31 January 1996
Robert, taxi driver, Paisley Gilmour Street station
'It was a brilliant wee car! I had three of them. VHS 100 was the first. My uncle gave me it when it was nearly clapped oot. But I worked on it and got it goin' again. Well, it was just a basic car, but with the engine in the back it made for very light steering. And for a wee car it seemed to have plenty of room, even for a big guy like yourself.'
We left Paisley and entered a bruised landscape where the industrial poor of the west of Scotland once beheld the promised land. Eighteen years later, when the promised land had become an embarrassment, the vultures in suits observed a decent period of national mourning before erecting a trading estate on the knacker's yard of the Hillman Imp. They called it the Phoenix Retail Park.
'Look,' said Robert, 'the foundations and the internal roads are still there. Asda – that's roughly where the paint shop and the body shop used to be. See McDonalds? That was the press shop. And they built the bingo hall on the site of the boilerhouse. I'll take you across the road into the original factory. Big bloody place still lying empty. Look at it. Bigger than a toon.'
He drove until he could drive no further, past cavernous shells once known as machine shops, slanted at jagged angles, with windows high in the roof. At the end of the road we came on a building open to the elements, the only one they had forgotten to padlock. It had a notice on the door, a reminder of 1960s industrial relations:
NO UNAUTHORISED PERSONS ADMITTED, PENALTY INSTANT DISMISSAL
We stumbled over pigeon droppings, rubble, scraps of old newspapers, cigarette ends, broken bottles – the thick soup of industrial dereliction – until we reached a room with most of the floorboards missing. At the far end there was an electricity switchboard. 'Would you believe it,' said Robert, 'the power panels are still in place.'
And for a moment in this abandoned workshop, you felt that it might be possible to throw a switch and set the whole pitiless machine in motion again.
2 May 1963
A few weeks after the monarch visited the Glasgow slums and earned the Daily Record's endorsement as 'Queen of the Gorbals,' her husband opened the Rootes car plant near the 18th-century village of Linwood. The geographical label stuck, even when pedants pointed out that the plant actually fell within the boundary of neighbouring Elderslie, birthplace of Sir Malcolm Wallace, father of the patriot. It was the first dispute in the brief history of the Scottish car industry, and one of the few that failed to provoke a union meeting.
Later in 1963, a chivalrous Tory candidate, George Younger, surrendered his immediate political ambitions in order to give the new prime minister, the 13th Earl of Home, a safe seat in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, the 13th Mr Wilson, a pipe-smoking Yorkshireman in a Gannex raincoat, was turning over in his head an election-winning slogan – something about the white heat of a technological revolution.
But why wait for the end of '13 wasted years' of Tory rule? It seemed that in the west of Scotland the revolution had already begun. The Scottish Daily Express sounded almost euphoric: 'A Scottish car right down to its hub-caps, and it's Scots who will build it. Now, isn't that refreshing?' Norman Buchan, the local MP, clearly thought so. 'The factory will be a growth centre of immense importance to the whole Clyde,' he predicted, 'and will contribute to curing the cancer of Glasgow's housing.'
Despite such stirring expressions of confidence, it was difficult to quantify the broader economic advantages. For Linwood to become a growth centre, it would require to attract supporting investment in the form of components
suppliers and ancillary industries. There was no immediate sign of any of them.
But there was no doubting the social benefits. Two thousand new houses
were built at Linwood for the car workers, many of whom had been recruited from the declining shipyards and coal mines. For these men and their families, 2 May 1963 should have been glad confident morning – an escape from spent industries and barbarous slums.
Now, wasn't that refreshing? Evidently not. Three weeks later, Linwood went on strike for the first time. Shop stewards complained that the men's wages compared unfavourably with rates of pay at the company's main plant in the Midlands. The strike lasted only 36 hours, but it was a poor augury. It had the sour taste of prophecy.
31 January 1996
The only bank in Linwood town centre has been closed for nine months. Customers are directed to the nearest branch five miles away. But the
postman faithfully delivers the mail. 'The future starts tomorrow,' promises a leaflet recently dropped on the mat.
In Ardlamont Square, once the commercial heart of the town, the public library is one of the few buildings still open. Graffiti on its wall: 'Fuck the system.' 'Fuck the proddys (orange bastards).' 'BNP'.
Linwood Information Centre. 12.45pm.
Woman, tired, middle-aged: mumble, mumble, council tax, mumble.
Advisor: Another £8 a month might keep them happy. Can you afford that?
Woman: mumble, mumble.
Advisor: What exactly is wrong with your boy?
Man, tired, late middle-age: mumble, mumble, muscular spasms, mumble.
Advisor (sympathetically): There are only two of us on today, and this problem could take an hour to sort out. Would it be an awful hassle if you came back tomorrow?
Man: mumble, mumble.
Car park. 1.00pm.
Toyota. Volvo (badly rusted). Volkswagen. Vauxhall Nova. Mitsubishi. Fiat Panda. Nissan. Two Fords (battered).
Barman to customer: This place is all played out. Even Christmas Day wasnae up to much.
In the month that Harold Wilson entered No. 10, the first Scottish-made car since the 1920s was 'rolling off the production line at the rate of one a minute' – a headline-grabbing claim if not consistently true. The patriotic vehicle, our very own Volkswagen of the glens, was oddly comical in appearance, and some experts claimed to have a detected a fundamental design fault. Nevertheless it was exported to England in fairly large numbers and won a few rallies before it finally lost the battle.
Yet the Imp – renamed the Caledonian Imp when the going got desperate – was no more Scottish than its most buoyant supporter, the Scottish Daily Express, and maybe less so because at least that newspaper's proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, could boast of ancestors from that other vehicle-building centre, West Lothian. What could Lord Rootes claim apart from a natural desire to recoup some of the £23m he had staked on taking his company into the volume car business? He had no desire to be in Scotland. Like any sensible motor manufacturer he would have preferred to expand in Coventry, where he had offices, technical know-how, engine shops, the lot.
Strange as it may seem, there was a time when Conservative governments
not only had a regional development policy but were vigilant about enforcing it. Lottery tickets in the early 1960s were called IDCs – Industrial Development Certificates – which steered growing industries not to the places they necessarily wanted to be but to the places of greatest need. By withholding IDCs from existing locations, the government effectively forced the car manufacturers to move to the north of England or Scotland.
Only Rootes was prevailed upon to gamble on Scotland. The protoype of the Imp was capable of a top speed of 100mph, but his lordship, given half a chance, would have quit Linwood rather faster. Peak production of 72,000 cars, achieved in the election year of 1964, was less than 50% of theoretical capacity. Only 18 months after it opened, the plant was already operating a four-day week.
Industrial relations, never good, deteriorated sharply.
31 January 1996
Linwood Welfare Club
Posters for 'Grand Domino Singles,' 'Arthritis Care,' and 'Lazee L rootin' tootin' entertainment.'
Early afternoon. Pints, chasers.
Harry, 67, was a dye-setter in the paint shop. He was employed at the plant from the day it opened in 1963 until the day it closed in 1981. He has a sad face and walks stiffly.
Colin, who is younger and sparkier, also worked at Linwood but is vague about what he did and refuses to give his surname.
Jimmy, bolshier and franker than the others, rolls his own cigarettes. He describes himself as a trim snagger.
Jeremy is a photographer with the newspaper which has first rights to this article. He would like a cup of tea, an unusual request in Linwood Welfare Club, where only one teabag can be found. He settles for a soft drink.
And there's me, wondering about the lost art of trim snagging.
: A trim snagger fixed all the wee faults with the motor before it left the plant. Maybe we'd build up a door or change the glass if the car was damaged.
(a non-motorist): Was the Imp a good car?
: Don't know! Never owned one! But it was excellent value. Under £500 brand new and if you worked in the place you got a discount. Far superior to the Mini. More space. Pretty good small car. A lot of the higher-ups had one.
: Did people feel good about working at Linwood?
: Most people. I'd been in the yards – Stephens of Linthouse – earnin' a tenner a week. At Linwood, on piecework, you could make 15 in a good week. That was money most of us hadn't made before. And you got a new house which went with the job.
: If most people felt good, how come there were so many strikes?
: There were a few stupid strikes, sure, but a lot of times we were laid off because of other people's stoppages. We got a bad name for things we didnae do. We were never as black as we were painted. It boiled down to the quick buck. Governments making huge investments, managements pulling the plug.
: Are you angry about it?
(sighs): It's a very long time ago to be still angry.
: You were a shop steward, Jimmy, one of the baddies.
: You're kiddin' of course. They hadn't a clue, that management. Nae consultation. Once we started to make real money, the first bonus was 12 quid a month. Very good money. Then it went doon tae 11, then 10. By the finish it was 30 bob. Hey, wait a minute. They were includin' everybody in the bonus, even the shithoose clerk. One month we got 10 pennies. Auld pennies in they days. Stuff it up yer jacksies!
: One month we owed them
8 June 1968
But whose jacksies? There was no point in stuffing it up Lord Rootes's
jacksies, for his company had been acquired by the American motor
manufacturer Chrysler. Its UK management swiftly alienated the Linwood workforce – and did so on a scale impressive even by Linwood standards. The workforce, shedding their reputation for four-hour stoppages, stayed
out for a month over a disputed productivity plan.
Even the Scotsman, a paper of moderate temper and almost infinite
patience, grew slightly restive towards the end of the strike. The 1967 by-election victory of the SNP's Winnie Ewing had inspired a vision of political autonomy. But were the Scots up to it?
'The rights and wrongs of the present dispute have become almost impenetrable,' an editorial acknowledged. 'But the details are less important than the persisting lack of responsibility shown by Rootes workers towards their industry, which in Scotland is a frail plant. If the growing spirit of nationalism is to have a positive content and lead to political self-government, it must include a realisation that industrial democracy (and profitability) are as important as a parliament in Edinburgh. Opposition for the sake of disruption, a refusal to attend a meeting because it involves crossing a road in the rain – that kind of destructive obtuseness widely shown would put Scotland beyond redemption by its own parliament or anything else.'
Twenty-eight years later, I read the paragraph to the men in Linwood
'Aye, ' Jimmy responded sourly, 'but what did the Daily Record have to say?'
'This Scotsman paper,' said Colin. 'Does it have a racin' section?'
'A persisting lack of responsibility towards their industry.' I asked them if it was true. The little group looked thoughtful for a bit, then Colin said: 'I don't think there was any guy in there who didn't feel responsible for the job he was doing.' The others nodded.
'That's not quite the same thing,' I suggested.
There was no response.
23 April 1969
On a day of brilliant sunshine, Barbara Castle, Labour's secretary of state for employment, flew by helicopter to the Linwood plant to defend her unpopular policies for trade union reform. The management, fearful of a rough reception, waved her to a waiting car, but the old trouper turned and walked towards the crowd. A young apprentice leaning over the wire called out: 'Give us a kiss, Barbara.' 'Of course,' she replied, presenting her face. A roar of delight went up. It set the mood for the day. Only a few booed.
Any day in the late 60s
Eight thousand workers were now employed at Linwood, and the newspapers had developed a lazy habit of referring to the car industry as a symbol of Scottish industrial regeneration. It was a flattery that disguised the unpalatable truth. The plant was losing £2.5m a year, sales were sluggish, and the supporting investment never materialised – added to which the 'chief executive' of the local operation was no more than a jumped-up branch manager who required written approval from head office for spending more than petty cash. But this underlying reality was barely acknowledged except when a crisis blew up, as it did with unfailing regularity.
Only the deep pockets and political will of successive governments, increasingly motivated by the fear of nationalism, kept Linwood open. 'Give us a kiss.' 'Of course.' And every time the government blew a kiss it blew a few million more; by the end the bailout exceeded £100m. This was not industrial regeneration in any sense that mattered; it was an illusion of revival. Yet it was the orthodox view in Scotland for many years.
Peugeot, the plant's third owners, announced that it was closing its Scottish operation in the face of growing losses. In the same week, the Labour-controlled Renfrew District Council put up council houses rents by 55%. The councillors simultaneously awarded themselves interest-free loans – to buy new cars.
To the dismay of the Scottish TUC, the Linwood workers rejected by 2 to 1 their shop stewards' recommendation to oppose the closure. As one union leader pointed out: 'Few people here have any experience of winning.' Margaret Thatcher was in power now, and her government's attempts to save the factory were half-hearted to say the least. Suddenly, the gravy train didn't stop here any more.
22 May 1981
Scottish Daily Express:
'The car plant at Linwood closes today with the gates shutting behind the last of 4,800 redundant workers. And as the men turn away from the factory which has been a symbol of Scottish industrial regeneration for nearly 20 years, they will leave behind almost 3,000 cars in the compound and millions of pounds worth of machinery. The final car, a Sunbeam, came off the production line last Friday, and this week the workers have been getting their redundancy cash.'
31 January 1996
Linwood Welfare Club
Harry and me.
'Can you remember the day you were paid off?'
'You always remember the day you're paid off. 22 May 1981. Of course we knew it was comin'. We'd known for weeks. Peugeot had taken over from Chrysler. They maintained that Linwood was too far away ever to be successful.'
'What happened on the actual day?'
'The senior foreman came round and said: 'Right, that's it, lads.' We were told to congregate over in the west area, where we used to eat our piece. Then everybody was told to go across the road to the south side, and there you got your cheque, and that was it.'
'How much did you collect?'
'£7,500. More than most. I think the average was about £4,000.'
'What did you do then?'
'Went to the bank with the money! Then had a drink. They actually did me a favour. I was 52, my family were grown up, and my wife was ill. I looked after her for 10 years till she passed away. I never worked again.'
'What do you think of Linwood now?'
'We have forgiven the people who sinned against us.'
'Who were the sinners?'
20 November 1981
They called it the 'sale of the century' when Linwood's plant and machinery, all 14,000 lots, went under the hammer of the auctioneer, the aptly named Mr Butcher. Demonstrators protested that the owners, having received large sums of public money to equip the plant, were now profiting a second time from its sale. Their protest failed to hold up the auction. 'Shouting is worth nothing,' said one German buyer.
In the House of Commons, the secretary of state for Scotland, George Younger, no longer the self-sacrificial figure of 18 years earlier, left the dirty work of defending the Linwood auction to a junior minister, Alex Fletcher, who said bluntly that the industry was dead – 'a relic' which had to be swept away.
Years later, scholars were free to exhume its remains in academic tomes. There was near unanimity that it had been a massive failure of commercial sense, a colossal misadventure. There was also a feeling that Linwood had a deeper symbolism – as the place where the Lowland Scot, a breed that had derived a certain pride from making things of value and durability, finally fell out of love with the machine.
31 January 1996
Linwood Welfare Club
'We'll never get decent pictures in here,' the photographer whispered. So we persuaded Harry and Jimmy to return with us to what was left of their former place of employment. We got out of Jeremy's car at the end of the road and I pointed to the notice warning workers of the penalty for trespassing.
'Instant dismissal,' Harry muttered. 'Aye, there was plenty of that, right enough.'
Jimmy said: 'My God, how this place used to jump. Eight thousand men at one time, and now ghosts. Ghosts. The wreck of the bloody Hesperus, that's what it's like. You know, the toilets were so clean you could have eaten your dinner off them. Some did.'
Having surveyed the wreckage, they fell silent.
Then Jeremy said: 'Tell you what. Walk away into the distance, and I'll take a picture.'
And they walked away into the distance.