Airbus Anxiety: This will make you feel the fear

25 January 2019

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A friend whose son recently gave up university eight weeks into the start of his Law degree course to run an online business selling trainers, said he’d become accustomed to the bemused look on people’s faces when he told them, followed by the observation that such a decision was a “brave one”.

There are risks and calculated risks but, then again, calculation is in the eye and ear of the beholder. The early performance of the trainer business suggests making his first million may not be as easy as my friend's son imagined.

January is a time for reflection and resolution. Reflection on achievements – and opportunities missed – over the past year and resolution to do better in the future.

For many people, it means giving up smoking, joining a gym or stopping drinking, at least until the start of February.

This year, people are being forced to consider wider and more substantial issues as a result of Brexit which, I suppose, could be considered a big New Year’s resolution affecting us all.

The issue was summed up for me by a Vox Pop by a TV reporter in Broughton, Flintshire where 6000 people are employed at the largest of Airbus’s UK plants. The company’s chief executive, Tom Enders, had earlier warned that a no-deal Brexit could force the company to make “potentially very harmful decisions” about its operations in this country.

The warning was not couched in the usual, coded language of business leaders – he went on to say it’s time we listened to him and ignored what he called “the Brexiteers’ madness”.

The response to people in the town – or at least those questioned by a Channel Four reporter – was, like my friend’s son’s decision to quit university, certainly very "brave".

The impact of the closure of Airbus in a town like Broughton on direct and indirect employment would be significant. Not only would all the people employed at the plant lose their jobs, but so would those working for all the local businesses who rely on their spending power.

There are risks and calculated risks and those who confidently asserted that Enders was simply stoking Project Fear were doing the equivalent of betting the farm.   

New Year resolutions require us to leave our comfort zones and embrace personal change. A no deal Brexit would require many of us to do just that, in many cases to find a new job. That’s not a disaster; many of us will already be thinking about using the start of the year to face fresh challenges and to head in a new direction.

Our parents expected to have a job for life but, in our post-industrial, society we expect to change jobs and even careers several times in our lifetimes. Change is not our enemy, we should embrace the opportunities that our economy provides for us to seek new challenges and better rewards.

We can argue about the quality of jobs and the nature of contracts on offer, but we currently have as close to full employment as we’ve had in several generations and we have access to lifelong learning where opportunities exist for us to return to education throughout our lives.

Brexiteers who talk about Britain facing new challenges, striking out on our own and taking back control should accept that such epithets refer to the personal as well as to the societal and the national sphere.

But let’s return to the reality that there are risks and calculated risks. Few could reasonably argue that a no deal Brexit is a calculated risk, not only because the calculations involved are beyond even the most knowledgeable and specialist economists, but also because, as a country, we’re unprepared.

The loss of 6000 jobs in Broughton would not be replaced by new industries overnight and, if the experience of former mining and steelmaking communities across the UK are anything to go by, they might never be replaced.

Betting the farm that Enders is bluffing is folly for several reasons. Firstly, because Airbus can pull investment from the UK at a stroke and it’s not just Broughton that would be affected; the company accounts for 110,000 jobs in its UK supply chain, on top of the 14,000 people it employs directly.

Enders' concerns are not about imposition of tariffs that may or may not apply. He’s worried about the movement of workers between the UK and the EU, supply logjams and the harmonisation of aircraft regulations on parts and components. If those factors create costs and disruption, they will inevitably enter calculations on where to invest.

On top of that, other countries – notably Germany and Spain and even China – are queuing up  to take the business from us in the event of a no deal Brexit. “Make no mistake there are plenty of countries out there who would love to build the wings for Airbus aircraft,” Enders said.

It’s good to make New Year resolutions and we shouldn’t be frightened of change but, as my friend’s son demonstrates, there’s brave and brave.

 

 

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