Nissan points the way for Brexit Britain
Published by The i paper (4th February, 2019)
The Nissan car plant in Sunderland holds a special place in our nation’s history. It became a symbol of Britain’s economic regeneration under Margaret Thatcher, who lobbied the Japanese firm to build the factory, brushed aside Cabinet doubters and altered tax policy to deliver jobs to a region left badly wounded after its mines and shipyards shut. When the then prime minister opened the site in 1986, she proclaimed that it proved Britain was the most attractive destination in Europe for investment.
Thatcher sold the idea Britain was a ‘gateway to Europe’ – perched inside the world’s largest trading block yet unshackled by much of the red tape that choked business in neighbouring nations. The car maker’s move did not heal all scars of that decade’s de-industrialisation despite building the country’s biggest car factory, creating 30,000 linked jobs across the land and being followed by other corporate giants. Yet for all its lingering problems of poverty and deprivation, the North East of England became the only part of Britain that exports more to Europe than it imports.
This is why ministers scrambled to offer ‘assurances and support’ for Nissan when there were wobbles over its future after the EU referendum – and why our second female Tory prime minister hailed the firm’s promise to build the next Qashqai and X-Trail models at the plant, safeguarding 6,700 jobs, as a vote of confidence in our country. ‘It is a recognition the Government is committed to creating and supporting the right conditions for the automotive industry so it continues to grow – now and in the future,’ declared Theresa May.
Now Nissan has changed its mind and ditched plans to produce one of its flagship models in Sunderland. The car giant confirmed it will keep on making the X-Trail SUV in Japan, saying the decision was made ‘for business reasons’ and blaming uncertainty over Brexit for impacting on its planning. This is devastating news for the North East. Yet the ripples of this bombshell will be felt far beyond the region.
This shows again how those beleaguered voters that backed Brexit are the people most likely to suffer repercussions of selfish political games played by some Tories. Boris Johnson can keep churning out his puerile columns, Jacob Rees-Mogg can keep pocketing profits from his Ireland-based investment fund, but those citizens in a city that voted 61.3 per cent to leave are the sorts who will suffer the consequences of their callous deception. What use is a blue passport if you lose your job and cannot afford a holiday?
While politicians bicker and ministers spew out hollow clichés about ‘Global Britain’, we see with growing clarity the shifting of assets to other destinations. There was the disgusting hypocrisy of arch-Brexiteer James Dyson moving his headquarters from Wiltshire to Singapore, while the Institute of Directors admits almost one in three British businesses are sending work abroad due to fears over European Union departure. Banks and insurers are establishing new offices in the eurozone, undermining the City of London that powers Britain’s economy. Behemoths such as Airbus are expressing their fears and frustration in increasingly blunt terms.
Already the economy is 2.3 per cent smaller than it would have been without Brexit, according to one study. Nigel Farage may not be bothered, but then he has his fat taxpayer-funded pension from Brussels to keep on paying for his pints and planes. Meanwhile much of the impact in future years will be imperceptible as post-Brexit Britain misses out on attracting the next Nissan when bosses make rational choices to invest within the EU. This means fewer jobs and less tax revenue – which impacts hardest again on poorer families in places such as the North East.
Now go back to the car sector. Here is an industry that reflected the sunny optimism of the Sixties with its fashionable Minis and flashy E-type Jags, then the dreary years of industrial strife, corporate paralysis and economic stagnation in the seventies before glorious rebirth under Thatcher.
It was saved by foreign owners led by Honda who invested in British workers, improved management and fostered innovation in specialist firms that made this country the base for more manufacturers than any other European nation. It even managed to motor through last decade’s financial shocks.
The reason for the revival and success of our car industry was simple: the power of globalisation as a dynamic force that fuels prosperity. Britain benefited from foreign owners, international capital, flexible workforces and open borders for complex supply chains.
Today it employs 856,000 people, accounts for one-eighth of exports and earns the Exchequer £10bn a year for schools and hospitals. Yet with cruel irony, that same whirlwind of globalisation created the very uncertainties in some struggling communities that led to a referendum vote that now threatens its future.
Brexit is far from the only reason for crashing investment, slowing output, job cuts and plant closures. Car sales fell last year in China for the first time since the last century, demand for diesel vehicles has slumped following the emissions scandal, young city dwellers rely on Uber rather than bothering with driving tests, electric vehicles loom large on the horizon. But there is no doubt it is inflaming problems – especially when we are due to leave next month but politics remains deadlocked over the terms of departure.
Nissan’s decision should be a toot on the horn warning. It shows what happens when nationalism consumes a country, when minds and borders close, and when politicians put party before national interests. Does it also presage how our nation is sliding into a future corroded by Brexit that leaves us weaker and poorer – and show yet again how the motor sector symbolises our rise and fall on the global stage?