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''We've had to let six staff go this Christmas . . . people with families and mortgages''

Families all over Britain are bracing themselves for hard times. For some, they have already started

On first impressions, Rayne Precision Engineering is a neat little company. Tucked into the hills of the southern fringe of the Peak District, it consists of four solid modern sheds, built of a fake stone material that blends in with the local housing. These are arranged around a tidy yard next to a mobile hut that serves as office accommodation. The atmosphere in the yard is pleasantly quiet. There's a faint hum in the air, but none of the clashing or screeching of metal on metal that you might expect.

It quickly becomes apparent that there is a reason for this. The company's founder and managing director, Andrew Simmill, leads me into first one shed and then another to show me an array of laser-cutting and welding machinery, all of it standing idle. The signs of recent activity are all around - a scattering of little metal shavings; a neat pile of ring-shaped components bound for the automotive industry. Today the firm is having a shutdown, Simmill explains.

In the summer of 1997, Rayne Engineering, which is a few miles outside the market town of Leek, had 47 full-time staff, working five days and sometimes nights or Saturday mornings as well, making parts for JCB, GKN and a range of other engineering companies. Simmill bought a people-carrier so that his welders could drive in from Stoke-on-Trent, 20 minutes or so down the road. He had diversified, too, into making shopfitting parts for Waterstone's.

The crash, when it came, came fast. In April this year Simmill took on a salesman to try to boost a flagging order book, but to no avail. Now Rayne Precision is down to 26 staff working four days a week. There have been 12 compulsory redundancies. The remaining staff agreed to their hours being cut from 39 to 31 last week.

"Last week was my worst week," Simmill says. "We had to let six people go. You're looking people in the eye just before Christmas . . . these are people with families and mortgages. And there's nothing I can do - I've got to protect the business."

Simmill is a big, weather-beaten man in blue overalls and a sweatshirt. He looks out of place in the firm's meeting room, under the glossy banners he ordered so they could push for scarce orders at trade fairs. He looks as if he could shoulder quite a burden - and that is exactly what he is having to do now.

"Carol, who does the stores and the planning, came to me last week and said, 'I'll take redundancy, Andrew.' She's over 60. She didn't want a younger person with a family to lose their job. But she's a key part of the business. I don't mind admitting I've had sleepless nights about finding enough work for my men."

This little local heartache is solid evidence of the tectonic shift that has affected businesses across the world in recent months. The plummeting housing market, the struggling construction industry, banks cracking under the weight of bad mortgage debts and overextended credit, all lead here to this little office.

For Simmill it trickled down in part from JCB, which dominates the heavy industry in this area, previously employing 5,000 at its plants in Rocester, Uttoxeter and Cheadle. The digger manufacturer - for whom Simmill has nothing but praise - was forced to cut production by a third and to make nearly 600 staff redundant this autumn as orders, even from previously buoyant markets such as Russia, began to dry up.

In the nearby Potteries, there have been 350 job losses at Wedgwood and Spode has gone into administration, putting a further 150 at risk. The misery goes on, the figures stacking up in tens here, twenties there. On the day of my visit the front page of the Sentinel, Stoke's local paper, carried the news that Hinks Fine China, the UK's last china flower manufacturer, was to close with the loss of another 16 jobs. At Uttoxeter, Dairy Farmers of Britain announced it was closing its Fole Dairy with 250 to go. At Phones4u, another major Staffordshire company, 240 IT jobs were reported to be at risk. Simmill ("I'm 47 but I feel 67," he says, then laughs) has been here before. Twenty years ago he started an engineering business with his father during the tail end of the 1980s boom.

"Nineteen eighty-nine was an extremely good year, but 1990 . . ." he pauses for a moment. "I was financed up to the hilt. I had £70,000 debt on one machine. Then I had 12 months where my father died of cancer and my brother was killed in a road accident at 23.

People are buying cheaper cuts of meat rather than the high-end products on sale

"Everything came at once. I got married, my daughter Carly was born, and two weeks later the company went into receivership. I had finance people chasing me; my house was on the line. I was on the verge of being made bankrupt."

But Simmill doesn't give up easily. For a year he worked for the man who bought his business, then rented his machines. "It was just 12 months after I went down," he says. "The banks and accountants hadn't had any faith in me, and it was almost to prove them wrong. I'm a determined sort of fellow."

He and his wife Clare now have three daughters - Carly, 17, Sheri, 16, and Kate, 13 - and they never stop hearing about the evils of credit. "I was out shopping one time with Sheri when she was only four or five," recalls Simmill. "I ran out of cash and so I thought, 'I'll wait until next week.' She turned to me and said, 'Put it on your card, Dad.' I was really taken aback by that, and I thought about it a lot. What I'm fearful of is my children going through what I went through. There are too many credit cards, too much easily available credit. That's put us in this mess."

About 18 months ago this niggling worry turned into a family crusade. Sitting around the table outside their house one summer evening over a meal, they began drawing out a game on sheets of A4 paper. Then the girls got busy with clip art and a boardgame, Credit 4 Life, was born. Players start with £1,500 and on a throw of the dice they pay bills - mortgage £600; night out £50; credit card 30 per cent debit interest - and, if they are lucky, draw wages. The game, now in a smart box with a laminated board, has been sold to about 20 schools and is being supported by Caudwell Children, a charity funded by John Caudwell, the local Phones4u tycoon.

Simmill says he talks to his children about the problems his business is facing, and after school they often come to see him at work instead of going home. But he has no plans to bring them into the family firm. "I'm not being sexist, but I think manufacturing is a hard game," he says. "If the government doesn't believe in it there won't be any manufacturing here in ten years."

As you drive into Leek along the Ashbourne Road, the signs of economic gloom are easy to spot. A 19th-century mill stands with its glass grimed and a board outside advertises a small business within. Further into town the White Lion and Talbot pubs are both boarded up. The Leek Post and Times has a picture of Gary Clewlow of GJ's Greengrocers holding a sign saying "Closing Down (sorry)", over the headline: "Shoppers urged to stay local as credit crunch bites hard". Clewlow tells the paper he cannot compete with Aldi.

To be fair, the former textile town, which weathered the decline of the silk industry in the late 19th century and the globalisation of synthetic fabrics in the 20th, is not completely down at heel. Its market square is wide and cobbled, and a queue of shoppers is keeping its well-stocked fruit and veg stall busy. There's a half-timbered Marston's pub, the Bird in Hand, flanked by Cancer Research and Oxfam shops.

Businesses such as Simmill's are at the sharp end of the recession, and others in the area are less gloomy about the future. Off the A523 between Simmill's works at Ipstones and the town of Leek, signs point to enterprises with a more rural flavour: Beaver Hall Equestrian Centre, Middle Farm Bed and Breakfast. Down a long track, Janet Phillips runs the Threshing Barn, a small shop selling craft supplies and meat reared on the farm she runs with her husband, Dave.

Phillips says she always has a pot of coffee on the go in her shop, which is packed to the rafters with skeins of brightly coloured wool, Christmas wreaths and knitwear; it helps to make the place feel welcoming, she says. The craft workshops she runs - a launching pad for sales of equipment and materials - had their best October ever, she says. But the meat is doing less well. People are buying cheaper cuts rather than the high-end products they sell here.

"I think long-established businesses will survive, but January and February are going to be grim," says Phillips. "From December, we would usually expect big orders, and they're not coming in. I don't think people are going to go for the big items this year."

On Derby Street, a Butters John Bee estate agent stands with property details in its windows and a To Let sign above its door. At first glance the business seems to be occupied, but a closer look reveals too-neat desks with phones and notepads and nothing else, and a notice on the door confirms, "Please note: This office is now closed. We will continue to provide our services from our Hanley and Congleton offices." Just a few doors along, the Ponden Mill shop also bears a To Let sign and big banners announcing, "Twenty Per Cent Off - Everything Must Go", though an assistant says she doesn't know whether they're going to close.

Round the corner, near the now-defunct GJ's Greengrocers, is Photoprint, founded nearly 30 years ago by Brian Johnson, now the town's mayor and president of its chamber of trade and commerce. His assessment of the situation is relatively upbeat, and he attributes several of the town's business failures to a lack of initiative or staying power. Despite having spent half a million pounds on opening a horse livery last year and carrying a lot of debt ("You don't want to know," he says when I ask how much), he is investing £20,000 in a digital colour printing machine, which would have cost him £34,000 in normal times.

"You'll often hear people saying, 'Leek's always in recession - what difference does it make?'" he says. "People round here have been used to tightening their belts.

"But the new businesses have never had to face this before. They don't make allowances, they don't think ahead far enough. People will have to promote their businesses - they'll have to think positive."

Others in the town are struggling to follow his advice. Looking for the Diva shoe shop which, according to the local paper, is to close after Christmas, I stop to ask directions from a couple huddled against the cold and carrying a plastic bag of meat bones. They cheerfully offer to show me the place and as we walk along together the man, David, tells me he has been out of work for the past six months, after being laid off by a firm that makes parts for car exhausts.

"My old boss closed the doors," he says. "I'd take anything, but if you put on your CV that you were in engineering, they think you don't want a menial job. They think you'll take off as soon as something better comes - and I would as well.

"JCB has a massive effect on this area. Last year employees had a £1,000 Christmas bonus, but this year they'll be lucky if they get anything. I've given up."

He asks if I'm going for a job interview. I tell him no, I'm writing an article about the credit crunch for a magazine. "Well," he says without a trace of rancour, "at least someone's making money out of it."

Fran Abrams is the author of "Below the Breadline: Living on the Minimum Wage", published by Profile Books (£6.99)

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special

Photo: ANDREW TESTA/THE NEW YORK TIMES/ EYEVINE
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Interview: Nicola Sturgeon's Scottish referendum dilemma

In a candid interview, the First Minister discusses Theresa May’s coldness, Brexit and tax rises – and why she doesn't know when a second referendum will be held. 

Nicola Sturgeon – along with her aides, who I gather weren’t given much choice – has taken up jogging in the verdant country­side that lies to the east of the Scottish Parliament. “The first time was last week,” she says, when we meet in her large, bright Holyrood office. “Loads of people were out running, which made me a bit self-conscious. But it was fine for ages because everybody’s so focused. Then, suddenly, what must have been a running group came towards me. I saw one of them look and as they ran past I turned round and all of them were looking.” She winces. “I will eventually get to the point where I can run for more than 100 yards at a time, but I’m not at the stage yet where I can go very far. So I’m thinking, God, they’re going to see me stop. I don’t know if I can do this.”

This is a very Nicola Sturgeon story – a touch of the ordinary amid the extraordinary. She may have been a frontbencher for almost two decades, a cabinet minister for half of that and the First Minister since 2014, but she retains that particularly Scottish trait of wry self-mockery. She is also exceptionally steely, evident in her willed transformation over her adult life from a shy, awkward party member to the charismatic leader sitting in front of me. Don’t be surprised if she is doing competitive ten-kilometre runs before the year is out.

I arrived at the parliament wondering what frame of mind the First Minister would be in. The past year has not been especially kind to her or the SNP. While the party is still Scotland’s most popular by a significant margin, and Sturgeon continues to be its dominant politician, the warning lights are flashing. In the 2015 general election, the SNP went from six seats out of 59 to 56, a remarkable result. However, in Theresa May’s snap election in June this year, it lost 21 of those seats (including those of Angus Robertson, the SNP leader at Westminster, and Alex Salmond), as well as half a million votes. Much of the blame has been placed on Sturgeon and her call for a second independence referendum following the vote for Brexit. For critics, it confirmed a suspicion that the SNP only cares about one thing and will manipulate any situation to that end. Her decision also seemed a little rushed and desperate, the act of a woman all too aware of the clock ticking.

But if I expect Sturgeon to be on the defensive, maybe even a little downbeat, I’m wrong. Having just come from a feisty session of First Minister’s Questions, where she had the usual barney with her Tory opposite number, Ruth Davidson, she is impressively candid. “When you come out [of FMQs], your adrenaline levels are through the roof,” she says, waggling a fist in my direction. “It’s never a good idea to come straight out and do an interview, for example.” Adrenalised or not, for the next hour, she is thoughtful, frank, funny and perhaps even a little bitchy.

Sturgeon’s office is on the fourth floor, looking out over – and down on – Holyrood Palace, the Queen’s official residence in Edinburgh. As we talk, a large artistic rendering of a saltire adorns the wall behind her. She is similarly in blue and white, and there are books about Burns on the shelves. This is an SNP first minister’s office.

She tells me that she and her husband, Peter Murrell, the party’s chief executive, took a summer break in Portugal, where his parents have a share in an apartment. “We came home and Peter went back to work and I spent a week at home, just basically doing housework…” I raise an eyebrow and an aide, sitting nearby, snorts. She catches herself. “Not really… I periodically – and by periodically I mean once a year or once every two years – decide I’m going to dust and hoover and things like that. So I did that for a morning. It’s quite therapeutic when you get into it. And then I spent a week at home, reading and chilling out.”

In a recent Guardian interview, Martin Amis had a dig at Jeremy Corbyn for having “no autodidact streak”. Amis said: “I mean, is he a reader?… It does matter if leaders have some sort of backing.” One of Sturgeon’s great strengths is that she is a committed bibliophile. She consumes books, especially novels, at a tremendous rate and raves to me about Gabriel Tallent’s astonishing debut, My Absolute Darling, as well as Bernard MacLaverty’s Midwinter Break. She has just ploughed through Paul Auster’s daunting, 880-page 4 3 2 1 (“It was OK. I don’t think it should be on the Booker shortlist.”) She also reread the works of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie before interviewing her onstage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The First Minister is now reading What Happened, Hillary Clinton’s book about her defeat by Donald Trump. “I’ve never been able to read any of her [previous] books because literally every word is focus-grouped to the nth degree,” Sturgeon says. “This one, there are moments of frankness and raw honesty and passages where it’s victimhood and self-pity, but that’s kind of understandable and very human. The thing that fascinates me about Hillary, apart from the politics, is just her sheer bloody resilience.  Given what she’s gone through and everything that’s been chucked at her, I genuinely don’t know how she keeps coming back.”

***

Speaking of resilience, does she have any fellow feeling for Theresa May, humiliated by the electorate and, for now, kept in No 10 like a racoon in a trap by colleagues who are both power-hungry and biding their time? “At a human level, of course,” she says. “When you’ve got an insight into how rough and tough and, at times, downright unpleasant the trade of politics can be, it’s hard not to feel some personal sympathy. Her position must be pretty intolerable. It’s tempered, though, by the fact that nobody made her call an election and she did it for purely party-political interest.”

How does she get on with May – who is formal and restrained, even off-camera – in their semi-regular meetings? Sturgeon starts laughing. “The Theresa May that the country ended up seeing in the election was the one I’ve been dealing with for however long she’s been Prime Minister. This is a woman who sits in meetings where it’s just the two of you and reads from a script. I found it very frustrating because David Cameron, whose politics and mine are very far apart, always managed to have a personal rapport. You could sit with David and have a fairly frank discussion, agree the things you could agree on and accept you disagree on everything else, and have a bit of banter as well.

“I remember just after May came back from America [in January], when she’d held Trump’s hand [Sturgeon starts laughing again], she’d also been to Turkey and somewhere else. This was the Monday morning. We sit down, it’s literally just the two of us, and I say, ‘You must be knackered.’ She said, ‘No! I’m fine!’ And it was as if I’d insulted her. It was just impossible to get any human connection.”

Given this, and the weaknesses exposed during the election, Sturgeon is scathing about how the Conservatives fought the campaign, putting May’s character and competence front and centre. “The people around her must have known that vulnerability,” she says. “God, we all make mistakes and we all miscalculate things, so this is not me sitting on high, passing judgement on others, but don’t build a campaign entirely around your own personality when you know your personality’s not capable of carrying a campaign… Even if you can’t see that yourself, somebody somewhere around you should have.”

Sturgeon might not be in May’s beleaguered position but she has problems. Her demand in March, at a press conference at Bute House, Edinburgh, for a second independence referendum by spring 2019 was a serious mistake and it has left a dent in what had seemed her impermeable personal popularity. Polls show support for the SNP and independence now share a similar downward trajectory. Over the next three years, the First Minister must persuade a sceptical electorate that her party deserves a fourth consecutive term in government.

Does she regret demanding another vote on separation?

Here she gets as close as she will go to a mea culpa. “Obviously I’m thinking pretty deeply about it. I think Brexit is a complete and utter car crash – an unfolding disaster. I haven’t changed my views on that, and I think it’s deeply wrong for [Scotland] to be taken down that path without the ability to decide whether that’s right or not.

“I recognise, as well – and it’s obviously something I have reflected on – that understandably people feel very uncertain about everything just now, partly because the past few years have been one big decision after another. That’s why I said before recess that I will not consider any further the question of a second referendum at this stage. I’m saying, OK, people are not ready to decide we will do that, so we have to come back when things are clearer and decide whether we want to do it and in what timescale.”

Will she attempt to hold a second referendum? Could it be off?

“The honest answer to that is: I don’t know,” she says. Her expression of doubt is revealing.

Would she, however, support a second EU referendum, perhaps on the final separation package? “I think it probably gets more and more difficult to resist it,” she tells me. “I know people try to draw lots of analogies [between the EU and independence referendums], and there are some, but whatever you thought of the [Scottish] white paper, it was there and it was a fairly detailed proposition.

“One of the beautiful things about the independence referendum was the extent to which ordinary folk became experts on really technical, big, macro­economic positions. Standing on a street corner on a Friday morning, an ordinary working-class elderly gentleman was talking to me in great detail about lender of last resort and how that would work. You can say the white paper was crap, or whatever, but it was there, people were informed and they knew what they were voting for.

“That was not the case in the EU referendum. People did not know what they were voting for. There was no proposition put forward by anyone that could then be tested and that they could be held to account on. The very fact we have no idea what the final outcome might look like suggests there is a case for a second referendum that I think there wasn’t in 2014. It may become very hard to resist.”

Sturgeon hasn’t found the Brexit process “particularly easy”, especially when the government at Westminster is in the grip of what is becoming an increasingly vicious succession battle. The SNP administration has repeatedly clashed with the relevant ministers at Westminster, whom it says have given little care to Scotland’s particular needs. Sturgeon’s view of David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson is not rosy.

“Probably not a day goes by where I don’t look at them and think, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” she says. “That’s not meant as a personal comment on their abilities – although [with] some of them I would have personal question marks over their abilities. But they’re completely paralysed, and the election has left them in a position where you’ve got a Prime Minister who has no control over the direction of her government, and you have other senior ministers who are prepared to keep her there only because it’s in their short-term interests to do it. If you’re sitting on the European side of the table now, how can you have a negotiation with a government where you don’t actually know what their position is, or whether the position you’re being told across the table is one that can carry support back at home? It’s a shambles and it’s increasingly going to be the case that nothing other than Brexit gets any bandwidth at all. It’s really, really not in the interests of the country as a whole.”

***

This is an accusation that is directed at the SNP, too – that the national interest takes second place to its constitutional imperative. It is undoubtedly something that Sturgeon considered over the summer as she sought to rebalance her administration. As a result, the programme for government unveiled earlier this month was impressively long-term in places: for example, its promise to create a Scottish national investment bank, the setting of some ambitious goals on climate change and the commitment to fund research into a basic income.

Most striking, however, was Sturgeon’s decision to “open a discussion about… responsible and progressive use of our tax powers”. With the Scotland Act 2016, Westminster passed control over income tax to Holyrood, and Sturgeon intends to use this new power.

“For ten years,” she says, “we have done a pretty good job of protecting public services as best we can in a period of austerity, while keeping the taxes that we’ve been responsible for low. We’re now at a stage where austerity’s continued, we’re going to have economic consequences from Brexit, we all want good public services, we want the NHS to continue to have strong investment, we want our public-sector workers to be paid more, we want businesses to have the right infrastructure. How do we progressively and responsibly, with the interests of the economy taken strongly, fund our public services going forward? Most people would think right now that there is a case for those with the broadest shoulders paying a little bit more.”

I wonder whether the success of Jeremy Corbyn has influenced her thinking – many expect that a revival of Scottish Labour would force the SNP to veer left (it will also be interesting to see how Westminster reacts to Scotland raising the top rate of income tax). “It’s not particularly Corbyn that’s made me think that,” she insists, a little unconvincingly.

Isn’t Sturgeon concerned that making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK could undermine its competitiveness, its attraction as a place to live and as a destination for inward investment? “We should never be in a position where we don’t factor that kind of thing into our thinking, but you talk to businesses, and tax – yes, it’s important, but in terms of attracting investment to Scotland, the quality of your infrastructure matters. Businesses want good public services as well, so it’s the whole package that determines whether Scotland is an attractive place to live and invest in and work in,” she tells me. “It’s seeing it in the round. The competitiveness of your tax arrangements are part of what makes you attractive or not, but it’s not the only part.”

As for the immediate future, she is upbeat. She believes that Ruth Davidson, her main rival, is overrated. “I think Ruth, for all the many strengths people think she might have, often doesn’t do her homework very well,” she tells me. “From time to time, Ruth slips up on that… Quite a bit, actually. I know what I want to do over the next few years, and I’m in a very good place and feeling really up for it. After ten years in office, it’s inevitable you become a victim of your own success. What’s more remarkable is that, after ten years, the SNP still polls at least 10 and usually 10-15 points ahead of our nearest rivals.”

Author's note: Shortly after this interview went to print, the SNP got in touch to say that Nicola Sturgeon’s comment, ‘the honest answer to that is: I don’t know’, was about the timescale of the next independence referendum and not whether there would be one. The misinterpretation was mine.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 22 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special