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No Longer Making It July 27, 2009

Posted by markswill in Cars and Bikes, Politics, Schmolitics.

It’s been well over a fortnight since I scribbled a blog and despite several (apparently genuine) queries from friends about the denouement of the Sheep Music saga which had dominated some previous bulletins, I’m not quite ready for that yet. Instead an item on this morning’s R4 Today programme so incensed me that my return to the fray must put that rain-lashed, sleep-free frenzy in abeyance for a few days. Or possibly weeks.

Using a bankrupt circuit board company in the Mid-West as a sorry springboard, the offending interview examined the rapid decline of American manufacturing, tantalisingly referring to alleged currency manipulation by the Chinese government as the main reason why the market for its products had collapsed. What annoyed me that there was no follow-up to either this accusation by the company’s articulate if  mournful owner, nor any wider discussion about what would happen to already economically knackered nations if, or more likely when, all manufacturing in the West was finally consigned to Asia and the Far East.

It’s a question that’s been rattling around in my head for months now as one big manufacturer after another has gone to the wall or drastically down-sized, e.g. LDV, Corus, Vauxhall and most ironically of all given Madman Milliband’s tub-thumbing about the employment-creating opportunities offered by green technology, the Vestas wind turbine factory on the Isle of Wight. I should explain that although I allegedly earn my living from what’s essentially a desk-bound, clean finger-nailed enterprise, I’ve always been a huge fan of manufacturing. (I surprised myself how serious this was when, back in the ‘70s on a Japanese motorcycle launch junket, I found myself berating a fellow hack who’d complained that we’d been forced to tour round what he referred to as “a noisy, smelly factory floor” Pretty damn rich coming from someone who earned his living writing about what was made there).

There’s always been something I’ve envied about those who can make a functional metal thing out of, well, solid metal, using machine tools, judgement and craft. Two friends who are trained, if tellingly retired engineers and have lathes, platform drills and other such arcane items in their agreeably oil-stained workshops hold my thrall whenever I visit them, which is usually to expertly fettle a bit of  car or motorcycle that’s flummoxed my own pathetic attempts with a Haynes manual and a Halfords toolkit. And thus I have some sympathy whenever I hear a gruff union official – usually also on the Today Show – warning that if the government lets this or that metal-basher go to the wall, then the skills they employ may be lost to the country forever.

My ex-journalist friend might well shrug in resignation if not rejoice that this should be so, but quite apart from my fascination with the whole business of manufacturing per se, what on earth is the country going to do if can’t make anything except beer cans and polystyrene cups… neither of which will earn us export income?

Until the banks and the city spivs who augured their excess went down the crapper, the usually unspoken wisdom was that it mattered not if we didn’t make things any more because financial and other service industries would sustain our balance of payments to the cheap-labour  (and by the way, heavily polluting) economies that increasingly supplied our cars, white goods, furniture, clothing and all the rest of the stuff that we once made for ourselves. But that’s patently no longer the case and as in America, the government here seems to be capitulating to what seems to be manufacturing’s total melt-down.

Maybe I’m a simple soul, maybe I’m blinded by my passion for what men in beige workshop coats and blue overalls get up to with their compressed air tools and welding jigs. But next time Messrs. Humphrys, Sturton or Naughtie take Mandleson to task over his role as saviour of Britain’s economy and/or the Crazy World of Gordon Brown, they’ll have the gumption to ask him what the hell will happen when the last machine shop finally closes its door, Chinese vehicles exclusively populate our car showrooms and Tesco decides to outsource its entire ready-meal production to Romania?

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1. Terry - July 27, 2009

Well, Romanian cabbage soup is the best of the lot in Eastern Europe or as I like to say, Ex-Iron-Block countries. Part of the reason that dear old Generalissimo Motors was salvaged with my tax dollar is the answer to the simple question, ‘What firm is going to make our armaments?” Dingdong Guyho Heavy Industries Cooperative? Cabbage soup is an easier proposition. And industry doesn’t produce jobs any longer in the West. To wit: Ford opened a huge engine plant in dear Cleveland, Ohio to much fanfare. Steel made on one end and out poops a fresh V-8 hours later. Wonderful! Unfortunately Ford announced that this 4 Wembly-size plant will only employ 54 humans for three shifts, 365. Perhaps 12 humans per shift. And, of course, they are IT mavens, not skilled craftsmen. And Green Technology producing oodles of jobs a la Obama’s claim is sheer nonsense. Talk about build it and it runs itself in the extreme. Personally I am converting what little grey matter remains into reserching mushroom-growing in dank cellars. A smart alternative to cabbage soup. We all have to start somewhere…

2. Ian Marchant - July 27, 2009

Don’t know if you’ve ever come across an English writer called LTC Rolt; very good on how Britain is being de-skilled; sadly, he was writing in the 40’s and 50’s, and no one was listening then, either. Except those of us who agree with him; and with you. He’s probably best remembered now for his book ‘Narrow Boat’, which indirectly kicked off the canal restoration movement; but he also invented railway preservation,as he was the first manager of the preserved Tal-Y-Llyn Railway.And, fascinatingly, he was the founder of the Presteigne Vintage Car Run too.
Like Mark, and Mr. Rolt, I can’t resist a nice factory visit. Most recent was my trip to see linen manufacture in Northern Ireland. It’s still there; but only just.

3. FrankW - July 28, 2009

I was sat Saturday last in upstate Michigan, livin’ the blues, as a chap should, and reading the NY Times while trying not to listen to Harper, an Aussie didgeridoo bluesman (arcane, but someone might care) and dribbling with anticipation for the main event, to wit the appearance of Sonny Landreth, probably the greatest performing guitarist.

Which has what to do with Marks’ classic (ie. perfect but not exactly original) epistle? Well, said NY Times was reflecting ruefully upon the future of motoring, and future cars in particular. It reflected, correctly, that Messrs Obama (did you know that my brother recently met his Mrs?) and Brown are predicting their visions of the future upon technologies which while desirable do not in fact exist.

Forget wind power, understand that the future lies in fusion. Without it, life as we know it cannot continue. And it won’t.

IT is the future on manufacturing, using cheap power (from fusion). The Ford engine plant is the way to go. The Chinese bubble will burst when the consuming West can manufacture more cheaply, which — as Ford demonstrates — it will. It will of course be bloody, and will result in monster social upheaval as the West ceases to provide for the unemployed and skill-free.

Reflect perhaps upon two things: ‘service’ as in service industry refers to servicing productive (ie. making things) occupations; the unemployed can apparently cut their own hair and shine their own shoes, if they can indeed afford shoes. Secondly, as MarkW knows, I had a long career in manufacturing industry before he enabled me to retire into the far more entertaining world of the publishist. That was a foul place; nothing at all to do with cheery bucolic chaps who can transform a beer can into an engine.

Sonny Landreth was excellent as ever, probably the best reason to visit the US…

4. Martin Craig - July 28, 2009

You must have met some great engineers, Mark – in fact, with your history, you’re bound to have done. My own experience is sadly not so inspirational; from the sub-Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown porn collectors who boasted that they were ‘grafters’ as opposed to we ‘pen-pushers’, to the legion of tyre kickers who’ve condemned my beloved cars & bikes down the years, their driving energy seemed to come from shoulder-chips the size of Wilton steel works.

I used to love the writings of your former colleague LJK Setright, outrageously opinionated though they were, and like you I still admire the dwindling band of Castrol-R scented workshop dwellers, the nearest we get in the West to gurus. My only political comment is to note that, prior to NuLab’s hijacking of the party most associated with manufacturing in the UK, former ‘old’ Labour leader Neil Kinnock wrote a personal manifesto called ‘Making Our Way’ – all about the importance of the country’s traditional manufacturing base. Obviously, he had to be eliminated fast, re-programmed and exiled to the lucrative delights of the European Parliament.

p.s. I must look into this ‘fusion’, it’s totally new to me and presumably nothing to do with Ray Charles or Larry Coryell.

p.p.s. Is there a prize for spotting the ‘Crazy World of Gordon Brown’ musical reference in the above? (Ok, thought not.) I’m surprised the broadsheets haven’t thought of that one yet, it’s a cracker.

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