Viva la Digital Revolution!

What can Scotland learn from its past in order to best approach the Digital Age?

The Digital Revolution will not be televised; more likely, you’ll find it live streamed somewhere on Twitter. What is certain is that it will shortly change Scotland’s job market beyond recognition.

When it comes to revolution, the trick is always to secure liberté, égalité and fraternité without attracting the catastrophé which so often follows, and though Adam Smith may lack the pizzazz of Karl Marx, passing the Claim of Right may not conjure the glamour of storming the Winter Palace and refusing to pay the Poll Tax may fail to match the razzle-dazzle of guillotining Louis XVI, Scotland has tread this tightrope more successfully than most of its European neighbours.

But before we become too smug, we might remember that, though we may excel in the political revolution, our success with the economic revolution has been far less consistent.

Scotland’s pioneering embrace of the First Industrial Revolution would see the nation industrialise on a more rapid scale than any other on earth until the forced Soviet industrialisation of the 1920s, pushing the very frontiers of human civilisation and technological innovation to help secure Britain’s status as the workshop of the world. Yet, even the economic revolution has a habit of devouring its children, and the Industrial Revolution would mercilessly condemn countless thousands of once proud artisans to all the angst and despair of low-paid, dignity-sapping work in Blake’s dark Satanic mills. Scotland’s Agricultural Revolution would similarly transform agrarian productivity but would come only after the forcible eviction and Clearance of rural populations across the country.

Conversely, twentieth-century Britain would illustrate the folly of resisting economic revolution, with large swathes of the country shunning the opportunities of the Second Industrial Revolution and the later Scientific-Technical Revolution so eagerly embraced by the likes of Japan and Germany, instead of clinging to decaying, interdependent and increasingly state-subsidised heavy industries. Consequently, the economy suffered stagnation and the country slipped into what appeared to be terminal decline.

The Thatcherite revolution of the 1980s would transform the British economy, but more than three decades on from the Miners’ Strike, the wounds of the revolution remain unhealed, with Eurostat having revealed that the five most socially deprived areas in Northern Europe can all be found within British post-industrial regions. Just as handloom weavers and their communities had found the previous century, miners’ identity, the source of pride they took from the contribution they made to their society, had been stripped from them and no helping hand was offered in exchange to support them in reclaiming what they had lost.

As we enter the Digital Age, Scotland and the UK appear to have learned their lesson from the Second Industrial Revolution and the danger of rejecting progress, with 2018 seeing record investment in Britain’s technology sector and a recent study from Tufts University suggesting that the UK has embraced the opportunities of the digital economy far more than any other nation in Western Europe. However, predictably, it appears some animals are already becoming more equal than others, with London monopolising an estimated 72% of such investment. The world outside the M25 must be allowed to seize the opportunities of the coming age – Though, crucially, whilst bearing in mind the lessons of the First Industrial Revolution and later Thatcherite revolution, that people cannot be expected to be exposed to such profound change without any kind of support.

As Fidel Castro once observed, revolution is not a bed of roses, revolution is a struggle to the death between the future and the past, but the Digital Revolution promises to be particularly savage, with PricewaterhouseCoopers recently estimating that a third of British jobs will be jeopardised by automation by the mid-2030s.

The current generation, still reeling from the Great Recession, are already finding themselves reduced to working in the gig economy, without guaranteed hours and for wages which barely meet the cost of living. Instead of writing-off another generation of workers as revolution fodder, we must invest in our workforce, tackling the technological illiteracy which restricts access to employment by offering opportunities to upskill and access relevant training on demand and as the rapidly evolving jobs market demands; ensure we have a world-class system of education in science, technology and engineering; and create quality jobs by investing in digital infrastructure and research. Indeed, the Digital Revolution itself will present greater opportunities for people to learn new skills more efficiently and cost-effectively.

Scotland must look to the blue-sky ambition of Andrew Carnegie, James Watt and its titans of the First Industrial Revolution if it is to power into the Digital Age as a modern, enterprising economy. But it must also look to figures such as Robert Owen and those who recognised that progress need not come at the expense of the people, that everyone benefits from an empowered workforce and that modernising a nation’s economy should not be an end in itself but a means to improving the lives of a nation’s citizens.

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Rodaidh McLaughlin 6 Articles
Rodaidh is a Politics & History graduate who takes a particular interest in political philosophy and European history.

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