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Wilson, Benn and Blair and the narrative of technological change

Image by byronv2
Image by byronv2

This is one of a short series of posts based on papers that will be presented to a conference to be held on 5th July, organised by the People’s History Museum and our Centre for British Politics  to mark the 50th anniversary of Harold Wilson’s iconic  ‘white heat’ speech. If you want to read the speech in full, it can be downloaded here.

In October 1963 Harold Wilson opened a debate on science at the Labour Party conference by warning that Britain was experiencing a period of unprecedented technological change. Already many people were ‘accepting as part of their everyday life things which would have been dismissed as science fiction a few years ago’, and Wilson predicted that this ‘scientific revolution’ would continue apace through the 1960s and 1970s.

This was, however, a revolution for which Britain was manifestly ill-prepared, having produced too few scientists and invested too little in technological innovation. Wilson demanded a crash programme of university expansion to boost the numbers of technically skilled workers, and called for the creation of a ‘University of the Air’ to allow those excluded from higher education the opportunity to update or upgrade their skills. And he also pledged that a future Labour government would establish a Ministry of Technology, which would coordinate research and development activities and provide scientists with promising ideas the opportunity to develop their projects using public money. These innovations, Wilson insisted, would help to forge a ‘new Britain’ in the ‘white heat’ of the ‘scientific revolution’.

This evocation of the ‘scientific revolution’ was, as David Edgerton has pointed out, in many respects something of a red herring. Far from being hamstrung by its technological backwardness, by the early 1960s Britain was producing more scientists and investing more in research and development than almost any other advanced capitalist nation. Moreover, once in office Wilson and his colleagues demonstrated a healthy scepticism about the economic value of technological investments (particularly in the defence industries), and cancelled a number of large projects initiated by their Conservative predecessors. But, despite the fact that the promised ‘revolution’ was something of an illusion, Wilson would be far from the last prominent socialist to develop a political narrative around the theme of technological change.

Among the politicians who revived this narrative was one of Wilson’s chief lieutenants, and onetime Minister of Technology, Tony Benn. Often lampooned for his enthusiasm for science – Private Eye once portrayed him as a robot with an unhealthy interest in traffic lights – over the course of the 1970s Benn developed a narrative of technological change that was very different from the story Wilson had outlined in 1963.

For Benn the true significance of the ‘technological revolution’ lay in its potential implications for the future of the state, and the contradictory trends it had unleashed in the economy and society. On the one hand technology had contributed to the growth of ever more complex and more powerful transnational corporations; on the other the affluence and instantaneous communications, both made possible by technology, had created a more demanding ‘new citizen’. This left the state facing ‘political obsolescence’ – too small to resist the manoeuvrings of transnational corporations, too big to respond effectively to the demands of its citizens – and Benn argued that it would be unable to survive in its present form. Power needed to be dispersed both ‘beyond and within the nation state’ if it was to withstand the challenges of technological change.

Many of these themes were revived by Tony Blair in the mid-1990s, at a time when rapid advances in computing and telecommunications (and particularly the advent of the internet) meant that the world was being haunted by ‘the spectre of technological revolution’. This latest ‘revolution’ had accelerated the process of economic globalisation – as if ‘someone had pressed the fast-forward button on the video’ – and as a result had left states more vulnerable than ever to the whims of capital. The introduction of electronic trading on global currency markets, combined with the deregulation of the 1980s, had increased the liquidity of capital and thus increased the power of financial speculators at the expense of the state. Governments therefore had relatively little leeway to control their external economic environments, and were, as Colin Hay put it, reduced to ‘studiously courting capital’ if they wished to prosper.

This was, nevertheless, a revolution from which the nation could benefit. Though the rise of China and India meant there was little future for British manufacturing industries, Blair argued that the qualities required to thrive in the information age – ingenuity, inventiveness, flexibility – were qualities that the British possessed in abundance. For all the challenges that the ‘information revolution’ posed, the transition to an economy in which knowledge and skills mattered more than plant and capital would allow Britain to ‘rise again as the electronic workshop of the world’.

What all three of these narratives had in common was a vision of technology as a distinct force in history, acting independently of other economic or social processes. There was little nations could do in the face of such forces except adapt as best they could, in the hope that they could benefit from (rather than being left behind by) technological change. If this meant that the modernisation programmes that Wilson, Benn, and Blair tied to their narratives of ‘scientific revolution’ carried an aura of necessity, it also leant their arguments a certain power. When socialists allied their cause to the ‘scientific revolution’, they were also allying themselves with the forces of history.

Matthew Francis

Published inBritish PoliticsWhite Heat

2 Comments

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