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James Baggott: It’s time I had my say on Brexit – an axe blow to our industry

Time 9:13 am, November 28, 2019

I TEND to steer well clear of politics in my Car Dealer Magazine column, but these days my anger burns so deep, my rage so great, that as we all head to the polls once again, I couldn’t ignore the topic any longer.

Let’s face it: Brexit has been a total and utter undeniable car crash of a disaster for the automotive industry.

Wherever you sit in the chain – be it behind a desk in a car dealership, on the production line of a factory building cars or bits for cars, or like us as a supplier – the pain of the 2016 decision to leave the EU has left a catastrophic bullet wound in the belly of the car industry.

I don’t care what side of the fence you sit on – leave, remain, don’t care, whatever – it’s impossible to deny the paralysis the small majority victory that Leave achieved has caused.

It is, and will forever be remembered as, the executioner of the British car manufacturing industry – an axe blow to the neck that murdered what has long been a great part of this country.

Before the referendum, Britain was seen as an efficient gateway to Europe, a place where cars could be made profitably and exported to our garden market of continental buyers and on around the world.

Parts flowed into the country unhindered, arriving at factories just in time, and expertly built cars flowed back out.

Multinational car companies chose Britain as the base for their factories, enticed not only by government promises and the odd hand-out, but knowing that the continent was just a stone’s throw away.

They brought with them thousands of jobs – and hundreds of thousands more when you 
factor in the myriad suppliers that feed these manufacturing monoliths.

But those days have come to an end. Tesla’s boss Elon Musk, below, has announced that he’s opted to build a Gigafactory for batteries, powertrains and vehicles in Germany rather than here, and he clearly laid the blame on the ‘uncertainty’ around Brexit for why the UK wasn’t even considered.

Other manufacturers have issued similar warnings in public, and there’s no doubt that in boardrooms across the world there are far more serious concerns being aired in private.

If you were running a company that planned cars not for tomorrow but for 10 years down the road, would you invest your billions in a factory here, not knowing what Brexit will bring? Or would you do what Elon has done? Of course you’d follow him.

It’s often easy to forget just how important car manufacturing is to the UK economy.

Uncertain future

Nissan, Toyota, Vauxhall, Honda, Jaguar Land Rover – not to mention the specialists like McLaren and Aston Martin – build and export thousands of cars every year. Planning for these firms is vital and for three years now that’s been impossible.

We’ve already felt the ramifications that Brexit has caused for some of these manufacturers and it’s only going to get worse.

All this comes at a time when the automotive industry is being kicked from all directions. Governments are penalising carmakers, diesel is taking a bashing and the investments required in future technologies like hybrid and pure electric are crippling.

Why, then, would they decide to invest in a country whose future is so uncertain?

The reason I’ve avoided talking about Brexit and the devastation it has caused our industry for so long is it’s become a toxic topic.

Both sides are so entrenched in their camps – so opposed to, or for, leaving – that it’s become the subject to avoid.

But if I’m honest, I really don’t care whether we’re in or out – what I care about is what it means, what it really means, to us. And my biggest problem with the whole thing is that no-one can tell me what the benefits of leaving are.

Boris may have devised a deal that’s ‘great’ for this country and ‘gets Brexit done’. But I want to know what it changes. What will it improve? How will we be better off?

He can bang the Get Brexit Done drum as much as he wants, but unless he actually tells me what it means I’ll ignore him.

I like to think I’m pretty up to speed on current affairs. I watch the news, read the papers, surf social media. But despite all that, I couldn’t tell you one single thing that will be better if we leave the EU. However, I sure can tell you what would be better if we stayed put – and that’s because we know. We’re living that life now. It’s here, it’s known.

Taking a leap into the unknown is not my sort of thing. I don’t gamble, I don’t ‘just hope for the best’. I like to have some idea of what I’m getting myself into. So too does the rest of the automotive industry and, I’d hazard a guess, most of the country.

We’ve become so blind to Brexit that the pros and cons of leaving and staying put aren’t even discussed any more. All we hear about is ‘respecting the will of the people’.

So how do we solve it? That’s where I’m stumped. I don’t agree with asking people again and I don’t think this election will solve anything. We haven’t moved on enough since the general election of 2017 for anything to really change, so I suspect we’ll be back to square one.

I hope that’s not the case, though. I hope we can move on and get back to what this industry is good at – battling adversity and coming together to make it work. Maybe that’s the spirit the whole country needs to adopt too.

James Baggott is the founder of Car Dealer Magazine and chief executive officer of parent company @BaizeGroup, an automotive services provider. He now spends most of his time on Twitter @CarDealerEd and annoying the rest of us.

MORE: Leaving EU without ambitious trade deal could cut car production by more than a third

MORE: Elon Musk blames Brexit as Tesla chooses Germany over ‘risky’ UK

James Baggott's avatar

James is the founder and editor-in-chief of Car Dealer Magazine, and CEO of parent company Baize Group. James has been a motoring journalist for more than 20 years writing about cars and the car industry.

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