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Making an honest living

The Royal Exchange, at the heart of the City opposite the Bank of England. Photo Nisha Kaushal/shutterstock.com.

As a nation, there are really only two ways for Britain to make a living. It can be an honest one as a manufacturing nation making things that people need. And manufacturing still accounts for about 10 per cent of economic output – more, it should be said, than financial services.

Or it can be a parasitic existence, relying on banking and tourism, and buying in what we need. In that scenario, there’s no need for an industrial working class, no need to create value – just let finance capital cream off profits from value created earlier or elsewhere. That brings no benefits to workers and society. 

But we can’t rely on being able to buy in what we need. Witness the disruptions to supply chains during the Covid-19 pandemic (and which continue now). Even if we could, it’s a shameful way to live for a nation with Britain’s capacity and potential. And it fosters the reactionary thinking that comes from relying on other people.

Look at London, once a centre of manufacture. Now the huge industrial estates such as Park Royal in west London have gone. Only 2.2 per cent of London’s workforce is engaged in manufacturing, about a third of the level just 25 years ago – fewer than work in real estate and less than a third of the numbers working in financial services. 

Is it any surprise that in a capital dominated (politically and architecturally) by the City, the banking and finance companies, we saw the highest votes to Remain in the EU? 

If the article on page 10 about technology sovereignty talks about companies most people have never heard of, that’s because by their nature these top technology firms don’t sell consumer goods. They sell to companies and governments. Perhaps that’s why there’s been less fuss generally about their sales than, for example, Walmart taking over Asda. 

But the tech companies being blithely handed over to foreign interests are at the core of a healthy British economy.

'The tech companies being handed over the foreign interests are at the core of a healthy British economy...'

Karl Marx noted in the 19th century that what he termed the production of the means of production is central to any economy. We used to think of it in terms of iron and steel, and machine tools. But today it is equally – if not more – about technology.

These firms, their very existence, reflect the deep and persistent skill and knowledge that reside in the British working class, aided by a university system that successive governments have not managed to completely pervert.

They are hard evidence that Britain is a country with huge potential for an industrial future. We do not have to be content with assembling products from elsewhere, welcoming tourists, and bowing down before the City of London. 

And with a healthy hi-tech sector, a truly independent Britain would be in a much better position to withstand hostile boycotts and embargoes.

Earlier this year the CPBML ran an online discussion meeting around the theme of “a working class needs modern industry”. The second part of the title was “Can a working class without real employment create progress?”. The speaker who introduced the topic works for a big tech company. But he noted that modern hi-tech industry is typically composed of many small companies with highly focused and skilled workers feeding medium-sized factories supplying to large multinationals. Instead of the huge factories of the past we have interconnections, mutual reliance, a supply chain with energy, water supply and communications infrastructures enabling everything. 

Making things means the real creation of value, and that takes skills and relationships, the speaker said, while noting that many other types of employment are also needed to facilitate this – in water, energy, education, health, agriculture and many other areas. 

The potential for collective organisation as a result of real employment is the key to creating progress, he said. But without technology sovereignty we are simply not going to keep our hi-tech industry, and if we allow that, we weaken the prospects for progress. 

Technology sovereignty brings that crucial employment, and with it a highly skilled, interconnected, creative and productive working class – the kind of working class with the self-confidence and belief in the future that alone can take on capitalism and build socialism.