YOU could almost sense the collective shrug of resignation across Scotland at the news that the Michelin tyre plant in Dundee is to close in 2020 with the loss of 850 jobs. Did people even know that Dundee still made industrial products? It’s associated now with internet video games and the V&A museum. A prime tourist destination. Does it still want to be associated with smelly, environmentally-unsound car tyres?

Well, yes: it certainly should. There may be a glut in the global market for Michelin’s small car tyres, and diesel and petrol cars are being phased out. But we are not going to see the end of transportation, which is the basis of civilisation itself. Whatever you look at – electric, hydrogen, compressed air – the vehicles of the future are going to need tyres.

And increasingly they are likely to require small, high-quality tyres, with low rolling resistance, of the kind Michelin was supposed to specialise in making in Dundee. The current vogue for ever-larger cars, with bigger wheels, which we are told has killed demand for the plant’s tyres, cannot last. Heavy diesel SUVs will be so expensive to run in five or ten years’ time that no one in their right minds will buy them. It is anyway one of the daftest fashions of modern times.

But surely, making car tyres is a noxious chemical process that pollutes the environment and leaves a massive carbon footprint? Well, not in Dundee it doesn’t, where much of Michelin’s power comes from two wind turbines. Sixty-one million pounds – much of it public money – has been spent on making this plant one of the most advanced and least polluting on the planet. The more you look at the closure of Michelin Dundee, the less it seems to make sense. This is not some rust belt relic.

The Michelin plant used to provide secure employment for nearly 1,000 workers, and many more in the companies that depended on their wages. It contributed at least £45 million to the local economy – four times the best estimate of the V&A’s impact. These were secure, well-paid jobs, not disposable seasonal tourist work. You can well understand the anger of the workforce here, which has worked closely with the French firm since it came here in 1971.

Indeed, one of the reasons Michelin’s closure came as such as surprise is that it has been, in many ways, a model of modern, constructive industrial relations and rarely in the news – unlike plants like Timex, which closed after a bitter strike in 1993. The Michelin union leaders are talking about “betrayal” by the company, not least because the news was leaked to the press before the workforce got to hear of it, and before Christmas too. Why, they ask, has this happened only three years after the Dundee plant was reconfigured precisely so that it could make a larger range of bigger tyres?

Well, the biggest and most obvious change is Brexit. That has been the black swan event that no one in large-scale manufacturing in the UK considered a possibility until 2016. And only very recently has the prospect of a no-deal Brexit become a reality. This is a French firm, after all, and you might expect it to be worried about the prospect of 5.4m tyres having special export certificates and tariffs when they cross new borders to the European single market.

However, the company insists that its decision to close Dundee has nothing to do with Britain’s decision to leave the European Union. There is no particular reason to disbelieve it. Indeed, it might well have suited the pro-European French President, Emanuel Macron, to declare that Brexit is such a disaster on wheels that even tyre manufacturers are fleeing the UK.

So, we’re left with the firm’s main claim that cheap tyres from Asia are being dumped here, and making even modern car tyre manufacturing uneconomic. That has nothing directly to do with Brexit, but it does relate to it. It underlines the kind of economic environment into which Britain is headed, post-Brexit. Increasingly, workers in the UK will be competing with workers in developing countries where wages are often nugatory.

The “Global Britain” project is all about thrusting Britain into this low-cost, low-regulation market, a kind of Hong Kong of Europe, where we produce cheap goods to flood the EU. At least that’s the theory of the Tory Brexiters. A more likely scenario is cheap goods, like tyres, flooding into Britain destroying what is left of our manufacturing base. Britain may be a post-industrial economy, but that doesn’t mean that making things is unimportant. Brexit is isolating the UK from EU supply chains and hastening deindustrialisation.

Should the Scottish Government intervene? Well, its powers are extremely limited, not least by EU regulations on supporting loss-making industries. A lot of public money, around £11m, has already gone into the plant. It doesn’t seem plausible that it could be nationalised, because it is an integral part of a global company, the second-largest tyre manufacturer on the planet, and would lack the global retail networks to sell the tyres even if it could make them cheaply enough.

Some might suspect that Michelin had known all along that its plant was doomed and was just using what public money it could access to run the plant down while extracting what profits it could. But that would be ungenerous. Michelin has a reputation for being a relatively responsible company, and anyway it invested a great deal of its own cash in the Dundee plant. Unfortunately, it was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But these are not jobs that Britain can lose with equanimity. The intellectual capital being built in Dundee’s universities and the games sector GTA may provide twice as many jobs as Michelin, according to TIGA, which represents the digital publishing and video games industry. But these jobs can go as fast as they arrive. Scotland needs an industrial policy that doesn’t depend on the vagaries of the market. And the sudden collapse of the UK tyre industry is a signal reminder of what life would be like outside the European Union.