Towards A Cultural Theory Of British Industrial Decline

© 2015 Tom Rogers

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I was originally prompted to write what follows by a video from Millenial Woes, in which he requests input from listeners for a future talk on British industrial decline:

This is just a rough sketch outline of a possible starting-point for formulating a cultural theory of British industrial decline:

Some suggested points/ideas:-

1. Culture versus Industry

1.1. By 'industrial' (and industry), is meant the productive side of the economy: i.e. manufacturing. One thing to look at is the structural shift from industry to services, and the concomitant shift in cultural values from production to consumption. It might be interesting to consider whether these shifts are primarily 'cultural' or 'industrial'.

1.2. I would lean strongly towards a 'cultural' thesis. Notwithstanding that Britain was once the 'workshop of the world', I think there are aspects of British culture, considered as a whole, that are anti-entrepreneurial and anti-industrial.

1.3. I think at the centre of a lot of this is the Thatcher era. She is, if you like, the central character in the story, and for me, the story begins metaphorically in that shop in Grantham. That experience formed the basis of a lot of her later political ideas, and it also represents one side of the cleave in British society, between the 'industrial' and the 'merchant'.

1.4. It is important to preface any consideration of Thatcher with a sobering note: the long-term impact of Thatcherism in economic terms has been greatly exaggerated. The raw statistics show hardly any change in manufacturing, but I think there can be no doubt about the political, spiritual and cultural impact of that period. Thatcher spoke of the 'British disease' and this term was widely used throughout Europe during the 1970s. Against this background, Thatcher set out not so much to arrest industrial decline, as to arrest cultural decline, of which problems in industry could be seen as a symptom.

2. Themes

2.1. To set the scene thematically, one could look at the cultural values in British intellectual life (especially elite education) that tend towards encouraging anti-industrial attitudes and an emphasis on 'merchantism' [my word], which in practice meant a focus on trade and finance. This has manifested itself in a number of ways.

2.2. There is this endless debate that goes on in Britain, which seems to have gone on forever, and never seems to get sorted out, about how to improve vocational education. Technical schools were one way of addressing this, in a similar way to the German system, but during the 1960s/1970s, the Tripartite System (Education Act 1944) was abolished/phased-out in favour of comprehensive schools, which represented a more equalitarian, mass-minded and centralised approach to education. The roots of this change might tell us something culturally about the way that the British, especially English, think about education.

2.3. The comprehensive system may have simply reflected the politics of the time, rather than being some kind of sinister Marxoid plot. The Eleven Plus examination was not universally liked among parents, and parents can vote. The comprehensive system might also have been linked to anti-industrial attitudes, a belief that all children should have the 'same chance' of a 'career' at a time when, due to post-War economic expansion, various white collar and higher-level technical careers were becoming possible, and apprenticeships and jobs in industry might have seemed less desirable.

2.4. Possibly there may be aspects of the British Empire that show us how these anti-industrial attitudes were amplified globally. Britain is an island nation and in a sense the Empire became a morphological projection of our island identity, with a focus on merchantism - trade, and the financing of trade. Also, the Empire was arguably capitalist/pre-capitalist rather than entrepreneurial.

2.5. At the same time, I think it is also the case that the 'merchant' is an unpopular figure in English culture, in literature, music and art, and in common folk knowledge. There are associations between the merchant and the Jew, and the Jew as a demonic avatar has always been part of working class folklore in England. The merchant in his modern form, the middle-man or intermediary, is derided as a 'spiv', whereas the manual worker in industry was traditionally respected, and the craftsman (William Morris, etc.), still more so. Yet at the same time, changes in the economic structure of society have led to greater opportunities for the 'spiv' and lesser opportunities for the manual worker. You could also say that the manual worker is less respected in some quarters than the spiv, even if he has learnt a trade and the spiv has not.

2.6. A significant thematic factor is the City of London. There is the social and political effect of having one of the major centres of power in the country reliant on trade and finance. In the past, the City of London would have provided depth of capital for industrial development in Britain, but there is a cultural tension in that the City has an outward, internationalist outlook and its influence promotes liberalism in economic policy, which disfavours provincial industrialism. A lot of the values embodied by Thatcher herself are reflected in the City. It's a Gladstonian liberal sensibility, which now manifests itself in UKIP. I think at some point in her memoirs Thatcher refers to her father's grocery shop and the fact that he imported products from all over the world.

2.7. England in particular is a very London-centric country. Economically, culturally and politically, the rest of England is sort of a suburb of London. This in itself is anti-industrial, or has become so. The lack of regional planning and investment has stymied urban and industrial development in provincial England, and demographically, the population has shifted towards a heavy concentration in southern England, in proximity to London.

2.8. Marxism. Marx, an ethnic Jew from Germany, wrote his treatise in London and his ideas were, I would suggest, quintessentially English and belonged to England, just as figures of the Left such as Orwell do, and the anti-fascist tradition does. England is a liberal country, and slightly anarchistic too, in a generic sense. There is a sense of anti-industrialism that comes out of a lot of the thinking of the late 19th. century Left. William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement spring to mind.

2.9. Marx and Engel's writing, I think, contributed to this climate, though I would reject any notion that Marx or Marxism were or are in any sense Luddite. Marx was critiquing 19th. century industrial capitalism - but note, he was critiquing it. Marx was not opposed to capitalism in any historical sense. He saw capitalism as a progressive (and necessary) force, but he also posited that capitalism would be replaced by a co-operative technological system based on productive labour and productive leisure.

3. The Industrial Left and Thatcher: capitalism versus entrepreneurialism

3.1. During the 1970s and 1980s, Thatcher tried to portray the Left as anti-industrial - 'the British disease' - although her real concern was modernisation, not industry per se. This rhetorical trick is still sometimes repeated by the mainstream Right today, who portray the industrial Left as troublemakers.

3.2. The Left has always had this duality, of being pro-industrial and lobbying industrially for a planned, strategic approach to the economy from governments - a capitalist approach essentially - while at the same time opposing capitalism and mass industrialism (socially) politically.

3.3. Thatcher, by contrast, arguably represented a more entrepreneurial than strictly capitalist approach to industry. Her belief in market rigour put many men out of work, but in doing so it spared those men from a life in a harsh industrial environment, thus perhaps (unintentionally) addressing one of the social concerns of the Left, dating back to the late 19th. century. The result of this however has been that many of those men, and the men who would have had those jobs, have ended up working in service industries, which are often less masculine and less about community and solidarity.

3.4. It may also be useful to examine the link between industrial culture, class and the Left. There is a cleave within the English Left between mostly a metropolitan, middle-class liberal-Left, which has tended to be associated with the public sector, services and the professions, and the provincial Left, which has tended to be associated with industry and the more operative parts of the service sector. The metropolitan Left have obviously been the more intellectually-dominant of the two, especially in the mainstream/centre. One might trace this back to the formation of the Labour Party itself (the Webbs, the Fabians, etc.) and also before that.

3.5. Notwithstanding that the Left has traditionally represented labour (the Labour Party itself of course originally being labourist and formally trade unionist rather than socialist), its leadership has tended to come from the 'educated' classes, and even those who have come from the manual working class have tended to seek an education. The trade unions, I believe, have always made a point of having their most promising leaders university-educated (Ruskin College, Oxford, being an example). This, I think, is of some cultural significance. There seems to be this view that the manual working class need to be 'socialised' - education in England being very much a process of socialisation in one way or another.

3.6. I think this also goes deeper. I think the class-based cleave I speak of here could also be seen as a contrast between the sacred and the profane. There has always been a sense of the political Left in Britain as being there to manage and control the rabble, the greater masses, and I think there is a strongly patronising and condescending attitude among the middle-class Left towards the workers that they 'guide'. Back in the 90s, I recall reading a Guardian article in which workers were referred to patronisingly as Andy Capp. I was very left-wing at the time [hence why I was reading the Guardian], but I recall that I was kind of surprised to read that, but at the same time kind of not surprised. I'd already met the 'type': the middle-class lefty, the higher caste of democratic socialism, and I realised that these people saw themselves as the guides of the workers. They were the sacred. Their more extreme cousins are of course the Leninists and Trotstykists who also 'guide' the workers to revolution. Few of them have done a day's work in their lives.

3.7. My point is that the Left's higher caste see industrial work - in fact, practically any sort of physical work - as something for workers, something profane, an attitude that is probably an echo of the late 19th. century anti-industrial socialists. I think this has reverberations in the Left's attitude to all sorts of issues of social significance - not least 'Rotherham', which I apostrophise as I see it as a metaphor of a wider problem. The Left likes to moralise in a very abstract and vapid manner, and it should be of no surprise that they also dislike work. Is there a connection between the two? Conversely, Thatcher, who I consider the main spiritual instigator of post-industrial Britain, and the ghoul at the wake, if you like, was equally a moraliser and also had that air of the chapel and the sacred about her.

4. The Post-War Period

I think an important marker in British anti-industrialism was the Second World War; in particular, Britain's woeful lack of capacity during that period, and the way we relied on the United States. I would argue that the social, industrial and design plans that were laid during the War actually stymied Britain's ability to address its industrial issues.

5. The relevancy of thatcherism

5.1. The difficulty I think we have with an analysis of Thatcherism is the political schizophrenia of the philosophy. The culprits for the so-called 'British disease', trade unionists, etc. were not themselves anti-industrial. They belonged to the industrial culture. In fact, they would pin the 'anti-industrial' epithet on Thatcher herself. Thatcher, by contrast, was seeking modernisation and a cure for Britain's economic problems through a revival of entrepreneurialism and business. These are areas of the economy that tend to favour a laissez-faire approach to things, in contrast to industry, which tends to favour intervention and subsidy.

5.2. Thatcher was not pursuing an industrial strategy, and in fact she openly baulked at the very idea of a national industrial policy whenever it was suggested by a left-wing Tory (one of the 'wets') in her Cabinet. Yet at the same time Thatcher also sought to promote traditional nativist values of individualism/independence and self-reliance, not in an anti-social sense, but in the productive sense that it would help wider society. Her economic policies destroyed social cohesion in a great many places, making the realisation of a 'Social Thatcherism' impossible. Thatcher herself recoiled from any notion of Social Thatcherism. What in reality she was trying to create was a moral economy, in which frameworks were created for active non-interventionism.

5.3. In this sense, a parallel can be seen between Thatcher and Gordon Brown, both moral economists, but from sharply different perspectives. Brown attempted the opposite: a framework for active interventionism, both socially and economically. In Thatcher's case, the outcome was perhaps unexpected, or at least unintended: far from complementing Social Thatcherism, what happened is that Economic Thatcherism became a spore for an extreme kind of social liberalism that had started in the late 50s/early 60s and reached its zenith during the 80s with the yuppie culture.

5.4. The yuppie was the apogee of the hippie. The spoilt brat of the Macmillan years, became the hippie of the 60s, and the yuppie of the 80s. These spoilt overgrown children were the instigators of things such as super-capitalism, profiteering, mass immigration, house price inflation, the so-called 'brain drain', and dumbed-down education, and so on. They were - and are - supreme individualists, aspirational, selfish, and lean towards a narcissistic liberal type of politics: both socially (left-wing) and economically (neo-thatcherism), the two branches of thought going together and complementing each other. This is not necessarily a culture that is conducive to mass industrialism, for a number of both micro- and macro- reasons.

6. Were The Thatcher Years An Era Of Entrepreneurial Industrial Revival?

6.1. One side question related to this is: Can the Thatcher era actually be seen as a period of industrial revival rather than industrial decline? This does intrigue me. It is de rigueur nowadays to talk of how Thatcher destroyed industry, and in effect contributed to industrial decline, but I'm not sure this is accurate or fair. It is true that Thatcher can be seen as part of a continuum, starting with Wilson, or perhaps Macmillan, in which we can see that the aim of post-War British governments is to 'modernise' Britain. Macmillan said 'You’ve never had it so good', because he was riding on the back of an expanding economy (make consumer goods for baby-booming households). It was the Macmillan era that seeded the late social liberalism of the 1960s as a result of children experiencing a freer and more affluent childhood. Wilson talked of 'the white heat of technology', and seemed culturally pro-industry, but in reality the Wilson governments swung the axe every bit as ruthlessly as Thatcher would later do. Heath was essentially a pre-thatcherite (Selsdon Man) and sought to replace the consensual approach of 'In Place of Strife' with a more confrontational approach ('Who Runs Britain?'). He took us into the EU (the EEC as it was then called) because he wanted to turn Britain into a modern European country. Callaghan was a watered-down version of Heath, and was the first British Prime Minister to adopt monetarism as the basis of economic policy.

6.2. An alternative approach to this would be to argue that there has been no 'industrial decline'. It does depend on the perspective adopted. Some people would argue that what we have seen is an improvement in productivity and profitability in industry, and that the smaller share of the economy taken up by manufacturing is, if anything, a testament to this. A lot of people believe that manufacturing shrank during the 1980s, and even that this was done intentionally by the Thatcher government, but a close examination of the relevant statistics shows that this is not necessarily true. It does depend on how you are measuring the share of industry in the economy. Arguably, Thatcher's policies improved industry in the long run by focusing on profitability and efficiency, thus restoring a sense of entrepreneurial industrial values, but this was at the expense of wider strategic objectives such as full employment, social harmony and solidarity, industrial capacity, security and infrastructure. So it's a philosophic issue as much as anything - which side you take depends on what you think the proper role of the state (and government) should be.

7. Neo-liberalism versus national-socialism

7.1. It was part of a pattern of post-War governments to move away from a national industrial strategy. This stands in sharp contrast to other European countries, who seek to preserve and subsidise their industrial base for strategic reasons, even at the expense of other economic objectives.

7.2. Neo-liberalism, which I would argue is a confluence of left-wing social liberalism and right-wing economic liberalism, may be particularistic to the Anglosphere and reflect certain English sensibilities, including the deep-rootedness of anarchistic, left-wing and socialist type thought along with the intellectual traditions of reason and rationalism.

7.3. One question that arises for me is what an English type of national-socialism would look like. I believe it would have strong liberal characteristics and would probably resemble something like the Labour government of 1945-51, only with very different policies in relation to citizenship, immigration and borders.

8. The Post-industrial wasteland: the relevancy of Rotherham

8.1. I have a clear memory when young (this was in the 90s) of the phenomenon of single mothers just coming to public note. I recall some of them, who I knew of, would have needle marks on their arms. There is no doubt that there has been a collapse of personal responsibility and we are living through a time of moral confusion. Women no longer have sexual morals and people are on the whole shallow, TV-watching, zero-conscious consumers.

8.2. The context for this is the change in the underlying values and attitudes encouraged in society. If people now aspire to consumer goods, cars, home ownership, maybe a desk job or a career, it's less likely that they will see themselves in class conscious terms, or indeed in ethnic or racial terms, but more likely that they will see themselves simply as consumers and purely as individuals.

8.3. Such people, being more individualistic, selfish and inward-looking, might be less willing to undertake certain types of dirty or difficult work, especially if they have the option of claiming benefits or undertaking easier office work. They may also not tend to see themselves as part of a community or other intimate social group, such as a local political organisation, and might be less neighbourly, but at the same time they might be inclined to engage in activities that involve mass, anonymous participation, such as supporting football teams or attending large music concerts or political rallies, which are more feminine in nature and do not require participants to think or contribute individually, but merely to share the thoughts and feelings of a larger group of people.

8.4. Over the last 20 to 25 years especially, we have seen the removal of a great deal of the industrial architecture that marked the landscape, which has been replaced with the architecture of the post-industrial society: the McDonalds sign, the advertising billboard, the out-of-town shopping centre, the cineplex, the housing estate. This in turn affects the way people think about their surroundings and each other. The country has ceased to be a workshop and is now just one big advertising billboard and leisure park.

8.5. The lack of industrial involvement among the population means that men especially will tend to have less practice at team-working and relying on each other for safety, will feel less solidarity with each other and will not consider themselves as part of a community. We now see in society a growth of cynicism, fear and suspicion among people. A reduced industrial base also means less jobs for certain types of men who would in the past have entered industry. This in turn encouraged stability and also provided a base of demand for local economies. Now, many men are forced to undertake casualised labour in warehouses and the like. Others decide not to work at all. The old nodes of community socialism, such as the working men’s club and the pub, etc. were part of the working class landscape and helped people stick together. Now these are gone.

8.6. The outward-looking 'liberal' Britain of the Empire encouraged racial aliens to enter the country - mostly south Asians. These immigrant communities have slowly displaced the white British, degrading and humbling the indigenous population and also loosening the ties that bound people together. The south Asians have also co-opted a great many of the values of neo-liberal Britain, including consumerism, materialism and individualism, which may create inter-generational tensions among them. Asians will want their young men to uphold their indigenous communal values, while the young men will tend to absorb more easily the values of the surrounding neo-liberal, post-industrial society.