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Any other business

Thatcherism saved Ryton but globalisation killed it — and striking won’t help

The demise of Peugeot’s Ryton factory came and went as a news story

The demise of Peugeot’s Ryton factory came and went as a news story

The demise of Peugeot’s Ryton factory came and went as a news story in little more than 48 hours, mutating swiftly from ‘shock closure’ to more measured explanations of inevitability. Though Peugeot is accused of welshing on promises that the plant would keep working until 2010, its French bosses never suggested that it would make a new model after the Peugeot 206, and the fact that cars can now be built cheaper in Slovakia than in Coventry comes as no news at all. The logic of today’s globalised motor industry is that, in high-wage countries, only those plants with the highest ratios of capital investment to manpower can survive: Nissan at Sunderland, Toyota at Burnaston and BMW at Cowley come into that category, but Ryton did not.

In a decade’s time, Slovakia will probably be a high-wage country and production will shift to Turkey or India or inevitably China, but that is no consolation to the skilled and in recent years strike-free Ryton labour force. They are now considering strike action to ‘fight’ the closure — and even clinging to the forlorn hope of fraternal support from Peugeot workers in France. But as was evident when public-sector workers took a day off in March to protest at being made to work until 65, strikes now garner no public sympathy in Britain at all, merely stirring hostile memories of the 1970s and 1980s.

The point was made vividly to me by a taxi-driver who took me to Loughborough station in the rain last week. A tall, confident man, I guessed at first he was an ex-policeman. I was wrong; before turning to driving, he had been a shop steward in a steelworks at Chesterfield — such a firebrand that Norris McWhirter’s Freedom Association blacklisted him and told him he would never find industrial work again after the Chesterfield factory closed. ‘When I was in a hurry for the world to change, it never did,’ he sighed, in the philosophical mode of taxi-men everywhere. ‘Now I don’t want it to change, it seems to change every day. I’ll tell you one thing, though, nothing would ever persuade me to go on strike again. Margaret Thatcher won that argument.’ In doing so, she gave factories like Ryton — as strike-torn as any in the old days — another 20 years of life. Now the world has changed again.

Non merci

Speaking of strikes, I should have been more discreet about my plan to launch a bid for Bergerac’s airport café (Any other business, 15 April). The airport’s fire crew — small enough to fit into a Peugeot 206, but nevertheless essential — staged a patriotic walk-out so soon after our Easter edition came out that I can only assume they are online subscribers. That left me in mid-air over central France, because those seat-of-the-pants operators at Ryanair decided we should take off from Stansted anyway and revealed only at the last moment that were in fact about to land at Limoges. Oh well, at least the three-hour late-night bus to Bergerac gave me time to rethink my cross-border investment options.

Follow the money

For prurient reasons as well as professional ones, I am an avid student of the Sunday Times’s annual Rich List, published last weekend — though it was a relief this year not to be asked by any rival Sunday paper to write a ‘spoiler’ on the theme of ‘Half a billion ain’t what it used to be’ or the ever-popular ‘You don’t have to be rich to be happy’. I believe in both of those maxims, but I note with detached interest that I would have had a 45 per cent better chance of joining the list if I had been born under Gemini rather than Aquarius, and that I would have had no chance at all if had been a GP, even if I met all my NHS targets.

It is fascinating to see how the list reflects underlying shifts in the economy and the way we behave. The number of fortunes based on manufacturing industry has dwindled by 10 per cent in the past two years, while the richest debutants are founders of firms such as Party Gaming and Betfair which feed the nation’s recently acquired online gambling habit. Another industry which surged to new highs in 2005 (almost tripling its 2004 performance, according to the accountants KPMG) is represented by one Nasser Ahmed, present address unknown, whose wealth is estimated at £151 million and whose occupation is listed succinctly as ‘fraud’.

By contrast, it was a pleasure to spot one entirely admirable old friend among the new entrants: the mail-order clothing entre-preneur Johnnie Boden. Long ago I interviewed Johnnie at Oxford for his first job in the City. In those days he was what might charitably be called an icon of the classic Bullingdon Club style, which means he did not look at all like a future fashion guru. But the success of his brand has been an object lesson, which ought to be taught in every business school, both in financial survival and in focusing on a target customer group — in his case, the British upper middle class — and selling them exactly what they want. So persuasive is his marketing that I had actually begun to feel guilty about not buying anything from the latest catalogue (that trademark corduroy suit I bought years ago just won’t wear out) but now I know he’s worth £68 million, I’ll stop worrying.

Green footprint

Speaking of lists, Boden’s company is not thought to be among the final bidders for the Hunter Rubber Company of Dumfries, the celebrated green welly maker which collapsed two weeks ago. There would be an obvious overlap of customer base — as there would be with Barbour, the waxed jacket maker which is in the running — but perhaps Boden reckons the green welly is yesterday’s look. That makes it surprising that one of the bids is led by Jonathan (soon to be Lord) Marland, the Conservative party treasurer; if he really wants to jump on David Cameron’s greener-than-thou bandwagon, he ought to be buying Green Home Inc of San Francisco, which sells 100 per cent recycled Kenyan ‘eco sandals’ and shoes made of Romanian hemp. Meanwhile, those who fear that Hunter is one more fine old British name that is about to be knocked down to a sinister foreign buyer may care to note that expressions of interest were received from a Serbian company called Tigar and a Swedish one called Båstad.

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