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Laurie Penny on Tony Blair's The Journey: Bring the political classes to book

Moving Tony Blair's autobiography in bookshops shows that young people are not willing to be sold the wrong story.

In bookshops up and down the country, a new kind of literary movement is taking place. Hundreds of young protesters are strolling in to stores and quietly moving copies of Tony Blair's autobiography from the display stacks on to shelves devoted to mystery and crime fiction. Blair's smug visage on the dust jacket of A Journey is of a man who knows that the public is finally buying his side of the story, at least technically speaking. By placing that creepy grin firmly underneath a big sign that says "Crime", these guerrilla librarians are trying to make sure that people know what they're getting into.

It's this sort of thing that gives me hope for my generation. The protest group, which coalesced spontaneously online, is polite to the point of self-parody. A serious and energetic discussion is taking place on the group's Facebook page about whether or not the demonstration will overly inconvenience hard-working bookshop employees.

Waterloo sunset

While they're about it, there are a few more political tomes that could do with a little reshelving: Phillip Blond's Red Tory, for example, would fit well in the folklore and fantasy section. Behind the cheeky rag-week japery, however, is a nuanced message about political narrative and how it is deployed.

The public outrage that has accompanied Blair's book-signings - with shoes and eggs flung at the former premier in Dublin early this month - is no longer really about Blair himself. It's not even wholly about the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq since 2003 and in Afghanistan since 2001. Ultimately, this is about us - about the generation that came to political awareness in the earliest years of the 21st century and the stories we tell ourselves about neoliberalism, globalisation and the articulation of politics.

The years of Anglo-American warmongering that followed September 2001 shaped my awareness of government and its role. Still far too young to vote, I skipped school to travel to London to protest against the proposed invasion of Iraq in early 2003, shinning up some traffic lights to watch a seething swell of human outrage shuffle politely along Waterloo Bridge to say firmly and definitively: "Not in our name." Weeks later, we went to war anyway and it was in our names. The memory of that betrayal hasn't faded.

It was a defining political moment for those of us who gained language after the fall of the Berlin Wall, after what Francis Fukuyama prosaically called "the end of history". Unlike previous cohorts, we did not grow up with any variant of socialism as an implicit alternative to public policy.Instead, we had the monolithic, cartoonish neoliberalism of the Blair years.

It came as a painful shock when we suddenly learned that neoconservative narratives don't have to be true or even convincing for the public to swallow them: they just have to tell a strong story.

More protests are planned for every leg of Blair's book tour, but our rage at Blair is partly angry embarrassment at ourselves for buying his story the first time round. We are justly furious at the public and parliamentary consensus of 2003 for accepting a simple children's fairy tale of international politics, with goodies and baddies who need to be dealt with. The trouble is that it's happening again - this time with Tory economic policy.

Little by little, David Cameron's simple story about the unavoidability of public spending cuts and the importance of sharing the pain equally between single mothers and the long-term sick is gaining public credence.

Cry wolf

The fable that Britain has been living beyond its means and now needs to cut back is being swallowed, just as the simple story about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was swallowed in 2003. Nobody is really convinced - but this is the narrative that the public has started to accept, suspending its disbelief yet again, instead of considering that the government might not have the best interests of the people at heart.

That the leering Aesop of neoliberal contumacy - Tony Blair himself - comes out in cheery support of Cameron's economic policies in the pages
of A Journey should alert us that we are being spun another dodgy story with the potential to shatter lives.

The only proper response to these brutally cartoonish versions of events is to keep moving the suspicious stories to the right part of the bookshop. It's a habit that needs to be preserved. Even at the height of our dissidence, my generation will never be the type to burn books. We will, however, wilfully and deliberately recategorise them, especially when we feel we're being sold the wrong story.

Laurie Penny's column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 2010 issue of the New Statesman, France turns right

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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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