Sparks fly over nationalisation

Nationalisation and diversification

GKN emerged from the war as Britain’s biggest steel producer. However, it was soon embroiled in a battle against the Labour government’s determination to nationalise the steel industry – and so began a move into new areas of engineering and technology.

Labour first nationalised the steel industry in 1951 – paying GKN compensation of £18.7m for its assets. Four years later, the group bought them back for just under £12m from the Conservative government. But in 1964, Harold Wilson’s Labour government was elected with a mandate to renationalise steel. When completed in 1967, this left GKN with some steel interests, but led the company into a gradual withdrawal from its traditional industry over the following 20 years.

GKN car components; Factory floor, 1950s; Steel production

The drawn out nationalisation saga encouraged GKN to explore new business avenues. It expanded its involvement across the newly independent countries of the British Commonwealth and became involved in a host of steel-related businesses, including vehicle components such as crankshafts and propeller shafts. Building on wartime experience, the company began production of the famous Warrior tank for the British Army.

GKN also expanded in the industrial services sector. In 1974, the group and the Australian company Brambles formed the GKN Chep pallet pool in the UK. Four years later, the venture expanded into mainland Europe and the group’s most successful industrial services business was on the road to international growth. The next major move was into waste disposal in 1981 when GKN and Brambles acquired Redland Purle (now known as Cleanaway) – a venture that also proved to be highly successful.

Chep and Cleanaway symbolised GKN’s growing diversification – a process that by the 1980s had led to involvement in a huge variety of industrial services ranging from plumbing and roofing to locks and window latches.

A new world

New arrivals disembark the Empire Windrush

After WW2, Britain was virtually bankrupt and in 1946 borrowed $3.5 billion from America (the last repayment was in 2006!). Faced with growing protests – most notably Gandhi’s satyagraha movement – Britain’s gave up its empire. In 1947, Pakistan and India became independent countries – to be followed over the next 20 years by most colonies, particularly after Macmillan’s “Wind of change” speech prompted withdrawal from Africa. At the same time, Britain experienced a wave of immigration. The arrival of the ship Empire Windrush, in 1948, carrying 492 West Indians provided the iconic image of a process that would help rebuild the economy and create a new multicultural society.


1945 United Nations founded

1953 First ascent of Mount Everest

1957 Sputnik 1 satellite launched

Music: 1950
Rock’n’roll made famous by artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley
Other sources of information
Nationalisation (History learning site)
Windrush - The Passengers (BBC History)
Empire Windrush 1948 (Exploring 20th Century London)
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