A four-part series first published in THE DAILY NEWS New Plymouth, New Zealand on March 7-14, 1985
4.Britain in Change
by vivian Hutchinson
March 14, 1985 8 min read download as PDF
GREAT BRITAIN GAVE the world the first Industrial Revolution.
The very colonisation of New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the Americas was a direct result of the huge cultural and political transformations that followed.
Today it is Britain that is on the receiving end of a second Industrial Revolution ... the economic and technological revolution of the Information Age.
The impact on the British people is proving no less dramatic ... perhaps it is even more so, as we are watching this transition occur at a much faster rate than the first big shift of 150 years ago.
In a two-month journey throughout the United Kingdom attending the New Economic Agenda conference, I was able to look at many radical changes in the British landscape.
There were positive and inspiring stories of how British spirit was responding to the new opportunities of the "next economy".
But there was also widespread fear, tragedy and division as people became victims of a system that wasn't working for them anymore.
The very week I arrived in England, the papers announced a record 2.2 million people out of work.
That's one in seven.
The picture was much worse for British youth . . . if you were under 25 you had a one in four chance of being on the dole.
There seemed a tremendous fight to hang on to the last vestiges of an Industrial Age that was once the power and guiding spirit of British prestige.
Daily newspapers Were full of campaigns to save local industries, be it shipyards or car factories.
The coal strike was the main talking point of British political life ... and every street corner held a couple of striking miners chanting for funds to fill their buckets.
Their fight was for the survival of their pits and villages and a way of life now deemed uneconomic by the National Coal Board.
Perhaps it is the deepening sense of division that surprised me most while travelling the United Kingdom.
This division is perhaps epitomised in the public dog-fight between Mrs Thatcher and miners' leader Arthur Scargill.
There is also a bitter fight raging between the Government and the Labour-led Greater London Council. The GLC faces the complete chop by the Conservative Government and replacement by appointed public servants.
The divisions have almost a geographical separation as the blighted industrial heartland of the North seems almost a completely different country from the more affluent and Tory-voting South.
To many of the Britons I spoke to, this sense of division in their country was only of fairly recent significance.
Two world wars had given the United Kingdom at least a veneer of national unity and civility.
But the dramatic industrial changes of the past decade have wrought huge cracks in this veneer of unity. And political events over the last three years have served not to heal division ... but to accentuate it.
The face of division — a London billboard campaigns against the abolition of the Labour-led Greater London Council.
Britain is under the stress of change.
It is a stress certainly created by the immediate terrorist groups, employment and welfare policies, racial and class prejudice and generational intolerance.
But the deeper background to this stress is the economic and technological transformation from an Industrial Age to an Information Society.
If the speakers at the New Economic Agenda conference are correct then we need to start to redefine our cultural landscape and develop new policies to suit.
British political leadership — be it Mrs Thatcher or Arthur Scargill — seems unable to grasp this initiative.
Their attitudes and fierce debate seem so tightly fixed on a world-view whole reality is clearly slipping from them.
Again, it was within the field of jobs that gave me my personal view to those changes in Britain.
It's clear that there is a lot to do to meet the new entrepreneural needs of the "next economy" ... and many new jobs will be created in the Information Society.
But the economic advisers to the Findhorn conference were in consensus on one major point: There will never be full employment — as we've known it — again.
The place of work in our lives and culture has begun to fundamentally change ... and it is a change that challenges us to explore a variety of responses to the question of jobs.
Britain, of course, has a diverse array of initiatives over its unemployment question. Most of them are reactions to the changing conditions rather than projects that try to address the wider questions before us.
Nevertheless, there was much to explore and learn from . . . perhaps giving us indications for our own efforts here in New Zealand.
I was already familiar with the type of work schemes run by the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) of the British Government. They ran along vaguely similar line to our own Work Skills Programmes here in New Zealand.
Many of the young people were working on community projects, or on council or local body schemes which were in fact subsidising ratepayers with their cheap labour.
Many of the young people I spoke to were cynical of the schemes they were on, and bitter at their prospects ahead
"We're doing men's work on this council scheme," complained one Glaswegian youth to me, "but we are being paid as children . . ."
The Youth Training Schemes (YTS) seemed to be responsible for a major devastation of the British apprenticeship system. Employers in their own uncertainty were not willing to commit themselves to young people over a period of time. They opted for the subsidised one-year scheme rather than creating apprenticeships.
The irony of the situation is that YTS schemes are thus creating a greater skills-gap between the employed and unemployed.
There were, however, many positive programmes being run through the Government schemes. In Northampton I visited an Information Technology (IT) Centre set up to teach young unemployed skills in handling the new information technologies. This centre was part of a MSC-sponsored network around the United Kingdom which has sprung up to fill the skills-gap amongst the unemployed who missed out on computer education at school.
The supervisor who showed me around his scheme remarked that many of the young people who have failed academically seemed to readily respond to computer instruction.
They showed a fascination for computer technology and were learning at a rate not possible before in a school environment.
Graduates from IT centres found ready access to a labour market hungry for such skills.
Of particular interest to me were the MSC schemes set up to encourage the enterprise of the unemployed themselves. These programmes provided a minimum income for the unemployed while they set up in business ideas of their own.
Many local groups also offered support in business and marketing skills.
Punk music and fashion on London streets with one in four young people on the dole.
These programmes followed from surveys which showed that there has been a significant change in the labour market towards part-time work. and self-employment.
Many schools have started to educate students in business skills through establishing Youth Enterprise Schemes. They actually set up model companies owned and operated' by the students themselves with teachers and industry leaders acting in an advisory role.
There is a big drive to mobilise business leaders to get involved in creating new jobs in depressed areas.
Industry leaders throughout the United Kingdom have started to shift their entrepreneural skills out into the local community by seconding staff to regional development agencies and giving advice to new start-ups, or businesses in difficulty.
My own interest in establishing worker co-operatives here in New Zealand, naturally led me to search out elements of the 200-year-old British Co-operative Movement.
Workers' co-operatives add a different perspective to the drive for jobs in Britain as there has been a virtual explosion of new co-operatives being established.
Over the last five years the number of new co-ops has increased at 20% per annum. It is predicted that worker co-ops will offer as many as 25,000 jobs by 1990.
And their success rate is encouraging. More than half the regular small businesses that start-up never make it through the first two years. By contrast, only about 6% of all new co-operatives fail.
The co-operative movement in the United Kingdom is supported by a thriving network of Co-operative Development Agencies (CDA), particularly the ICOM network (Industrial Common Ownership Movement) and its financial wing, ICOF (Industrial Common Ownership Fund).
ICOM is the largest agency and its aims are closely associated with 19th century Christian Socialist ideals. Its model rules are those most often adopted by new worker co-ops, with their emphasis on democratic control by workers of their own enterprises.
a postcard from the People's Palace in Glasgow ... Britain is experiencing a resurgence in the 200-year old British co-operative movement.
London is the home of more than a quarter of all Britain's worker co-ops. It is also the home of the Greater London Enterprise Board (GLEB) which has a formal strategy to promote worker co-ops in London.
GLEB offers funding for new start-ups, and helps in "rescue" co-ops ... formed when workers take over an existing, but ailing business. It also supports a structure of training schemes for the local CDA's.
Nick Sharman, GLEB director, sees worker co-operatives as part of the tradition of the Labour movement and a valuable means of democratising London's economy.
"We are keen to encourage co-ops because their flexibility also opens up employment opportunities for women with children, for members of London's ethnic minorities, and for the unemployed ..."
Despite these initiatives in creating new work, it's clear that it's not going to fully meet the job needs of the coming decades.
Some British observers are predicting a leveling out of the unemployment rate at 20% ... or one in five ... at the end of this century.
British unemployment activist Guy Dauncey suggests that we look at future job contracts that encourage people to take one year in five out of the work force, to devote to the parts of our lives not tied to an employed job ... study, family interests, travel, spiritual pursuits ...
This approach would, in effect, redistribute the positive effects of unemployment — time to spare and flexibility for personal and family affairs.
Not only are we having to redefine the place of work in our lives, we are also being challenged to look anew at how we redistribute the wealth of the society. Up until now, "working" has been the major way wealth has been distributed ... enabling people to feed, clothe and house themselves.
Now, with fewer jobs, this whole process is being challenged, and brings us to firmly look at the future of the welfare state.
In Britain, the number of claimants to social security has increased 400% over the last 40 years ... today they have more than 12 million. The range of means-tested benefits has also increased as well — to a present total of about 45 different kinds.
The British system was based on the Beveridge Plan of 1942 which assumed that society would be able to provide full employment for all.
In the "next economy" such a promise cannot still hold true.
The British organisation Basic Income Research Group, is campaigning that all social benefits be replaced by a basic income for all United Kingdom residents, irrespective of their work and marital status.
Such a scheme introduces a hornets' nest into the debate over social welfare.
It would provide a fundamental approach to poverty, greater equality for women and more flexible patterns of work and learning.
It would redefine the whole employment debate by giving people the opportunity to choose not to work at different times through their lives.
It's obvious that a lot more thought and research need to go into it ... but if proven viable, the basic income scheme could provide the basis for social security policies in the 21st century.
* * *
This personal journey throughout Britain left me with a diversity of conclusions. It certainly opened my eyes to the variety of possibilities — good and bad before all of us.
Britain was in a stressful change, and certainly in need of an inspirational leadership that could show its people how to move with the transitions before them.
The prophetic voice I found was not in the halls of Westminster or at the picket-lines of a Welsh village.
I began to hear it on the conference floor at Findhorn ... and then discovered its echo among the community workers establishing co-operatives, supervisors on scattered work schemes, and business leaders in unlikely multinationals.
These were people helping others understand the process of change we are within. Their call was for us to learn new practical and personal skills to cope with these transition times. And their work was to conciously shape a new economic agenda . . . an economics "as if people mattered".