An article by William Hobhouse on Liberal Democrat Voice, The Lib Dems should be the party of manufacturing, reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write a post on this subject for ages. Because he’s right: we should
“Liberal Democrats are excellently placed as a party to champion the rebalancing of the British economy back towards manufacturing. Unlike the Conservatives, we are not tied to financial and Eurosceptic interests. We are a pragmatic party of business and wealth creation unlike Labour, and in the manufacturing heartlands our MPs already stand for jobs and renewed identity.”
Our biggest government department is Business, Innovation and Skills, with Vince Cable at the helm. In a recession, this should be the most important position in the Government for providing leadership to the country. As the Lib Dem Voice article points out, Vince has done some sterling stuff… but it has not been built into a narrative for the party.
And we have a grand narrative.
We are the industrial revolution. We are free trade. That was us: British Liberalism. Our ideological forebears created the modern world.
It is widely agreed (though not entirely fairly) that British manufacturing is in a century-long state of decline. Only Liberals have the ideological and intellectual basis, not to mention the glorious history of creating the first industrial empire, to wrench it from its torpor.
The Conservatives? They were practically made to support the landed aristocracy. It’s the same today, except the landed people they represent are those homeowners who don’t want their house prices affected by volume housebuilding, or their scenic views hurt by new industrial developments.
Labour? Their name being more or less vestigial, they now exist purely to create conditions of state dependency as a form of vote-purchasing. They put themselves in hock to big finance, and fostered unsustainable and unproductive economic booms, to get the cash to do it. In any case, they are an irrelevance: nobody believes that they could get this country making or doing.
Manufacturing and economic revitalisation should be our brand. It’s time to reclaim it. It’s what will resonate as a unifying theme through the rest of this Parliament and into the 2015 election.
Everything we already care about fits into this paradigm.
When we talk about the environment we can sound effete and metropolitan. We shouldn’t. It’s about making Britain energy-independent. Creating power. Launching off-shore wind from the docks in Hull and Middlesborough. Fighting nimbys (be they in commuter barn-conversions or on great estates) on behalf of literal electricity. Ringing the country with new power lines and mills that our industrial heroes wouldn’t have flinched at.
The High Speed Rail lines should be fought on the same basis. It’s a plan practically Victorian in its grandeur: our heritage. Someone needs to stand in St. Pancras chomping on a cigar like Isambard Kingdom Brunel to make that point, if that’s what it takes.
Labour have been trying to outdo the Tories with dogwhistle racism that should make all liberals gag with distaste.
Let’s not be shy about supporting the free movement of people. If people want to come here to work, we should welcome that unashamedly. Industry isn’t a zero-sum game. Immigration restrictions are already hurting some of our best universities, stifling our scientific advance.
By arguing for a renewed industrial identity, we have a solid ground from which to challenge Miliband and other conservatives on immigration.
Free Trade abroad
As the Lib Dem Voice article points out, this is where our long-standing internationalism comes into its own. Tory Eurosceptics dream of autarky. Labour talk up protectionism: British jobs for British people. Liberals want to work constructively with Europe and other markets to open them to British imports. Even international aid can be framed in this narrative: supporting investment abroad as something that’s good for our exporters.
We have put good education policies in place through the Coalition- the pupil premium, for example. But I’d bet it’ll come to naught electorally, because if Gove achieved nothing else with his O-level announcement, it was to reveal that the Liberal Democrats have no narrative when it comes to education, other than that we think it’s important.
The Tories can talk about turning the clock back to the 50s, with grammar schools and compulsory Latin – and it’s here that their appeal (?) lies. I suggest that we can weave our educational narrative around manufacturing by way of contradistinction.
We can talk about the Midlands Enlightenment and the Lunar Society – the intellectual movement that really made this country great. A deliberate focus upon practice, and the adaptation of science to useful ends. To put it in terms that Gove and Boris could understand, the Techne to their Episteme.
If the Tories want Latin and a Gradgrindish repetition of facts, we should talk about computer programming and applied sciences and equipping people to be enquiring and innovative in practical ways. Rigorous vocational training.
The Long Term
Because this isn’t just about taking leadership in the current recession, or surviving the 2015 General Election.
There is another industrial revolution about to hit, with new paradigms that will be as disruptive and transformative as the (our) last one.
Additive manufacturing, 3D printing, bio-scale assemblers and sequencers: distributed, on-shore, artisanal manufacturing. Physical and even biological things are going to become as replicatable as the internet has made intellectual property.
Cory Doctorow described Hollywood and the music industry as “the first belligerents in a century-long war”. The new industrial revolution is going to be opposed tooth and nail by “lobbies and interest groups that are far more influential than Hollywood and big content are on their best day.” They are going to be using all their money and power to try and get the Government to stifle this innovation in manufacturing, to impose regulatory and criminal-legal blocks to this new industrial revolution.
We need a political movement that doesn’t bow and scrape to vested interests, that is willing to craft laws on patents, intellectual property, and copyrights that support innovation. If Britain is to get the start on the new industrial revolution that we had on the last one, vested interests will need to be fought, and old orders broken down.
What do you know – I think that’s a job for us again. Only us.
What fortune, then, that our current leader sits in Sheffield. The great cities of our industrial empire should be the backdrop to our cause. We have rugged stuff to do.