Four years, different age

There is a depressing irony in the fact that MG Rover is back in the news at a time of unparalleled uncertainty for the automotive industry in the UK and around the globe.


When the firm collapsed in 2005 there was a distinct sense of an era ending. Most agreed that the age of UK-owned mass-production, mass-market vehicles stopped when lengthy efforts to save the firm fell apart in controversial circumstances. That controversy continues after an investigation that has taken four years, with a possible probe into whether or not any criminal conduct took place and ongoing allegations that the government’s interest was in preventing the firm’s collapse on the eve of a general election.


Business secretary Lord Mandelson promises answers, or at least publication of the report, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, consider how the world has changed in those four years. Back then the passing of MG Rover was seen as momentous but not calamitous. The UK was producing more cars than ever, albeit from plants owned by overseas firms and the depth of innovation in the lower tiers of the nation’s automotive supply chain suggested that if we were not going to own production of the world’s vehicles, we would at least have a big role in the future of the industry.


The recession and a collapse in demand for vehicles around the world have left these assumptions on a knife edge. In those few years we have gained some hard-earned insights into the future of the world car industry, the types of vehicles that will wither and die (huge and gas-guzzling) and those that will prosper (low emissions, efficient).


Many of us at the time of the Rover collapse said the government was at least doing the right thing by resisting calls for a wholesale renationalisation of the company, pointing to the lamentable record of failing, state-run car makers in the 1970s. That remains true, but in an age that has seen mega-sums invested to prop up the banks it is relevant to wonder what decisions might be made today.


Back in 2005 Richard Branson of all people suggested that Longbridge could become the base of a UK, and indeed European, push into the development and manufacture of alternative, environmentally benign mass-production vehicles. He pointed out that state backing can, when properly directed, deliver results, citing Airbus as an example from the aerospace sector.


Branson is never slow to grab the chance of a sound bite, but at a time when the idea of ‘strategic assets’ that are vital to the long-term prosperity of the nation is back on the agenda it may have received more attention now than it did then.


Andrew Lee, Editor