Chained to the Past

The thousands of car workers about to be made redundant are the victims of the policies designed to help them.

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 27th April 2000.

The workers of the West Midlands are the victims of decades of kindness. Their vulnerability to mass redundancy is the direct result of the policies designed to save them. For the Rover plant at Longbridge, like the Ford factory at Dagenham, has been doomed for years. Both the new money the government has promised the plant and the new bid drawn up by its well-wishers amount simply to a prolongation of its agony.

Longbridge is still working only because the government has given it three and a half billion pounds since 1975. By propping up car manufacturing through building roads, holding down fuel taxes and stifling the growth of public transport, it has handed the industry many billions more. Protecting car production in the face of market failure has, far from helping them, locked the people of the West Midlands into an economy which cannot sustain itself.

British car plants are doomed not only because they are slow and inefficient and suffer from the economies of scale enjoyed by bigger plants elsewhere, but also because the European car market is close to saturation. Car manufacturing can continue to grow only if the people of this and other nations are prepared to suffer ever more intractable traffic jams. We’re not. The workers of Longbridge are vulnerable, in other words, because their industry is both economically and environmentally unsustainable.

The troubles at Longbridge are illustrative of a far wider problem. Instead of liberating “the extraordinary talent of the British people” from the forces of conservatism that so long have held them back”, Tony Blair’s government has systematically suppressed the future and subsidised the past. It has poured money only into those industries whose growth is limited by the carrying capacity of the environment. Since Labour came to power, for example, it has given BAe and Rolls-Royce a total of £850 million to make aeroplanes, yet political pressure has been building up all over Europe to limit the number of flights and stop the construction of new airports.

Releasing more cars and planes onto the market is likely, paradoxically, only to reduce our productivity. The CBI calculates, for example, that congestion is costing Britain £15 billion a year. Swedish research shows that the reading ability of 12-14 year olds living under flight paths is impaired by 23%. Figures published this week by the Global Commons Institute reveal that, while global GDP has risen by three per cent a year over the past four decades, economic losses caused by natural disasters have risen annually by ten per cent. By 2065, it calculates, the cost of climate change will outstrip the value of the entire global economy.

Technologies for which demand is booming, on the other hand, are being muzzled. As the economist Paul Ekins points out, the growth in environmental spending in the UK outperformed the rest of the economy by four times over the 1990s. The global solar energy market is growing annually by 40 per cent. Yet civil servants at the Department of Trade and Industry, captured by the oil and nuclear companies they are supposed to regulate, remain fiercely hostile towards the new technologies. Five times as much money is spent in British universities on research into oil and gas as on research into renewable power, even though oil and gas is a mature industry whose reserves are running out, while renewable energy is taking off.

As a result, Shell has decided to build its solar energy plants not in Britain but in Germany, where the government has promised to install solar panels on 100,000 homes. The massive export market it’s developing will create tens of thousands of jobs. Though Britain is the windiest nation in Europe, it has offered no challenge to Denmark’s bid to become the global leader in wind technology. By 2030, wind will supply 40% of Denmark’s electricity, while we’ll be left to struggle with growing power bills and massive unemployment as oil reserves dry up and we have to import our electricity from far-sighted nations. Indeed, while it continues to prop up such 19th-century technologies as internal combustion engines and coal mining, the government is permitting the only shipyard with the capacity to build giant offshore wind turbines – Harland and Wolf in Belfast – to go to the wall.

The impending loss of thousands of jobs in the West Midlands is a great tragedy. It is also a great opportunity. Were the government to exercise a little of that vision it claims to possess in abundance, it would abandon the backward-looking policies which have compromised the future of British manufacturing and launch, instead, a genuine “knowledge-based economy”. I fear, however, that the forces of conservatism are alive and well, sustained by the misguided philanthropy of the government which claims to despise them.