The British Disease.

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A Triumph from the new(ish) Hinckley Factory in the Rhine Gorge.

Having written ‘The Trouble with Germany‘ and committed it to the printers I of course immediately came across a book which was entirely relevant to my thesis and would have given further insight into my arguments. The book in question was English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit 1850 – 1980 by Prof Martin J. Weiner of Rice University, a privately run establishment in Texas.

His argument runs along the lines that the industrial revolution in Britain was an accident of history, an interloper upon the rustic idyll which was itself an imagined society of honest squires and contented peasants  that was cherished by the upper classes mainly because it reinforced their belief in their right to rule, and by the middle classes because they were of the opinion that their interests were best served by hanging on to the coat tails of their betters. As for the the working man, and eventually woman,  then it empowered them politically which naturally irked those who would position themselves higher up the social hierarchy.  He does rather beg the question as to whether the almost willful destruction of British industry in the latter half of the 20th century was some sort of revenge, a misguided reassertion of the old order by those wishing to see the return of the great unwashed to what they considered their proper, lowly, position.

Weiner is obviously of this opinion and relies heavily upon the literature and opinions of the movers and shakers of the Victorian and Edwardian eras to make his point. Time and again he treats us to examples of the distaste and contempt with which industry was met by the old guard from the start of the 18th century onwards as the emergence of the Pre Raphaelites went on to confirm. This group of vexed and well to do artists  were the young fogey’s of the day and supported the aura of romance and mythology that centred around the ancient cultures of Italy, Greece and, rather ironically, elevated the Rhine with its adjacent forests to an unspoiled land of honour, nobility and heroes. 100 years after the group’s formation Britain found itself emerging, bankrupt, from a war with that now highly industrialised state that members of the establishment had been brought up to idolise through art, but instead of taking the opportunity to clear out the stable and start again (as was forced upon the losers of the conflict) she fell back into old habits, the eternal class struggle that only a country that had hitherto been relatively unthreatened by invasion could develop and promote  in such a senseless way over the centuries.

This is not the version of history that is generally promulgated within the British media or political establishment, but if there is one clear advantage in moving outside the country of ones upbringing it is that  one can look back and more clearly appreciate the origin of its social beliefs and point to the fallacies contained therein. I still retain a great love for one particular British Icon and that is Triumph Motorcycles (originally founded by a German), but I no longer subscribe to the commonly held belief that it was just bad manufacture and contempt for the customers that caused the original company’s downfall during the post war period, there is so much more to it than that. The whole of British industry suffered, not just the motorcycle industry, and to consider the travails of Triumph, BSA et al in isolation from the general demise is to miss the crucial point of the disinterested leadership that the country unfortunately endured during this period.

In 1948 the US started to hand out millions of dollars to help the war ravaged economies to recover, the scheme was known as  Marshall Aid. Each recipient country had to apply for the largesse and so Germany prepared a document detailing how it would rebuild it’s industries with the money and specifically talked about the new technologies that the the war had brought forward. Britain’s Oxbridge, and predominantly arts educated, civil servants on the other hand produced an application that was full of rather unfocussed generalities about using the money to ensure the country retained influence upon the world stage.  A decade later the German motorcycle manufacturer, NSU, was the largest in the world, their success due to a range of completely new models designed to meet the country’s needs. A couple of wet summers and rising prosperity amongst the citizens soon persuaded the company to switch to car production and it eventually became part of Audi. Out on the edge of Europe, nearly 40 years after the war had ended, the old Triumph Engineering company finally succumbed to bankruptcy in 1983,  it was still using an engine design from 1938 and, it is said, factory tooling even older than that.

Britain received well over twice the dollars from the Marshall Plan than Germany did. Where did the money go? If it had been spent on perpetuating the UK’s industrial base rather than trying to build a new Jerusalem, John Bloor, the savior of the Triumph marque, may well not of had the opportunity to so spectacularly turnaround just another broke UK manufacturing company.

 

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