A leading Yorkshire industrialist has warned that Britain faces “a giant leap back to the 1970s” and major job losses in manufacturing if the UK votes to leave the EU.
Andrew Cook, chairman of engineering group William Cook Holdings, is treasurer of the Tory campaign to stay in the EU. He is understood to be Yorkshire’s biggest donor to the Conservative Party.
Mr Cook said: “Those UK engineers who have survived the various recessions of the past 25 years have succeeded by modernising, adapting and seeking new markets to replace the traditional domestic market which has dwindled to insignificance.
“Chief among these new markets has been mainland Europe. It is no exaggeration to say that without the single European market, the UK manufacturing sector would be significantly smaller still, as would William Cook.“
He said that there is a critical mass in manufacturing, which is barely being achieved now in Britain, and this critical mass is essential if supply chains and skill bases are to be maintained.
“Already there are large gaps in Britain’s manufacturing capability. Retaining an adequate skill base is extremely difficult,” he said.
“Impede access to the single market, and I believe the British engineering industry will fall far below critical mass. Job losses will be considerable and an entire sector of our economy could ultimately perish.”
Mr Cook has invested £10m in his Yorkshire facilities over the last two years. In Leeds, he has spent £5m on new machine tools and factory buildings to make components for the European rail industry. In Sheffield, he has invested a similar sum to bring two sites together into one following the collapse of the oil and gas industry.
Mr Cook has undergone a U-turn on his views about Europe. He said that in the late 80s and early 90s, his businesses were suffering from unfairly subsidised competitors in France and Spain dumping their products in the UK market. He became a “vociferous and dedicated” campaigner for Britain to leave the EU.
He enlisted the support of other European producers and helped persuade the Commission to withdraw the subsidies. With the advent of the single European market in 1992, Mr Cook became a major exporter to countries whose producers had once threatened his group.
He said he was helped by more liberal labour laws, lower employment taxes and free movement of skilled workers from the new EU member countries. Mr Cook said the euro made the mechanics of selling to the Continent much easier.
He added: “I still have many competitors in mainland Europe who would be delighted to exclude me from their markets. They already resent the advantages Britain has in its flexible labour laws and lower social costs.
“A vote to leave will give them the justification to demand the immediate erection of tariff barriers against competing British-made goods, and their politicians will be only too willing to comply.”
William Cook has competitors all over the world, particularly in low-cost countries like China.
Mr Cook said Europe is in effect his domestic market and an exit from the EU would threaten his business and his 600 employees’ jobs.
“We face a giant leap back to the 1970s. These were unhappy times, when over-mighty and irresponsible trades unions drove up wages while producing shoddy goods and services for an increasingly frustrated and shrinking domestic market,” he said.
However the Brexit side said that Treasury analysis has “grossly exaggerated” the impact Brexit would have on the nation’s finances.
Most economic modelling has found that Brexit would make little difference to Britain’s economy, a study published by the Cass Business School claimed.
Author David Blake said the Government has ignored the waves of research, instead publishing “highly prejudiced” reports warning the UK would be poorer by £4,300 per household by 2030 and be hit by an immediate recession.
Andrew Cook is the owner of William Cook Holdings Limited, one of Europe’s leading steel and engineering groups.
He became chairman of the company in 1981 when it was a small and barely profitable publicly quoted business with sales of £3m.
For the next five years, he worked 18-hour days and slept in his office during the week as he transformed William Cook into a major industrial group. He fought off a hostile takeover bid from the now defunct industrial conglomerate Triplex Lloyd in 1997 and took William Cook into private ownership. Today the business is 100 per cent owned by the Cook family and has sales of around £60m.