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The Word the Politicians Ignore

Politicians of all parties in Britain talk about ‘creating jobs’ as if doing so meant nothing more than waving a magic wand, or perhaps offering tax incentives.  What they never mention, in their desperate quest for prime-time sound-bites, is what kind of jobs will be created if the magic or the bribes work. 

Why not?  I have my own suspicions.  You may have your own. 

The word that always enters my mind whenever the political chatter is of creating jobs – but which rarely makes an appearance in our political discourse – is technology.  Party leaders don’t mention the word on the hustings; interviewers rarely ask questions that include it.  I think they find it too scary.  And the reason it frightens them is that either they don’t understand the subject, or it doesn’t have what the campaign managers would no doubt call sex appeal.   

Perhaps they recall that Harold Wilson in 1964 beat a path to Downing Street famously promising an economy based on the “white heat of technology” before promptly undermining the cause by appointed a militant trade union Luddite (Frank Cousins) to lead the campaign. 

Obviously, no jobs can be conjured up in Britain’s former industrial heartlands, the regions that Americans refer to as the ‘rust-belt’.  So what new industries are most likely to support job creation?   Or to put the question another way, what kind of industrial base, one that will be required to employ millions of job-seekers, will power the British economy in the future, both near and distant?

Answers come there none.  Or, none that I’ve heard.  Perhaps I’ve been nodding off too often, lulled to sleep by the inanities of Mr. Farage or the post-Braveheart nonsense from Ms Sturgeon. 

In this year’s televised annual Richard Dimbleby Memorial Lecture, Martha Lane Fox, the bright woman who in 1998 founded Last Minute.Com, called for the setting up of a new government agency mandated to identify opportunities in the realms of technology, in all its emerging forms, particularly those in which Britain might steal a march on its competitors.  She made a compelling case, as far as I could tell, and duly received warm applause. 

But not, I noted, rapturous applause.  My impression was the audience agreed with everything she had said, or wanted to agree, but so lacked the necessary expertise to endorse what they’d just heard that they were embarrassed publicly to display it.

I may be doing them a disservice.  I am myself far from adept in the practical uses of technology.  As my daughter will attest as, whenever I call her, or her husband, to sort out some minor but irritating problem with my desk-top, or mobile telephone, one that I’ve been vainly wrestling for hours, but which they fix within minutes. 

Always, I might add, with much bemused shaking of the head.  “Dad, get with the programme,” I’m instructed with unintended irony.  They’re right, of course.   I do need to get with the programme.  As do millions of middle- to late-aged people who, like me, have failed to keep pace with the fast-changing wonders of communications. 

More to the point, though, so do millions of young people who, over the next few years, will be leaving university in their hundreds of thousands to enter a market that even now offers precious few opportunities for bright candidates and will have fewer still as time goes by.

I’ve followed the election debates and watched dozens of interviews and panel shows and not once have I heard a politician utter the word ‘technology’, or even obliquely allude to it.  They’re too busy arguing about whether we should curb immigration, or leave the European Union, or spend more or less money on welfare services.  These are all needless distractions.

What I would want to hear, if I were twenty-five and about to be thrust into a global, dog-eat-dog marketplace in which technology is likely to be the driving force is what kind of jobs I can expect to be available – and, as importantly, where?  In other words, if Britain can’t provide them, which countries will?  Actually, I’d want to hear that even before setting about securing a university degree supposedly designed to make me fit for commercial purpose.

We talk about the problem of immigration.  Soon, I fret, we’ll be discussing the problem of emigration. 

Liberal arts courses are fun.  Media studies may be a hoot.  But is either going to be remotely relevant when it comes to putting more than a crust of bread on a humble table?

One reason politicians are so resented is that the issues they focus on are those that ought to have been settled – and most of us thought had been settled – decades ago.  They blather endlessly about housekeeping in a vanishing world rather than the challenges of coping with a new one.  Housekeeping chores are essential, of course, but they should not be exercising the minds of those who seek to lead us into dark and turbulent waters.

I don’t envy the emerging generation.  It is no worse than its predecessors but it is, I fear, poorly advised by elders who should know better but don’t.

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