I watched the BBC documentary “Das Auto The Germans, Their Cars and Us“. You can watch it complete on YouTube and I recommend you do even if you have no interest in cars or Germany. It’s the “Us” – the United Kingdom – in the title that the programme is really about.
What was very quickly apparent is that the UK never figured out how to make an honest living in this world. To become great it had needed to exploit the weak at home and abroad. Whether it was the colonies or the working class, there had to be someone getting short changed. Post-war Germany had a strong sense of working hard and playing fair for the common good and the UK just never got this. The concept that we can all benefit and live better lives never really clicked. UK manufacturing was a case of us and them, the elite and the workers and both groups had attitudes that were doomed to failure. Complacency and a sense of entitlement and superiority were the roots of doom for the management and business tycoons. A sense – right or wrong – that they were being shafted and disrespected led the workers to place impossible demands on the employers.
Ultimately no aspect of the business was run correctly. Germans had robots in their factories when the Brits thought robots only existed in science fiction. Germans had works councils and stewards attended board meetings. Germans fanatically sought to improve constantly, to never stand still or believe they were God’s chosen people. Possibly the loss of the war was so fresh that they understood that they needed to reinvent themselves and unlike the UK there were no past glories to relive. We even saw the Germans managed the money side far better. The great success of the Austin Mini was likely not so great in that it is now believed that about 10% was lost on every single one of the millions sold.
The documentary tried to zero in on the reasons, levelling blame at both workers and managers. However the conclusion is rather more transparent, in that by the end we see Minis still being made in the UK, but under German ownership. Same workers, different managers. The new BMW Mini Cooper has been a major success and the British factories are efficient and productive. When the Japanese began making cars in the UK twenty years ago many laughed at the concept of the UK factories even getting in the same ballpark for efficiency or quality as their Japanese sister operations. However as history showed, the UK factories managed to even outperform the Japanese factories.
Take what you like from this. My conclusion is that with the right leadership – politically and in business – almost any people can rise to surprising levels. Germany of a few hundred years ago was almost the polar opposite of the stereotypes we have now: lazy, careless, cheating people. Japan had similar adjectives upon it in the past. South Korea was in the poorest 10% of nations just 40 years ago.
It takes good leadership, a willingness to invest and a desire to benefit the maximum number of people to really make a country successful. It does not need vast natural resources, exploitation of the poor or military might.