What lessons can we learn from the ‘white heat of technology’ speech 50 years on?
Fifty years ago today Harold Wilson made the famous white heat of technology speech, one of the most recognisable of Labour straplines, but less remembered for its content – the actual speech was called ‘Labour’s Plan for Science’ and the phrase ‘white heat’ is used only once. A rereading of the speech half a century later has some important lessons for Labour’s approach during today’s digital revolution.
The first lesson is leadership: ‘White heat’ sees a leader specifically recognising that technology was driving Britain in a new direction. Without radical change British industry would die and jobs would be lost forever. The Labour party of 1963 therefore needed to respond.
‘White heat’ warned of the disruptive challenge of automation and the start of computerisation, predicting that the period from 1960 to the mid-1970s would see a period of greater change than the previous 250 years of industrial revolution: as a result ‘Britain’s future for the rest of the century depends to a unique extent on the speed with which we come to terms with the world of change.’
Today we face similar challenges, as digital disrupts the distribution, communication and exchange of goods. There is equal uncertainty about the impact on jobs as digital makes organisations flatter and as demands on the workforce change. The United States, which has seen the brunt of this over the last two decades, has hosted a fertile debate about the impact of ‘robots’ across menial, middle class and hi-tech jobs. Paul Krugman argues in his analysis on American wage decline that ‘technology has taken a turn that places labor at a disadvantage.’ As this disruption accelerates in the UK, causing uncertainty about people’s futures, what exactly is Labour’s response? As the Labour Digital Network has argued, it is not just austerity happening on the high street.
Second, ‘white heat’ saw a role for the state helping both industry and citizen prepare for these changes. Of course, much of Wilson’s language about ‘scientific planning’ is a product of its time and his statist solutions were not successful, but there are nevertheless compelling arguments for Labour to look at the digital revolution and develop much more strategic approach than we see now under the coalition.
In one of the most prescient sections of the speech Wilson warned that change could not be left to the private sector alone: ‘The danger, as things are, is than an unregulated private enterprise economy in this country will promote just enough automation to create serious unemployment but not enough to create a breakthrough in the production barrier.’ Wilson therefore proposed to put science at the heart of government, through its own ministry, training more scientists, reversing the ‘brain drain’, and applying research to increase national productivity.
While responses to today’s digital revolution can’t be answered by a 1960s top-down planned approach, they shouldn’t be addressed solely by laissez-faire ones either. Growing concern about the ‘digital divide’ is not just focused on the shrinking percentage of the population who have never been online but those who lack advanced digital skills, such as computer programming, to exploit the opportunities offered by the digital shift. Here, as in 1963, the state has a role in bridging this skills gap and addressing the UK’s computer science deficit which has seen numbers of graduates plummet over the last decade and some of the best and the brightest seek work, or to start their company, abroad. The Labour case for an integrated, and active, industrial strategy for the digital revolution has never been stronger.
Finally, ‘white heat’ also enabled a leader to reframe Labour’s key policy debates under a new language of modernity which could unite the left and right of the party and still be accepted by the wider public. Using sentiments not too distant from Ed’s move against monopolists, the imperative of dealing with technological change created the required space for iconoclasm against ‘restrictive practices’ or ‘outdated methods on either side of industry.’ Wilson was therefore able to argue successfully that the entire movement should come to terms with change and there would be ‘no room for Luddites’ in the Labour party. Investment in skills, the application of R&D for social good and reform of public institutions to increase access and opportunity for all are Labour goals which, through the rhetoric of technology, could be put to the nation as objectively in our long-term interests.
Today we have less to say about this than we should: is it possible that Wilson’s ‘white heat’ party has managed to lose the mantle of modernity to the Conservatives? If so, there is danger in this: while Wilson’s Conservative opponents could be characterised as aristocratic ‘enlightened traditionalists’, Cameron’s Conservatives see the impact of digital technology – encapsulated by the ‘global race’ – as much more fundamental to their political vision for the role of the state, regulation of industry and promotion of enterprise.
Both Wilson’s ‘white heat’ Labour and New Labour in 1997 won elections when they led the debate on technology and understood its impacts on society. Labour must surely revisit this debate in 2013.
Theo Blackwell is cabinet member for finance at the London borough of Camden and works in the tech sector. Tweets from an informal network of Labour supporters in tech can be found @labourdigital
The 50th anniversary of Wilson’s White Heat speech is 1 October 2003. The full text of Labour’s Plan for Science can be found here.
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