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The British car industry is roaring back to life, so why do we still think it's a goner?

Fiat moving its global headquarters to Britain is just one sign of a renaissance
  • @Simon_Kelner

As a journalist, I would see that one of my responsibilities is to challenge orthodoxy, and to overturn conventional wisdom. These days, so many assertions are presented as fact, and are subsequently repeated so often that they become universally acknowledged truths.

I am not talking about politically-charged statements that immigration is out of control and/or is bad for the country, or that our lives are being dictated by faceless technocrats in Brussels, or that the BBC is a bastion of political correctness and one which has, over the years, been complicit in creating a culture of sex abuse. Or, indeed, that all bankers are greedy and politicians are lying cheats.

No, I'm thinking mainly of those ideas that have become so ingrained into our national psyche that no one ever bothers to contradict them. Among these is the belief that manufacturing industry in this country is moribund, if not dead. All we do as a nation, we contend miserably, is push money around the City of London, or answer the phone in Northumberland or Warwickshire.

It's true that we are quite good at call centres, and beneficial tax regimes has turned London's Square Mile into one of the financial powerhouses of the world. But it's completely untrue to say that we don't make anything any longer. Take cars, for example. Here are some facts to conjure with. There will be more cars made in the Nissan factory in Sunderland this year than in the whole of Italy. We are a bigger exporter of cars - in terms of value - than Germany. We are the second biggest manufacturer of cars in Europe (here it is especially instructive to compare our renaissance with the steep decline of the French automotive industry). Fiat is moving its global headquarters to Britain.

Some of this resurgence is powered by demand - the most recent figures show that car sales in Britain jumped by 15 per cent year-on-year, in contrast to other mature markets in Europe - and some of it is because our tax regime offers advantages to major corporations.

But it is also because we have a large workforce which is prepared to work flexibly (compare with France, again) and which has the specialist skills and a heritage in car manufacture. We have come a long way since the I'm-All-Right-Jack mentality - a strike-happy selfishness - inhabited the production line. A British-made car is not regarded as an inferior product. Jaguars, LandRovers and Minis are coveted the world over. But this is not the story we are told. Stop anyone on the street, and they'll probably tell you that British car production has been in terminal decline for decades. Even politicians will, when the situation suits them, leave the impression that our manufacturing industries are on their last legs.

But it is not so, and it would be good for our self-image as a nation, once in a while, to proclaim our virtues. And, on that point, I will leave you with this surprising fact: Britain is the largest manufacturer of small space satellites in the world. Yes, in factories in Oxfordshire and Hampshire, we are showing the rest of the world the way as far as satellite technology is concerned. Made in Britain: it still works!