The De-Industrial Revolution: Communities Thrive Better in a Mixed Economy

By Chakrabortty, Aditya | Soundings, January 2012 | Go to article overview

The De-Industrial Revolution: Communities Thrive Better in a Mixed Economy


Chakrabortty, Aditya, Soundings


Let's start with a question: if I asked you to think of a place that sums up what's wrong with Britain, where would you choose? For some people, it's the City of London: all those bankers who broke the economy just a few years ago and are now back to business as usual - complete, of course, with megabonuses. For others, it might be any Jobcentre or some other place that speaks of poverty of ambition, welfare dependency and all those other terms they use in the Daily Telegraph. For me, there's a specific place. It's called River Road and it's in Barking, in the furthest reaches of East London.

You probably wouldn't thank me for taking you there: it's an industrial estate, of the sort we've all driven past. Big lorries judder past every couple of minutes. Men mill about in dirty overalls, and boots mucky enough to give a pub landlord a fit of the vapours. But here's the thing: for an industrial estate, there's not much actual industry going on.

There's a business on River Road called Swift Engineering. Fifty years ago, its premises sprawled down one entire side of the road; now it's on a tiny corner plot, and rents out the rest of the space. Thirty-one people used to work inside; now there's four. And on the day we turned up there was only one - the manager, John Matheson. His staff are down to a three-day week. We went on a walk round the plant - which didn't take long. What I chiefly remember was how, crammed into one room, were all these machines, worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. There simply wasn't the business to turn them on, or to pay for the space they needed.

The site Swift used to occupy is now split with four other firms, all of them one- or two- man bands. We met one, a man called Anthony Harris, who came to the estate thirty-five years ago to train at another firm called Arrow Pipework. The way Anthony told it, he'd just left school at 16 when his dad kicked him out of bed and took him off for an apprenticeship. Only now there's no Arrow Pipework - and precious few other jobs or training opportunities. Anthony's eldest son is in his mid-20s and the most he's ever got is the odd shift at Morrisons. Instead of a career, he's been treated for depression. This isn't a dramatic story - it's a tale of gradual but unyielding decline. As Anthony puts it: 'When it comes to manufacturing, we might be the end of the line'.

Talk about the loss of industry and people will think of areas like the North East or the Midlands. Truth is, it's happening all over - as demonstrated by River Road, just ten minutes' drive from the banks in Canary Wharf. Sometimes something dramatic happens like a local shipyard such as Swan Hunter shutting down - and it gets on the evening news. But most of the time this process - what I think of as the de-industrial revolution - barely gets airtime.

The importance of stories

What I want to talk about here is why this de-industrial revolution is happening and what its consequences have been. And in my view, one major reason is a story.

Most people don't regard economics as being a narrative discipline. They think it's all about percentages, spreadsheets, regression analyses. Intellectually respectable, perhaps - but deeply, terminally stodgy. But there's a whole other aspect of modern economics that's driven by stories. Think about the dotcom boom - spin the right yarn back then, and you could walk away a multi-millionaire. Or the adoption of the euro by 17 different countries - each telling themselves a tale about who they were and where their future lay.

So what's the grand narrative in Britain? What's the big story we tell ourselves about where we've been and where we're heading? One big theme shared by the people in charge of our economy is the need to embrace change. Change is a synonym for progress, the bad is invariably outweighed by the good, and the dream is just around the corner.

And when it comes to discussing the business model for the UK - how this country pays its way in the world and how its people will make a living - we've been hearing a similar story from ministers, economists and commentators for the past three decades. …

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