Written by Ron Noon at 21:10 on Thursday, April 22nd 2010
“On 5th December, , the barque Dei Gratia of Nova Scotia bound from New York for Gibraltar and 300 miles west of her destination, sighted two other vessels. The first of these was a German tramp steamer outward bound for the West Indies, the other was the brig Mary Celeste, sailing crewless in the Atlantic.” (Watson)
Unlike the mystery shrouding the Mary Celeste the reasons why Tate & Lyle abandoned Liverpool are knowable and historically verifiable, but similar to that ghostly vessel, explanations as opposed to convenient myths, stretch way beyond European shores! The commonest cause of the rundown of Love Lane is that it was due to EEC regulations and the reduction of cane quotas, an explanation Tates management sold to their employees from the early 70s. Initially it justified common cause with the unions and blaming Brussels and the ludicrous CAP. Many people who were far from xenophobic and anti-European bought this argument and my initial conclusion about closure, although rhetorically sound,is insufficient as explanation for the matricide. “The city which had been renowned internationally in the 1960s for the Mersey Beat and the Beatles became the first main victim of the ugly sugar beet and Mad ‘CAP’ disease!” (CAP = Common Agricultural Policy)
Of course it was mad but the EEC and its Common Agricultural Policy was only one factor in the decline of Love Lane, and one skilfully and cynically magnified to divert attention from other reasons for wanting to junk the mother plant. We have alternative sources to investigate the ten year struggle to keep Love Lane open and Albert and John my two sweet fightin’ mentors, (John now sadly deceased), urged me to work through their documents, which are a very important part of this ongoing Love Lane Lives project. The provenance of their documents, deposited but un-catalogued in Liverpool Musuems, was struggle! In 1973 when the threat of closure switched up a few gears, a workers action committee was set up and “in various guises and under various names was to remain in existence until the refinery closed, producing in that time several hundred weight of paper”. That takes time to process.
The 90 day redundancy notices issued on 22nd January 1981 meant according to company historian Watson that “someone had to achieve in less than three months what they had failed to do in eight years…to persuade the Government, (as a successor of previous Governments with the same idea), to change its mind”. The joint union document that was rapidly prepared was too little and too late. (There was a Joint Trade Union Research Committee set up in early February which reported at the end of February.) Watson is correct in arguing that “although this was an honest and conscientious piece of work”, it was produced in a hurry and of course “the threat to Liverpool refinery had not come out of the blue”. The first rumour of closure had been in 1971!
Actually there had been “trust” in the early days of the campaigning for local management. The ironic thing at the end of the 70s, early 80s was that Liverpool was suffering because of the vulnerability of branch plants of large Multi National Companies to rationalisation. Tates was a company which despite its paternalistic image was a MNC of the sugar world and it was difficult for the Love Lane workers to comprehend the survival and diversification strategies open to such a geographically spread company. From the vantage point of company headquarters in Sugar Quay down in London, what was happening in Liverpool was a local side show. A letter in ‘78 to John and Albert from a Liverpool University lecturer, emphasised how the company was uncoupling refining and Love Lane in particular from the group’s growth engine and its corporate “accounts”. It was being made to stand alone! What may appear from company headquarters as “strategic disengagement” is in fact chicanery from the perspective of Love Lane refinery workers (and indeed local management) who knew nothing about Tates global strategies.
Tates always denied transfer pricing but creative accountancy and movements up and down the sugar chain can be described by other terms. When the subsidiary of a Canadian subsidiary (Redpath) provided monies from Bermuda to buy ships for the Tate & Lyle Group there is clear evidence of at the very least a sophisticated fiscal policy. An earlier blog dealing with CONCLUSIONS elaborates more on this theme. (“More pictures and interviews for 09 as well as a controversial conclusion about closure”. Ron Noon 12/20/08)
Another point to bear in mind about how MNCs operate is that they can so often play one set of workers off against another, and Albert had some jaundiced views about the London refinery workers. There were inbuilt tensions between the different refinery sites in Britain that eventually exploded out of the holding efforts of the Port Refineries Committee, but there was also within the Tate &Lyle Group different divisions and sections, which adjusted and diversified away from refining as a core activity. At the same time there were changes going on at Board Level which would culminate in a chairman from outside of the families and a “chief executive” from Canada (Neil Shaw) that had little feel for local loyalties.
What I’ve focussed on in some of the earlier blogs is the extent to which Tates were able to hide behind the complexities of sugar diplomacy while it stealthily moved away from commitments to the original mother plant. This was decision making with no room for sentiment or history and of course it was symbolic that the actual decision to close Liverpool was taken by a board with neither a Tate nor a Lyle on it. The ‘theatre of paternalism’ had served the firm well and that P word needs to be more closely examined in a subsequent blog. The concept of “theatre” is not to trivialise analysis but to get to the very core of people’s perceptions and mis-perceptions of representations and realities.
Peter Hildrew a Guardian journalist described his impression of the vast refinery the day after the 90 day redundancy notices were issued. “It stands in the heart of dockland, a landmark built on a site where sugar has been refined for over 100 years and clearly visible from the nearby city centre, even in the grey mist which accompanied yesterday’s dismal news”. ‘Symbol of a sweet past and bitter future’ 23.1.81 Guardian