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A former industrial leader haunted by its past

By Nicholas Comfort

Britain had it all, Nicholas Comfort tells us. As Queen Elizabeth ascended to the throne nearly 60 years ago, the nation commanded the lion's share of the world's manufactured exports.

It produced cars, ships, aircraft, pioneered nuclear power, and was the envy of nations around the globe. More than half a century on and Comfort wonders where it all went wrong.

The French still have a strong indigenous car industry, the Germans have engineering giants such as Siemens and Italy still has a shipbuilding industry. Britain, he says, has lost its manufacturing prowess and has just a handful of world-class manufacturers. The lustre of the 1950s has faded and all but gone.

Comfort, who grew up in that decade, bemoans the era when Britain led the industrial and manufacturing charge. But it was not all sunshine and hay-making.

How many old British made cars such as the Austin Allegro fall into the category of the worst-ever made, for example?

A mass of historic detail that's interesting but difficult to assess critically unless one lived through the era or undertakes one's own research, Comfort's book has a narrative thread that sounds a bit like the grandfather who sits in the corner telling youngsters that "back in my day. . . ".


He recounts the influence of unions, particularly during the 1970s, as a key part of the problem in trying to modernise British industry at a time when it was rapidly losing ground to competitors. In 1979 alone, just as Margaret Thatcher came to power, there were almost 30 million strike days recorded in Britain -- a truly astounding figure.

But governments of the day were also partly to blame for manufacturing's demise by failing to develop key economic plans following the war, argues Comfort.

Thatcher years

The Thatcher years, with a focus on small business, also helped to sideline big manufacturing and industry.

"If you were any good, you'd be working somewhere else," she told British Rail senior executives.

But he maintains that many British governments were victims of circumstance in their often failed efforts to protect big industry.

Mrs Thatcher's government, on the other hand, tried to "impose its own economic theories on the nation" with some good effect but "at the price of lasting damage to industry".

The causes of British manufacturing's decline are manifold; Comfort's book is interesting, but its broader appeal may be limited by its anorak tendencies.

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