There’s something tragically appropriate about the fact that the most high-profile British industrial story, as the country staggers in the direction of a no-deal Brexit, should involve Nissan.
The proximate cause of the Japanese company’s reversal of its decision to build a line of SUVs at its Sunderland plant was the collapse of European demand for diesel vehicles. But as its management has made perfectly clear Britain’s departure from the EU was a factor too.
It’s worth recalling why Nissan is here in the UK at all. In the 1980s Margaret Thatcher practically begged the Japanese firm to establish a plant in Sunderland, promising a smorgasbord of public subsidies and support to make it happen. Such interventionism jars with the popular image of her administration as a callous band of laissez-faire ideologues obsessed with the City of London and happy to let former northern industrial powerhouses crumble.
Yet the biggest lure for the Japanese was not those subsidies, but the UK’s position in the European common market. As Keith Joseph, Thatcher’s industry minister, wrote in a memo to Thatcher: “Nissan had chosen the United Kingdom because it gave them access to the whole European market. If we were outside the community, it is very unlikely that Nissan would have given the United Kingdom serious consideration as a base for this substantial investment.”
Another irony about the Nissan investment is that France and Germany were, in those days, hostile to the idea of allowing Japanese car firms a production bridgehead within the European common market, fearing the impact of the competition on their own domestic automotive manufacturers.
Thatcher overcame those protectionist European impulses and indeed made the creation of a free market, regulation-harmonising, “single market” among the European member states a personal priority. Yet now, 33 years on, we have nominal Tory Thatcherites not only insisting that the UK must leave Thatcher’s single market but also airily dismissing the Brexit concerns of Nissan’s Japanese management – a management which their heroine was once so keen to court.
The suggestion by the chair of the European Research Group faction within the Tory party, Jacob Rees-Mogg, that because Nissan’s former boss Carlos Ghosn stands accused of embezzlement in Tokyo that nothing the company has to say need be taken seriously, shows how far this wing of Conservatism has drifted into denial. The ERG prefers conspiracy theories and witch hunts to listening to firms’ worries about trade barriers. Before the private “letter of comfort” to Nissan from the business secretary Greg Clark in 2016 was finally published on Monday, the great fear among these hardliners was that this letter had made unacceptably positive noises about Britain remaining in a customs union with the EU.
Another lip-chewing irony over Nissan is that the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been fretting recently about the restrictiveness of EU aid rules and some of his supporters have gone as far as using this as an argument in favour of total rupture. But the Clark letter revealed £ 80m of promises of UK government assistance for Nissan, with £ 61m of grants formally offered. If such state aid is forbidden under “neoliberal” EU law, as some “Lexiteers” seem to suggest, the EU’s institutions and courts have been surprisingly tolerant of it.
The air is thick with accusations of “betrayal” over Brexit. But the reality is that it is Nissan and other foreign corporate investors in the UK that have been betrayed; betrayed by political extremists ignorant of history and by those who find their ideology preferable to reality.