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13 September 1999

Don’t forget the dirty work

New Statesman Scotland - Blair's gurus see a clean, digitised, virtual future. Wrong, argue

By George Rosie

One of the left’s current intellectual pin-ups is the economist Charles Leadbeater. He is reputed to be Tony Blair’s recent guru. It seems that his opus Living on Thin Air (extracted in the NS, 12 July) has Islington’s political classes chattering non stop. London N1 is agog with Leadbeater’s analysis, which runs something like this: manufacturing is a dead duck; we have moved into a postindustrial world; Britain’s way ahead lies with the “knowledge economy”; our brightest and best should redouble their efforts to produce even more computer programs, advertising campaigns, movies, television films, magazines and such stuff as can be put on CD-Rom or lobbed on to the Internet. Cyberbiz is all: software rules, OK.

Tony Blair was impressed enough by all this to describe Leadbeater as “an extraordinarily interesting thinker”, whose work raises “critical questions for Britain’s future”. Chris Patten thought the work “intellectually fascinating”, offering a “fund of insights for the general reader”. Peter Mandelson was even more fulsome. He suggested that Leadbeater had laid down the guide-tracks for Labour’s next round of government. “This book,” he wrote “sets out the agenda for the next Blair revolution.”

All of which is pretty worrying. It is not that Leadbeater has written a silly or shallow book. Far from it . Living on Thin Air is well written, cogently argued, and interesting, although probably not as original as his fans claim. Futurologists and technoanalysts from Marshall McLuhan to Alvin Toffler have been making similar claims for many years. But these things are important. Trying to find traces of the future in the present is a useful exercise. We do need to get some idea of where we are going.

What is disturbing about Leadbeaterism is not what it says but how it will be perceived. It seems certain to breathe new life into that peculiar British mindset that making things does not matter. It is the notion that manufacturing can be safely left to foreign johnnies. The old middle-class disdain for “trade” and the urge to become a country gent seem to have evolved into an enthusiasm for the arts, showbiz, the media, public relations and the glitzier end of the financial world. Leadbeaterism presents these as the way of the future.

Leadbeaterism also implies (without saying so) that cyberbiz is conducted in a vacuum. This is truly worrying nonsense. Many of the processes on which Leadbeater pins his hopes (the Internet, e-commerce, instant communications, and so on) rely on personal computers. These are not conjured up by cyberelves from fairy dust. These are pieces of machinery made by other pieces of machinery, mostly in Asia and North America. The average £1,000 computer is a plastic shell built on a chassis of light-gauge steel and housing various units that depend on components of copper, gold and silicon. The monitor screens that enable us to operate in the cyberworld are made out of good old-fashioned glass.

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So it is worth reminding ourselves where the steel, aluminium and copper that makes up much of the rest of that ever-handy PC come from. Before these essential minerals find their way into the desktop box, large quantities of iron ore, bauxite and copper have to be gouged out of the ground. This is done either by pieces of giant mining equipment (such as Anderson Strathclyde of Glasgow used to make) or by large numbers of low-paid third-world workers. It is then shipped across the world in ore-carrying ships and forged into various grades of steel in steel-making plants that consume enormous amounts of energy. Much of that energy is generated by expensively mined coal or uranium. Ravenscraig in Motherwell was just such a place until it was closed down in the 1980s.

This is the point that Leadbeaterism seems to ignore, or at least drastically underplay. All the kit that underpins the “knowledge economy” – the mobile telephones, the fibre-optic cables, the computers, the monitors, the modems, the zip drives, the CD-players, the laptops and palmtops – is itself underpinned by a huge, worldwide infrastructure of very heavy industry. All these glittering ideas that race around the globe at the speed of light depend, in the end, on millions of men and women getting their hands very dirty, often in very dangerous situations, for very little money. Just as they have done since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

Cyberbiz and the “knowledge economy” rely as much on heavy industry as did the l9th-century railway system or the Clyde shipyards of the l920s. All that has happened is that big things are now made and done by other people in other places. They are out of sight and therefore out of mind. But by ignoring, downgrading or even rubbishing the heavy end of industry Britain is making an enormous strategic mistake. To that extent, Leadbeaterism, for all Tony Blair’s and Peter Mandelson’s enthusiasm for the creed, is doing us no favours.

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