My grandfather, William Milton, worked for most of his life as an engineer with a single company, Siemens Brothers at Woolwich. My father, also worked all his life as an engineer at Siemens . When I left school, my family expected that I’d go and work at Siemens and train as an engineer – and I did.
Ten thousand people were employed directly in the factory at Woolwich and tens of thousands more depended on the factory indirectly in the surrounding tight-knit community. It was a very paternal working environment with health facilities, a sports club, a subsidised canteen, educational facilities and family open days. My father met my mother in Siemens. All our friends worked at Siemens.
Siemens’ cable laying vessel Faraday laid telegraph cables across the Atlantic and Pacific and my grandfather and father both served terms aboard her. I worked on the first generation of electronic telephone exchanges. It was a company to be proud of.
In 1968, the company became one of the first (perhaps the first) victim of modern corporate asset stripping. It was taken over by Arnold Weinstock’s GEC, closed down and almost all staff made redundant. There were the usual protest marches and placards, but the result was inevitable – tens of thousands of lives dramatically affected. Some of the older people never worked again, including the most skilled toolmakers and instrument makers, the draughtsmen and draughtswomen, the office staff.
I recall the shock of this vividly. I was in my early twenties, I had qualified as a design engineer and was working at the company’s research and development laboratory in Blackheath – a proud member of the elite. I had grown up in a safe paternalistic atmosphere, expecting to work well at my job and in return receive the safety and security of cradle-to-grave welfare. Now I felt betrayed: I was on the scrap heap, and very much on my own in a hostile world.
From the perspective of more than 40 years later, I can see that the closure of Siemens Brothers was the best thing that could possibly have happened to me. It compelled me to become independent, self-motivating and self-reliant in a way that I could never have become had I continued to work, like my father and grandfather, at the same place all my life.
As a result of being made redundant, I questioned what I doing for a living (something my family history had discouraged me from doing) and retrained as a journalist. I found a job as a reporter, worked my way up the ladder to become editor of business newspapers and magazines before starting my own magazine publishing company and later supporting myself as a journalist and publishing the books I wanted to write. It’s unikely any of these things would have happened had I continued to work at Siemens.
Now that the referendum is looming, it occurs to me that most British people in their 20s, 30s, 40s and even those in their 50s, have spent all their adult lives as part of the European Community. To them – even with all its faults – the EU must seem as solid and dependable as the 100-year history of Siemens seemed to me and my thousands of co-workers. Leaving it must seem a foolhardy act, and one that carries far more risk that staying with the devil you know.
My point is that there was a great risk attached to my leaving Siemens after three generations. It was a risk that compelled me to become more self-reliant. But what I (and most others) could not see at the time was that there was even greater risk attached to carrying on as in the past.
We had no way of seeing then that, over the next few decades, industry would change irrevocably; that factory closures and redundancies would become the norm; that jobs for life and safe pensions were already becoming a thing of the past. We also could not forsee that there would be several serious recessions, culminating in the financial crisis of 2008. I was fortunate to avoid the effects of all these shocks because I was no longer dependent on others for my security.
I genuinely understand and sympathise with the feelings of those who are apprehensive about the prospect of leaving the EU. I hear the arguments about preserving trade relationships and about inward investment. To a large extent, I share these feelings – that is why in the previous referendum, in 1975, I voted to remain in the Common Market.
But I’ve come to realise that there is just as great a risk in staying in the EU as there is in leaving it, but they are different kinds of risk.
For the leaving side, the risk is that the world won’t be as friendly to us as some of us hope. That it will take longer than we think to negotiate trade agreements. That those agreements might not be as advantageous as we hope. That we might not be as influential as some of us think. That inward investment might be affected more than we predict. All of these could mean that Britain’s trade expansion will be slower than we hope over the next few years.
But the risks involved in remaining are of a quite different kind: that Britain will become much more dependent on the administration and the judiciary in Brussels; that we will continue to shelter behind EU trade agreements and the continued strength of European banks especially German banks.
All these seem like strengths now, but they can just as easily become weaknesses – weaknesses that could seriously damage a vulnerable Britain, unused to standing on its own two feet. The administration in Brussels is undemocratic and becoming more so, not less. Each new member state dilutes British influence still further. World trade is shifting away from the EU towards the growth economies. The Eurozone is highly fragile and may break up, leaving Germany retreating from international banking and the rest of us with heavily devalued currencies.
Perhaps most worrying of all is not the future problems that we know may confront us, but the ones that we know nothing about, problems that will call upon the deepest reserves of national courage and strength and resilience to survive.
The world is changing rapidly and to my mind, the wiser option is to change with it, not to adopt Mr Micawber’s strategy of waiting to see what turns up, while hoping for the best. That’s why I see the referendum as a chance for independence and why I’ll be voting to Leave.