Rumours that Honda was about to announce the closure of its Swindon plant, with a loss of 3,500 jobs (up to 10,000, including the supply chain), began circulating on Monday 18 February. The next day it was all over the front pages of the serious bourgeois press.
Strangely, though, Britain’s self-styled socialist daily, with close links to the trade unions, the Morning Star, didn’t put the news on its front page. Tuesday’s Morning Star (19 February) carried one short piece, tucked away on an inside page and quoting the local Tory MP Justin Tomlinson saying the closure decision is “based on global trends and not Brexit, as all European production will consolidate in Japan in 2021.” The piece also quoted Unite national automotive officer Des Quinn, but not his comment, carried in most of the bourgeois press, that the car industry had “been brought low by the chaotic Brexit uncertainty.”
The next day the Morning Star carried another not particularly prominent piece on an inside page, mainly about a (supposed) campaign by Unite to save the plant. The report noted that “Honda did not mention Brexit as a reason to close the plant.” It doesn’t seem to have occurred to the Morning Star that the company may have been deliberately polite, not mentioning Brexit for fear of antagonising future British car buyers and the government. Only last summer, though, Honda warned that post-Brexit border checks could clog up its supply chain (“unprecedented impact”, said the company’s European Vice-President Ian Howells). Some 75 per cent of parts for Honda’s cars are imported from the EU and assembly lines rely on these parts arriving hours or even minutes before they are needed.
We anti-Brexit people should note that Honda is also ceasing production in Turkey, which has a customs union with the European Union (though Turkey-EU border procedures are still laborious). And the EU has just struck a trade deal with Japan that will allow Honda to make its cars at home and ship them to the EU tariff-free. But even the Guardian’s pro-Brexit Economics Editor Larry Elliott has had to admit that “while Honda’s decision is not simply about Brexit, uncertainty about Brexit played its part. Japanese policymakers — from the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, down – have been presing for a soft Brexit ever since the referendum, initially privately but recently more openly.”
Honda’s decision in Swindon is part of a pattern. Nissan is scaling back its plans for Sunderland; Toyota seems likely to leave Burnaston; the same with BMW in Cowley; Brexiteer James Dyson has opted to build his new electric car in Singapore; Jaguar Land Rover is cutting 4,500 jobs. One of the UK’s few enduring industrial policies over the past three decades has been to attract and maintain investment in British motor manufacturing from Japan and Germany.
From the time of the Thatcher’s administration in the 1980s, Honda, and then Nissan and Toyota, were coaxed into making Britain their base for exporting within the EU. Tata’s investment of £5 billion into the revitalisation of Jaguar Land Rover’s network of UK factories, engineering and design studios, mainly in the West Midlands, built up a British workforce of 40,000, levels of automotive employment not seen since the heydays of Dagenham and Longbridge. The first new car plants in a generation were built: Jaguar Land Rover’s engine facility in Wolverhampton, and a supercar factory in Woking for McLaren. The British automotive sector employs nearly one million people and produced 1.7 million cars last year, of which almost 60 per cent were exported to the continent. Now investment in the UK automotive sector has halved in the past six months, compared with the same period a year ago.
Investment in Britain has now fallen for four quarters as firms are delaying, cancelling or switching investment, with Japanese companies including Nissan, Sony, Panasonic and Hitachi leading the way.
Of course, socialists do not take our cue from what businesses want. We are independent. We are never yea-sayers. Neither are we nay-sayers who can economise on thinking for ourselves by always saying no when bosses say yes. The British labour movement made its start in politics with the Chartist movement, which organised alongside the bourgeois Anti Corn Law League against trade barriers on corn, but with its own independent slant.
Economic disruption, workplace closures, shortages, huge queues at ports, higher prices, are as bad for the working class now as they were in the days of the Corn Laws. The reaction of the hardline-Brexiteers of the Tory right is shameless. “Nothing to do with Brexit whatsoever,” say the ERG and Leave Means Leave. Essentially, the Morning Star takes the same view but doesn’t have the nerve to come out with it.