise, Margaret Thatcher was a hugely important PM for car production in Britain

So farewell then Margaret Thatcher. The greatest Prime Minister in my lifetime. In 1979 I worked in a bank and my working class boss said if we didn’t vote for Maggie that night we were doomed. He was right. Some, though, think she hastened the demise of the British car industry. Well she certainly had an interesting relationship with British cars.

In opposition she not unreasonably asked, “Well, Michael Edwards, and why should we pour further funds into British Leyland?” His response was to restructure the company with factory closures and mass redundancies.

The workforce voted for it and this led directly to BL being able to sack shop steward Derek Robinson, who had produced his own response to that report which was interpreted as gross misconduct, which was a sackable offence. Issuing Robbo’s P45 ultimately meant that robots could go ahead to build the small car’s replacement. So against her instincts Thatcher saved BL.

Mrs Thatcher’s preferred transport as prime minister was the Rover P5. It was a suitably imposing and reassuring car especially in black, which perfectly suited the style of not one, but four Prime Ministers. From Harold Wilson, to Ted Heath, then James Callaghan and finally Margaret Thatcher.

Both Harold and Maggie ultimately shared the same 1972 model, which had been modified for Wilson with a special ashtray in the rear seat armrest to accommodate his pipe and matches.

Indeed, the last batch of Rover P5s to be built was reserved exclusively for official use. During Margaret Thatcher’s time in office she made sure that at least a dozen of them remained on the fleet, apparently because she hated the thought of government ministers being seen in its successors, the Rover P6 and SD1.

Although as a British Leyland product it was a vehicle that was owned by the British people (and the company was technically run by the government), the car was a metaphor for shoddy workmanship and catastrophic industrial relations.

When Margaret Thatcher was planning to change marques during the 1980s she needed a manufacturer that represented a more entrepreneurial age. One that was no longer state run but recently privatised and owned by shareholders.

Jaguar’s XJ saloon beloved of Arthur Daley in TV’s hugely popular Minder was clearly a Thatcherite, so it only seemed appropriate that she share his car. What not many people know is that both the fictional Daley and the very real Thatcher had was the posher XJ version with Daimler badging and more chrome.

By the late 1980s when BL chairman Graham Day submitted his corporate plan, which had a £1 billion price tag attached in order to get it through the next five years, Mrs Thatcher and her government had had enough.

British Aerospace was convinced to take the whole lot for what has subsequently been regarded as a giveaway price: £150 million. Back in British hands but the beginning of the end for the industry, which would no longer rely on a subsidy.

Margaret Thatcher didn’t start British Leyland, Harold Wilson did, but at least she helped in finishing it. Good.