Peter Popham praises one of the best of Thatcher's legacies.
In the past it was a question of novelty and shock effect. No sooner had we finally adjusted to the idea of the Japanese making a car that was not a joke than we were asked to accept the idea of them setting up manufacturing plants here, exotics from the other side of the world hiring red-blooded Brits and teaching them how to do the sort of things that not all that long ago we were teaching them.
So every Japanese arrival was a media carnival: first of all YKK zips, back in 1972; next Sony, to manufacture televisions, in 1973, supposedly prompted by a chat between Prince Charles and Akio Morita; then Matsushita, the great Japanese copycat, hard on Sony's heels into Wales a year later. It was all dribs and drabs: two or three new ventures a year throughout the '70s and early '80s, each a minuscule event in terms of employment and balance of trade, but each the occasion to dredge up the same old issues over and over again: the pros and cons of playing passive hosts to Japanese screwdriver operations, the shame of being so grateful for it; alternatively the glory of being selected. The sacrifice of time-honoured attitudes to demarcation and multiple unions and work itself versus the challenge of learning from industrialists who clearly knew what they were about, with a certainty which we had not possessed for some time. Then, and increasingly, there was the European dimension: Britain as the butt of French and Italian slurs about Trojan horses and Japanese aircraft carriers; conversely the sly suspicion that Japan might be our secret weapon in the struggle to keep our end up once Europe had become one.
There were the endless jokes and cartoons about redundant miners opening up sushi bars or building shinto shrines, all the interest and strangeness of finding ourselves the target of something quite new. There was the shock of finding that, having persuaded ourselves that manufacturing things like cars and televisions was no longer something which we were any good at and that we had better turn our backs on it in favour of flipping burgers or turning stately homes into theme parks, suddenly, willy nilly, we were making these things again, and as well and profitably as anyone else.
So each new Japanese arrival was a media event, and as a result the whole phenomenon fell victim to the law of diminishing returns. Which is a pity, because it obscures the fact that what in the '70s and early '80s was no more than a curiosity and a novelty has in the past three years turned into an economic and industrial phenomenon of major proportions.
We are the onlookers to a serious and increasingly frenetic race. The winning post is 1992 when, according to Japan's nightmare scenario, Fortress Europe will winch up the drawbridge. Those Japanese firms that have the ambition to compete on equal terms with European manufacturers for what will be much the largest single market in the world, with a population of 360 million, had better be in place within Europe by then. The nightmare may never happen: Europe may in the future be no more hostile to Japanese exporters than it is at present. But the Japanese would much rather risk losing money on a factory in Britain than risk being shut out of Europe for ever - while their domestic rivals reap the rewards of having been more fleet-footed.