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On a dockside near the port of Bristol, an extraordinary sight. The port, famous for its stockpiles of imported Japanese cars, finally has lines of Range Rover Sports, Evoques and Jaguars ready for export. For the first time in my lifetime, Britain shipped more cars, by value, in the first quarter than it imported. This has been driven by the remarkable turnaround of Jaguar Land Rover. Ratan Tata seems to be single-handedly reindustrialising a country that had thought deindustrialisation a one-way street.
Tata so seared India’s industrial expansion into western psyches that a landmark British TV show ended with the UK avoiding an IMF bailout by arranging a credit line from India. Inventive fiction maybe, but rooted in British reality. Tata is Britain’s biggest manufacturing employer. His acquisition of Tetley tea was treated as a rather amusing spot of effrontery. But with the purchases of Corus steel and the car companies, Tata has become central to UK industry. Tata implores Britain to reacquire its economic patriotism, to decide if it wants a car industry.
On occasion, his interventions have unintentionally misfired. The economic crisis squeezing western living standards has created some sensitivities. Tata compared the work ethic of middle managers at the UK companies he’d bought with Indian managers. British managers did “not go the extra mile”, he said, suggesting that Indian managers had the mentality of a “war-like situation”, regarding, for example, working late on Fridays. He pointed to a “certain comfort level that comes from a country that has had good times”. He exempted workers from the observation, but some politicians did not take too kindly to the idea, particularly at a time of job losses at Corus steel plants.
The substantive point: these days, Jaguar Land Rover managers meet at 5 pm on Fridays, and sales, production and exports are booming. His counsel is sought in UK politics. He’s on David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group and co-chairs the UK-India CEO Forum. His injunctions are helpful to British politicians trying to make Britain competitive again. But he also challenges the western presumption that governments are generally helpless in this global economic battle. He pointed to Japan’s decision in the ’60s and ’70s to launch a “major thrust” into cars and electronics as an example Britain could follow.
His influence has stretched beyond India, and beyond business. He is the totem in London of the new global realities that indebted western economies are facing. The Empire has struck back. And it started with Ratan Tata.
Economics editor of Channel 4 News, London, Faisal Islam is the author of The Default Line; E-mail your columnist: faisaldinho AT mac.com