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This debate is about the future, so I want to talk about the 19th century. To set the scene, new technologies are sweeping away centuries-old techniques, placing whole professions at the risk of extinction. The year is 1841, and a royal commission is publishing its report on the condition of handloom weavers.
Back then, 100,000 handloom weavers had lost their jobs in just 10 years thanks, in part, to the new power loom. The remaining 300,000 were living in increasingly appalling conditions. Today, Parliament has the same duty to cab drivers, lorry drivers and, increasingly, to white collar professionals such as accountants and lawyers. We would do well to look at what our predecessors found.
The commissioners proposed a number of immediate solutions, not least some reform of the corn laws. But they were more interesting when they considered the Luddite case to tax power looms so that the less well paid hand weavers could be protected. The commissioners concluded that
“if we were insane enough to legislate against power-looms…the consequence would be not to raise the wages of the hand-loom weaver, but to depress those of the power-loom weaver to his level.”
Likewise, they concluded that taxing foreign cloth would not help much either. They backed the new technology, realising that investing in it would put the UK at a greater advantage.
The commissioners found again and again that the solutions were measures that would improve the general quality of life and embrace technology, not protect vested interests. If only the RMT would read their report, we might already have driverless trains. Time and again the evidence showed that the workers who resisted change and clung on to a diminishing industry were those who then suffered most. The work done by Matthew Taylor in this regard is in the same vein. Crucially, the commissioners wrote bluntly that
“aversion to change…prevails in proportion as education is deficient.”
In short, constituents then and now resisted a brighter future because they thought, quite wrongly, that it was worse than a diminishing standard of living by clinging to old ways. This Parliament, as the Victorians did, has a duty to excite our constituents about the prospects of technological advancement just as much as it has to guard against the perils that modern technology brings—for instance, in the misuse of our data.
The approach that the commissioners suggested was in part to make reforms, such as to the corn laws, but they also realised that the revolution was coming for all industries, just as the internet will affect all industries now. Our Victorian predecessors were brave enough to embrace that reality, and we should be too. The 1841 report, for instance, refers to a school of design that had recently been set up, because it was human capital that was most valuable. Machines were rubbish at creativity, but humans were brilliant at it. Similarly, the commissioners sought to protect copyright and improve workers’ rights, just as we do in this industrial strategy.
There is much more to say about the 1841 report and, frankly, I had written a much longer speech. There was by necessity a local approach to our industrial strategy in the 19th century. If I may end with one plea, it is that today we consider devolving responsibilities for skills to local areas so that we too can cater to our local areas and industries. It is by being local that we may be truly international in our ambitions and successes. It is by not repeating the mistakes of the past—be it protectionism or clinging on to old technologies—that Britain can truly make the most of its potential.