For students of the hidden agenda, a leader in Monday’s Financial Times entitled “Battle for Rolls”, addressing the contested German bids for Rolls-Royce Motors from BMW and Volkswagen, made fascinating reading. It concluded: “Of course, in the wider Europe, the question of national ownership becomes progressively less important. Yet even as Vickers’ shareholders pocket their cash, they will be on the losing side. The reasons are history, but not a chapter that it would be wise to forget.”
Now, it may be that the phrase “wider Europe” in juxtaposition with “national ownership” relates only to the prospects of local companies within a single European market. And it may be that Vickers’ shareholders will be on the losing side because their successive managements have failed to make a go of the luxury car market in the way that their German counterparts self-evidently have. And the “chapter in history” may relate to this failure in the British motor industry.
I seek to impute no other interpretations to FT leader writers, but the paragraph is, at the very least, opaque. Could it be suggesting obliquely that it is a shame that a great British industry is moving into German ownership when, little more than half a century ago and well within the personal experience and memory of a generation still alive, we and our allies defeated that nation in the greatest threat to our freedoms since the Norman conquest?
There is a particular pain, I imagine, for many over the despatch of the Rolls-Royce marque to German ownership. It’s not just that Rolls is quintessentially English, conjuring images of wing-collared aristocrats stepping from sumptuous juggernauts to rule Britannia, when that rule was universally accepted.
It’s also that the full name of one of the British Bulldog’s twentieth century’s icons was the Vickers Supermarine Spitfire. This symbol of the democratic defiance of tyranny was powered by a Rolls-Royce engine and, though the aerospace and motor companies have pursued very separate destinies, there is still an audible roar to it that is as resonant of the British lion as it is of simple engine power.
By the same token, I imagine that there are a number of people who dislike the brand names of R-R’s predators, with their Second World War connotations, when we were shooting them from the sky or bombing their factories. Volkswagen has its origins in the Third Reich and the original jelly-mould design is one of the banalities of Nazism.
We shouldn’t sneer at these phobias and prejudices because, if we do, we sneer at the people who hold them. As Clive James once said, alluding to waxed-moustachioed and blazered old buffers sounding off in English saloon bars, if you’ve strapped a fighter plane to your backside and flown around the sky shooting at Nazis, or even simply served by standing and waiting, then you’ve largely earned the right to say and think what you like within the law. Likewise, we shouldn’t dream of trespassing on the memories of civilians who suffered unspeakably.
But nor should we allow contemporary history to poison our national souls. And this is particularly true at a commercial level. Wherever possible and with only a few exceptions that have proved the rule, individuals have been prevented from prospering from their evil-doing. Companies are people, but company names are not. There may be unpleasant associations for some in these company names, but not connections. In this context, there can be no real objection to R-R being owned by BMW or Volkswagen, if we discount the bitter but irrationally resentful sniping.
Since this stuff is seldom aired openly in the press, there are a few points that I would add. The first is that, as a pro-European, I am excited rather than depressed by cross-border ownership – it demonstrates that a single market is developing organically. As I have argued here before, a single European market will be created or destroyed by business people, not by politicians. As far as the Germans are concerned, domination of this market by industrial or economic means is a strategy (if it exists, which I doubt) immeasurably preferable to the two militaristic alternatives on which they have embarked this century.
Then again, Germany has placed terrific importance on developing post-war engineering skills and excellence. Engineers there are better trained and better paid. The fruits of that economic policy have been harvested in the motor industry over the past couple of decades. There is no mileage in whingeing about that now.
By contrast, the British engineering scene – with the honourable exception of information technology – is derelict. We have got out of motor manufacturing because we’re terrible at it, not just because others are better at it.
R-R was the last and perhaps, in many ways other than financial, the most valuable bastion to fall. Ford owns Jaguar; BMW already owns Rover; and GM owns Aston-Martin. We have also failed in the key discipline of selling cars abroad. We have lost the plot.
It’s all about the irresistible advance of history.