Jam yesterday and jam tomorrow: Dundee has lost Timex, but still has plenty going for it, says James Cusick

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The Independent Online
THE CITY of Dundee has never had many fans. James Cameron, the journalist, wrote that when Britain was in the grip of depression in the Thirties, 'Dundee could have stood as a symbol of a society that had gone sour'. He clearly didn't like the place, maintaining that its street scenes 'might have been created by a disillusioned designer of sets for the more embittered works of Chekhov'.

Metaphors of doom, despair and blight, if not quite Chekhovian, have nevertheless reappeared to describe the aftermath of Timex's decision to quit Dundee after 47 years on Tayside. The loss of an estimated 360 jobs at Timex has suddenly rendered Dundee Scotland's dole city.

Five months of headline news describing an industrial dispute that has had violence, arrests, hardship and labour martyrdom, now has a multinational packing its bags. In the one-plus-one-makes-five world of publicity, the marketing men are only too aware of Dundee's failure just five years ago. Up for grabs were 450 jobs with the car manufacturer Ford, all set to build a pounds 40m electronics plant. Inter- union squabbling over a single-union deal saw the Ford package sail off to Spain. Dundee lost. Timex has added to the perception that the place is a loser.

However, according to Tony Jackson, a senior lecturer in town and regional planning at Dundee University, no publicity is bad publicity. 'This reflects worse on Timex than it does on Dundee. We have to bear it, survive, and go show the world what we have to offer.'

It has survived before. In the mid-19th century, Dundee's proximity to the whaling industry at Peterhead, north of Aberdeen, accidentally offset the decline in Scotland's cotton industry. Stiff jute fibres were softened in a mixture of whale oil and water. Existing machinery of the linen trade was used. Dundee became the world centre for jute, employing 70,000. Raw material imported from halfway across the globe, worked on in Dundee, and then exported across the world, made Dundee wealthy. Very wealthy.

Changing international markets, reduced imperial protectionism and Bangladesh and India utilising their own natural resource in manufacturing eventually ended the city's jute industry.

Jam and marmalade, using the fruit nurseries around Blairgowrie, offered Dundee another century-long success story. The firms of Keillers and Robertsons once employed thousands in the jam industry. That too has gone. In 1988 the James Keiller company was sold to Ranks Hovis McDougall for pounds 4.1m and production moved to Manchester.

In Scottish school geography books, the echoes of Dundee's industrial past are taught as the three Js: jute, jam and journalism. The third J represents the city's largest private employer, the family and strictly non-union company of D C Thomson, publisher of the Sunday Post and a host of comics, including Beano and the Dandy. Around 1,800 work for Thomson in Dundee. The problem for the present marketing men is that what Dundee does now is not as easily alliterative.

Mohamed Saleh, Timex's US vice-president of human resources, said the inability of his company to establish, with the unions, the foundations of 'world-class manufacturing' at Dundee was the crucial reason for getting out. But what Timex failed to do, other companies have managed; and not with Third World wages.

Five minutes in a car from Timex is NCR's Dundee factory. In the Sixties and Seventies, more than 5,000 were employed by NCR. Markets changed and 15 years ago it was virtually buried (Timex at that time also employed 5,000).

NCR did not opt for Timex's strategy of cutting back its workforce and heading into low technology sub-contracted work. It went up-market into the world of automated cash dispensers - a high investment venture, incurring high costs for training. This year NCR, with 1,600 employees, will produce around 60 per cent of the world's Automated Teller Machines, , exporting to 100 countries.

Other multinationals in Dundee include the tyre manufacturer Michelin, employing 1,100, and General Accident's financial services centre, which processes insurance claims and employs 450.

In the past five years bio-technology and pharmaceutical companies have also come to Dundee. Glaxochem, part of the Glaxo empire, has a factory there. Last year the company had a worldwide turnover of pounds 4bn. Products manufactured in Dundee account for 25 per cent of that. Dundee is worth pounds 1bn to Glaxo. Other smaller bio-tech companies employ 2,200 in the region.

Dundee University and the Dundee Institute of Technology are also heavily involved in medical and genetic research, with multi-million-pound projects backed by cancer research organisations. The hope is that in the future a 'critical mass' will build up in these fields, attracting investment in allied industries.

Charles Fairley, chief executive of Scottish Enterprise Tayside, the government-funded development agency, described Timex as a one-off situation. 'We need to separate out what has happened around Timex, and explain the reality of Dundee.'

For many Dundonians over the last 15 years, reality has been harsh. Ship-building, once a dominant industry, in effect ended in the mid-Eighties. Light and specialist engineering companies have also vanished. In engineering, Dundee's best hopes centre on the recent changes in UK petroleum tax, encouraging the development of mature oilfields in the North Sea. Remote sub-sea maintenance technology is a likely future growth area for Dundee firms. The city is already the UK's number two oil town, after Aberdeen.

Dundee's unemployment is just above the Scottish average, but Mr Fairley insists that the city is 'not an unemployment desert'. What troubles most of the development agencies working in Dundee is the high level of long-term unemployed, where government training initiatives appear to have failed dismally.

However, a recent official education statistic gave some encouragement. Schools and colleges in Dundee now produce a higher percentage of students qualified in computing-orientated subjects than any other part of the UK. Nobody quite knows what that will mean, but nobody is predicting it is a bad thing for future prospects.

James Cameron, probably in one of his better moods, actually wrote that Dundee had 'the potential for grace and charm'. The city's marketing executives, after Timex, will be hoping that Cameron meant what he said and that Dundee is not the sum of what it has, but the sum of what it could have.

(Photograph omitted)