LONDON, Oct. 19 - Sir Richard Dobson, chairman of the Leyland auto company. Britain's biggest industrial concern, was entertaining some fellow executives with an after-dinner speech at the Dorchester Hotel the other night.
He brought the house down with a light-hearted reference to the "special payments" Leyland makes to get business abroad. Imagine, he said, "accus(ing) the company of the perfectly respectable fact that it was bribing wogs."
Sir Richard, 63, who prides himself on having been a classics scholar, then turned to the problem of the Asians engaged in a celebrated strike at a north London film plant.
"You can't tell me that the ordinary British worker is passionately concerned that a number of blackish people in north London are being underpaid," he said. The businessmen, members of the "Twenty Club," had yet another chuckle when Sir Richard mispronounced the well-known name of his chief Swedish rival, Pehr Gyllenhammar, director of Volvo. Dobson did it as "Glimmerhammer" and pretended to stumble.
Nor did the fact that the government owns 95 percent of Leyland inhibit the chairman when it came to a mention of his national chief. Prime Minister James Callaghan, he said, "turned and ran" from a fight to curb union power. But, he added, "it's not the first time in our history that if you could run fastest, you were therefore a leader whatever direction you happened to run."
It was all good, Rotarian fun, except that some spoil-sport brought a tape recorder and fed the contents to Tariq Ali, perennial leader of Britain's leftist youth and now editor of the Trotskyist "Socialist Challenge."
So tonight, a chastened Sir Richard made an apology of sorts through Leyland's public relations men. They quoted him as saying:
"I very much regret that certain remarks made off-the-cuff at a small private gathering may have caused offense when taken out of context."
In fact, Sir Richard's views - contempt for unions, the Labor government, foreigners and immigrants - are not unrepresentative of those held by many ranking business executives here. Some students of management have suggested that there is a link between these attitudes and Britain's poor export performance.
Sir Richard, who collects $39,000 as chairman, is one of the nation's most distinguished executives. A former chairman of the huge British-American Tobacco concern, he sits on the board of Exxon, the giant U.S. oil company, and was knighted by Callaghan's Labor predeccessor, Sir Harold Wilson. The Times of London once said admiringly that Dobson "talks with the force and precision of the classical scholar he once was."
The question now is how much damage Dobson has done to the already disastrous labor relations at Leyland, a company that the Financial Times earlier in the year said was on "the brink of financial collapse."
Leyland has just asked the blue collar workers among its 183,000 employes to give up their traditional and troublesome plant-level contracts for a single company-wide pact.
Management insists Leyland cannot survive without the change, but at last one strong union opposes it. Whether Dobson has provided foes of company-wide bargaining with fresh ammunition will soon be discovered.
One of his aides said tonight. "This ain't gonna help, but I wouldn't overstate its significance."
Sir Richard's address, entitled "Ten Years of Change in British Society," is packed with gems from the chairman that are not calculated to improve Leyland's labor relations. At one point, Dobson observes:
"The unions have come to be seen to be identified if not actually with management at least with the government and seen to be co-authors of the government's broken promises."
This is a scornful tribute to the wage restraint practiced by all unions here for more than two years, a restraint that has enabled many companies to survive and reduced living standards of British workers.
For sheer gratuitous mischief, however. Dobson's comment on Ulster may win the prize. There, he said, Britain had been "generous in a way we couldn't afford . . . to the Catholics . . . so we disarmed the police or whatever."
This must be a reference to a 1969 decision that disbanded the notorius "B-Specials," a police auxiliary of Protestants who had rioted against unarmed Catholics Belfast and Londonberry.