Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and US President Donald Trump don’t exactly share much. However, recently they have had two things in common. The first is that they’re broadly in favour of re-industrialisation... and the second is that they’re wrong to be. Because, make no mistake, the impulse and drive to turn modern Western nations back into industrial powerhouses is, while often the result of good intentions, wrong and out of touch with the realities of the modern world.
Over the course of several decades the trend among Western economies has been to move away from industry and manufacturing and towards services as the linchpin of the economy. For example, according to the ONS, in 1948, approximately 45% of working people in the UK had jobs in services while roughly the same worked in production. In 2013, those figures were 80% for services and 15% for production. There is much historical debate around the methods used to move from one state of affairs to the other - particular in the UK around the legacy of former PM Margaret Thatcher - but what is not up for question is that it happened. Britain, the US, and other similar nations now make their way in the world with services and manufacturing occurs elsewhere .
Industry, as the dominant part of our way of life, is gone and it’s not coming back; and while the minority of those working in industry or aspire to may lament this, that changes nothing.
The key impulse behind re-industrialisation is nostalgia. Scratch beneath the surface of the “Build it in Britain” and the “Trump Digs Coal” slogans and a vision of manly men trudging off to work, lunch pail in hand, down a mine or to a factory becomes clear.
This was real work; hauling fish from the ocean, generating electricity, pulling coal from the earth, or any other of the plethora of industrial and manufacturing jobs that used make up the majority of the workforce. It’s a romantic, nostalgic, and, frankly, revisionist view of history but is, nevertheless, appealing, especially to the kind of man who feels out of step with modernity, or neglected by globalisation, automation, and the relentless march of progress.
While such nostalgic pangs for ‘the good old days’ of real men doing real work for real earned pay are understandable, it would be morally wrong to indulge them as returning to manufacturing as doing so would harm the very men who are most likely to be in favour of bringing it back in the first place.
It must be said - industrial Britain was a dirty, smelly, dangerous, and unsustainable country. At the height of British industry, workers, usually men, died sooner, developed illnesses earlier and more severely, and were in worse shape to contribute to family and public life than they are now. The move from industry to services has resulted in better health, longer life, higher average incomes, and an all-round better standard of living for most men. We are better educated and our lives are far better than they were during the time of heavy industry. While this doesn’t even touch on the benefits for the environment or the impact on other aspects of society resulting from the move to services - it’s surely enough to swing the debate and convince even the most ardent ‘re-industrialiser’ that things are better as a services-based economy?
In closing, I feel obliged to confess that my opposition to re-industrialisation comes, in part, from the conclusive arguments above but also from a personal place. The Scottish council area that I come from, East Lothian, was, up until recently, dominated by farming, mining, power generation, construction, and fishing - all of which involved lots of back-breaking and dangerous manual labour for most men working in them.
The previous generations of men in my family have, in one way or another, been involved in industry and so I’ve seen the effects, including the breathing problems, knee pains, and other physical impacts, that a career in industry can have. I, by contrast, work in a nice, comfortable, office and I’m fully aware that, had I been born at a time of industry being the only game in town, I would have been left with few options but to head out on a fishing boat or venture down a mine. It is the course of technological progress that allows me to do what I do for a living. I want that same level of development for the men who follow me.
So, for the men of the future, who will hopefully be given the opportunity to live longer and healthier lives than my generation; please, for goodness sake, stick with progress and don’t re-industrialise... their lives literally depend on it.