Captain’s Log

John Torode

  • Back from the Brink: An Apocalyptic Experience by Michael Edwardes
    Collins, 301 pp, £9.95, March 1983, ISBN 0 00 217074 4

‘Diminutive but perfectly formed’ was the phrase coined by Private Eye to describe Sir Michael Edwardes. It stuck because it caught the mechanical, wind-up, less-than-life quality of the man who ‘turned British Leyland round’ To me he was always a character out of Thunderbirds, the television series in which assorted automata glide round the globe, programmed to mouth platitudes and do down the much more human baddies. If Thunderbirds seems a little harsh then how about Startrek? Captain’s Log, Starship Enterprise: ‘Early in October of 1977 I was asked, at short notice, to take on the awesome task of running British Leyland; of bringing about its recovery. I reported for duty 28 days later, and now, five years later, my assignment at BL is over. Others will continue with the task.’ That is how ‘Captain’ Edwardes opens the preface to this solid 301 pages. It is the sort of book which would have demanded six uninterrupted months from a mere mortal. Edwardes wrote it while running BL: it took ‘every spare moment for 16 weeks’.

It is a commonplace that the Winter of Discontent lost Labour the 1979 Election, but in the manufacturing industries the rot had set in far earlier, and the chaos at Leyland symbolised it. I remember waves of laughter in a Midlands working-men’s club in 1978 when the comic told a joke about a sheikh who wanted to buy his children a souvenir after a stay in the UK. One asked for a train set, so the sheikh bought him British Rail. One asked for a boat-building kit. Daddy bought British Shipbuilders. The youngest insisted on a cowboy outfit. (His knowledge of geography must have been a bit dodgy.) ‘Would you believe British Leyland?’ the comedian asked in lugubrious Brummie tones. We would and we could and we did.

Leyland helped create the image of the Social Contract as a mechanism for throwing money at bolshie workers who (when they were not on strike or snoring their way through the night shift) were producing, albeit desperately slowly, second-rate goods nobody wanted at prices nobody could afford. That was the image which precipitated Callaghan’s downfall. Yet it was under Labour that Edwardes was appointed to create Slim-Line Leyland. All Eric Varley wanted to know was that Edwardes was not tarred with the Apartheid brush. Once that was settled Varley – and Callaghan – gave him his head and stood by him through wage freezes, sackings and closures. Edwardes concludes that Labour was ‘at least as tough’ as the subsequent Thatcher administration about providing funds, that the Callaghan administration was ‘surprisingly decentralised’, that there was little second guessing: ‘they looked at the business strategically – there was minimal intervention and when the Prime Minister did get involved he did so in a firm, friendly but purposeful way.’

It is the Tories who come over as a highly emotional and unpredictable lot, juggling batty ideology, icy intellect, high idealism and cheap opportunism. Here is the very influential Professor Alan Walters, economic adviser to the Prime Minister, suggesting to the BL board that closure of the company would have a beneficial effect on the economy within six months: restrictive practices would be swept away, pay increases held down and our competitiveness would take a great leap forward. Meanwhile, in another part of the Whitehall forest, arrangements were being made to drip-feed £990 million into BL. There is a nice picture of the Iron Lady attending a Leyland lunch in 1979. ‘Well, Michael Edwardes, why should we pour further funds into British Leyland?’ she asked, and then ‘glared stonily around the table at each of us in turn’. It was, apparently, a disastrous occasion – until a charming note turned up wishing Edwardes well in his considerable efforts to restore BL to prosperity and congratulating him on his ‘thoroughly realistic approach’. Verdict on Mrs T? ‘Everything of any conceivable political consequence was referred to Number Ten – not only the strategic decisions on funding but even such matters as the chairman’s remuneration. Moreover this was no rubber-stamping process. Recommendations were frequently overturned.’

Scene: A Downing Street dinner for Mitterrand. ‘Keep up the good work, Michael,’ Lord Carrington murmured to Edwardes. Maggie’s ears pricked up. ‘So he should, he’s paid more than I am,’ she snapped. Scene: the Cabinet Room. Ministers gather to discuss a paper from Sir Keith Joseph, Industry Secretary, advocating more funds for BL. The Mad Monk kicked off by attacking his own paper – agreed by a Cabinet Committee he had chaired. He no longer felt able to support his own appeal. His colleagues overruled him and BL got the money. As Edwardes commented delicately, the difference between Sir Keith and some of the other non-interventionists was that they were prepared to subordinate their fundamental philosophy to political reality.

When Edwardes moved into Leyland he deliberately occupied a scruffy labyrinth of offices ‘above the shop’ – the sales showroom at 41 Piccadilly – rather than the elegant and utterly inappropriate corporate headquarters in the Marylebone Road. The man from Thunderbirds intended to flog the place off and boot out most of the types with tubular steel desks and potted plants. ‘At first I felt able to trust only three people in a company of about 198,000,’ Edwardes writes: his secretary, his personal assistant and John McKay, the communications director, all of whom had moved across from Chloride with the boss. It was some time before we hacks cottoned on to the fact that McKay was not an industrial public relations man in the surprisingly thoughtful mould of the motor industry. McKay’s task was to run a ‘hearts and minds’ propaganda campaign, communicating directly with those 198,000 (a sight less as the months ticked by) and cutting the ground from under the feet of ‘shop-floor militants’. In that task the press was at best irrelevant. Union leaders and stewards (who agreed on precious little else) are unanimous in their claim that the capitalist press was crucial in building up Edwardes. If so, the orders from above were subliminal.

Throughout the Edwardes era I was a leader-writer and columnist for the Guardian. (Before that I had been Labour Editor.) I was used to captains of industry and their PR men bending my ear. We all are. Yet I do not recall a single telephone conversation with either Edwardes or McKay. I am delighted to learn that I was not alone. The Edwardes style – as he explains it here – was ‘to be vigilant and to act immediately to deal with incorrect, biased or malicious reports’. That was done by phoning the editor – not by getting the PR man to have a word with the offending specialist. The threat of legal action always hung heavy in the air. When Edwardes did want something leaked he came on equally heavy. During the 1981 pay talks, Alex Kitson, then acting general secretary of the TGWU, wriggled out of secret undertakings Edwardes believed he had obtained from him. The Times has a first-rate labour team. Edwardes ignored them. Instead, as he reports with pride, he phoned Harold Evans, then editor, leaked the tale and set the hounds after the news. It worked.

Edwardes disliked and distrusted working journalists. But then he disliked and distrusted almost anybody who would not buy his package without first fingering the goods. Where others might have seen incomprehension he saw malice: a genuine difference of opinion about issues on which he might (just might) have been wrong was out of the question. It was not just recalcitrant workers and Fleet St hacks: Members of Parliament were also part of the plot against Leyland.

If one were being unkind one might label Edwardes the thinking man’s Jimmy Goldsmith. To Edwardes, journalists are superficial, subversive, often untruthful but, above all, uncontrollable. (‘Frenetic’ is the term he uses.) Most labour correspondents, with their tightly-knit, closed-shop lobby (declaration of interest: I was, 13 years ago, its chairman), are undoubtedly way left of centre. They need to be if they are to do their job without undue effort. They listen more to union men than to employers, if only because union men are less secretive. They write for each other and for progressive academics and they tend to follow the fashion. They look with scepticism at the antics of management and they tend to believe – like ACAS officials and the old stagers at the Department of Employment – that the achievement of a settlement is more important than its terms. They are cynical and find it hard to accept that the bad guys are lined up neatly on one side and the good guys on the other. They also know a lot about the things they comment on.

One incident which particularly angered Edwardes was the leaking, just as wage negotiations were getting under way in October 1981, of his own supposed 38 per cent wage increase. Patrick Jenkin, the Industry Secretary, was wheeled on to tell the Commons that Edwardes drew a ‘remuneration package’ and that, over the five years of his contract, the ‘cost to the company’ of the ‘package’ was 5 per cent per year. Compound interest, of course. Edwardes remains convinced that hundreds of column inches of inaccurate information flooded the papers, seemingly to soften up management in advance of the wage negotiations. He says that it took ‘legal steps’ to force reluctant editors to correct their untruths. I was one of those who commented on the alleged increase, which came at a time when the unions had just been told that BL could afford increases of no more than 3.8 per cent. The company secretary wrote to the editor asking him to draw my attention to Patrick Jenkin’s Parliamentary answer. He did so. I then phoned the company secretary. I explained that I would like to try and put things right and perhaps Sir Michael might care to help. ‘On balance, and very politely’ – as I reported at the time – the company secretary thought not. Sir Michael’s pay packet was not really the Guardian’s business. Yet Edwardes was the chairman of a loss-making publicly-owned enterprise. It was our money that went to pay the £100,000 a year salary which, he states here, was ‘among the lowest in the world motor industry’.

Edwardes did turn Leyland round and he was worth every penny he was paid. His robust populism, appealing to his work-force over the heads of shop-floor militants and union bureaucrats, gave an impetus both to the Tebbit/Thatcher concept of union democracy and to the SDP preoccupation with giving the unions back to the (supposed) mass of moderates waiting to be enfranchised. One rumour now has it that Edwardes is poised to replace Sir Peter Parker at British Rail and ‘do a Leyland’ on that union-bound loss-maker. This is the age of the Maestro, not the train.