Cars have always been more than four-wheeled transport; they're status symbols. Owners of a Ford Focus, a 'Chelsea tractor' or a quirky Citroen display something of their character, and their wealth. In the past, cars were also expressions of patriotism. A proud ex-serviceman would insist on a staid black or beige Austin or Hillman, but by the 1970s Longbridge, Luton and Linwood struggled to compete with the more advanced products from abroad. Modernisation was frustrated by the trade unions, as the likes of 'Red Robbo' instigated strikes at the drop of a hat. As the classic Morris Minor was replaced by the Austin Allegro, the British name for quality was tarnished by Monday morning and Friday afternoon duds, and manufacturers were forced to include repair services in advertisements for their luridly-coloured saloons.
Ironically, the Axis powers of the Second World War came to dominate our roads. Since the dog days of British Leyland, motorists on these shores have coveted German feats of four-wheel engineering: from the top-end Mercedes Benz to mass-produced but robust hatchbacks. Vorsprung durch Technik was the slogan for Audi, its language symbolising the technical supremacy of the Germans, rivalled only by the Japanese in exports to the UK. Old soldiers looked askance, but there was no doubting which cars reliably started on a damp or frosty morning.
Much attention has been given to the motor industry in the Brexit process. For Germany, the British market is lucrative: a fifth of its output is sold here. Executives should be worried about losing their biggest export trade, although they have tended to fall into line with the EU stance rather than implore Angela Merkel to protect their business. But reality bites. If there is no deal and World Trade Organisation rules are applied, a 10% tariff will be imposed on new vehicles crossing the English Channel. A study by Deloitte indicates that in the first year of Brexit by WTO default, sales of German cars in the UK would fall by 255000 (32%), putting 18000 jobs at risk.
Leave supporters have always argued that obstructing trade will hurt European businesses more than our own exporters. But this card has not been played by our political leaders, who are constantly fearful of a sniping Europhile establishment. Theresa May asserted that 'Brexit means Brexit' and 'no deal is better than a bad deal', but she displays a tendency for one-sided compromise and concessions. A recent poll showed that over half of voters believe May is bungling the Brexit negotiations. Michel Barnier and fellow Eurocrats have been allowed to set the agenda, and to typeset the headlines.
After May's conciliatory speech in Florence, it took a bullish essay in the Telegraph by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to ask why we should pay a huge bill for access to the EU Single Market if European companies can sell goods here without charge. A bad deal will keep the tunnel open for BMW, while our producers' access to the EU must be subsidised by taxpayers (to the tune of £20 billion per annum, or more if May is characteristically generous with our money). This doesn't pass the ordinary person's sense of fairness. That money could go into our health and social care services, our police and defence.
Under no-deal WTO conditions, affluent Remainers will continue to buy continental luxury cars, hardly noticing an extra £1500 on the windscreen. But as occurred with the reparations on Germany after the First World War, a deal that is perceived as punitive will cause seething resentment among the general public, whether or not they voted to leave the EU. People will begin to make their own trade deal, refusing to buy certain products from Europe, and eschewal of German cars will be very visible. They will consider provenance as well as price, and many will choose to support the employees of Nissan in Sunderland or Toyota in Derby rather than add to the bulging coffers of Bavarian autoworks. In this context, public sector contracts will be watched closely: why is a police force ordering a fleet from BMW?
I have nothing against Germany or its products, but a motorists' boycott would be a highly symbolic and effective response to EU protectionism. Volkswagen would be a particularly fitting target, after its diesel emission scandal. Its cars have been big sellers in Britain, but no compensation has been offered for the millions affected by soot from cheating exhaust pipes. If profits decline and workers are laid off, VW chiefs will surely put pressure on the German government and Brussels to act more reasonably to a nation that means no harm, but has simply exercised its right to leave an organisation determined to become a superstate. Besides, Japanese cars (many now British-built) are proven to be the most reliable and least depreciating. Be civic, and buy a Honda.