London — Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's government is being forced to rethink the future of the giant publicly owned vehicle company, BL, after one of the toughest industrial confrontations in recent memory.
Car workers at BL, formerly British Leyland, began a strike over pay but then backed down when it became clear that the company chairman, Sir Michael Edwardes , really meant it when he said no more money was available and a there was strong chance of permanent closures if the stoppage continued.
But with the workers back on the job, the question now is whether BL - one of the most troubled elements in Britain's nationalized industries - has a future in its present form.
The question is given added sharpness by Mrs. Thatcher's record for favoring private enterprise. She has already begun to shift British North Sea oil and gas operations from public to private ownership.
Any political leader devoted to free enterprise and worried by the problems of nationalized industries beset by labor unrest could scarcely avoid being depressed by the latest unrest at BL.
Heavily dependent on government funding and on the success of new car models, the company appeared to drift into an industrial confrontation which threatened its very existence.
Sir Michael offered car workers a small pay raise for the third year running, and union leaders persuaded them to strike.
Then, after last weekend's boisterous public argument, the work force submitted. Meanwhile BL appeared to have taken a step back from its target of returning to solvency and profit.
The large and unwieldy BL is the product of an amalgamation of smaller vehicle companies in the 1960s. Its output includes the new and highly successful Mini Metro, Jaguar sports cars, large buses, road transporters, and a range of medium-sized family cars of only modest merit.
Some of BL's lines are profitable but many are outdated and lacking in public appeal.
There is a strand of thought within the ruling Conservative Party which suggests that the successful elements of BL could be separated from the rest and perhaps returned to the private sector.
This is by no means official policy at the moment, but the latest BL stoppage has shocked government leaders who realize that if there was a repetition of the events of the past two or three weeks, the entire BL edifice could collapse with the loss of perhaps a quarter-of-a-million jobs.
It is no exaggeration to say that BL is being given one more chance to put its house in order before a new approach to its operations is seriously entertained.
Early in her administration the prime minister decided to take a hard look at road transportation and let private firms offer intercity bus service. They seized the opportunity with the result that long-distance coach transport is flourishing, with the emphasis on lower fares.
3 Mrs. Thatcher would also like to see a significant part of the ownership of the national airline, British Airways, back in the private sector.
She has done nothing to discourage private health insurance companies which offering hospital facilities to subscribers unhappy with the National Health Service, itself an example of a burgeoning official bureaucracy widely criticized by the public.
There are of course some parts of the public sector Mrs. Thatcher cannot touch. The steel industry, firmly in public ownership, is being slimmed down by its chairman, Ian MacGregor.
The coal industry is undergoing a comparable pruning. Meanwhile, the Thatcher government is having to brace itself for the probability that the National Union of Mineworkers will soon elect an avowed and militant Marxist, Arthur Scargill, as its president.
The prime minister and her supporters are inclined to look with a beady eye at any publicly funded enterprise which seems capable of being swung back either wholly or partly into the private sector.
At BL, Sir Michael Edwardes has one more year to run as company chairman. He has promised to do everything possible to make the giant car company a success.
But Mrs. Thatcher will be looking at the result of his labors hawkishly, knowing that by the time Sir Michael stepped down there would still be another year for her government to make drastic changes in the organization and the running of BL.