Speech: We need the lessons of our history now more than ever before

by Liam Byrne | 10.10.17

“We need the lessons of our history now more than ever before”

Launch of Dragons: Ten Entrepreneurs Who Built Britain  

Rt Hon. Liam Byrne MP

Monday 9th October 2017

The State Rooms, House of Commons


 

Thank you for coming to celebrate the launch of Dragons, the Paperback.

A huge thank to Mr Speaker for hosting us tonight. After last week’s Tory conference we’re all a bit jumpy. So we’ve taken steps to shore up the backdrop. My team are equipped with lozenges and after two years on the backbench I’d be grateful if you could hold off on the P45 at least until we’ve finished the rather good refreshments.

After the conferences we’ve had – and with the Parliament we have ahead – I thought we all might need a little fortifying and, dare I say, a little food for thought.

The decisions that we have to take in this great place, this hallowed hall of history in the months to come, are going to shape what kind of country we become this century.

Those decisions are going to shape whether we become a Great Power of the Digital Age, or a great relic of ages past.

So as the Apprentice returns to our screens, I thought now was a good time to learn the lessons of this country.

I don’t know whether this year’s crop of wannabe Lord Sugars is going to amount to much.

But I do know is that their spirit, their chutzpah, their ethos of have-a-go was what helped build the super-power of the steam age and this great Parliament around us.

 

***

 

Now, I know every single one of you has read the hardback…

But if there is anyone who has forgotten the content, I will remind you.

It’s a simple thesis.

Once upon a time, much great histories of these great islands zeroed in on kings and queens, on aristocrats and generals, on writers and politicians.

It’s the tradition of history as ‘great lives’…

Others, more recently, focus on geography, the weather, migration or disease.

It’s history where individuals are just the flotsam on the waves of great forces shaping our world.

This is the debate, as Ian Morris, put it of “maps vs chaps”.

Well, it’ll surprise you to learn I think there’s a Third Way.

Between the lives of great people and the faith in great laws is the story of how great people shaped great forces.

With insight, innovation or invention, they didn’t simply surf the waves of history, they shaped revolutions in our culture, society and economy for the past thousand years.

They bent the arc of history.

Now: it was a near-impossible task to pick out just ten subjects. As E.H. Carr said, “the historian is necessarily selective.”

So I chose the ten tales that have most to teach us today.

From Dick Whittington, who sold fine cloth to the elites; to George Cadbury, who sold cheap chocolate to the masses, to Nathan Rothschild, who created the world’s greatest capital market; to Matthew Boulton and James Watt, who invented the steam engines, which powered the industrial revolutions.

To fraudsters like George Hudson, who worked with inventors and engineers to build our railways.

To unabashed imperialists like William Jardine and Cecil Rhodes.

To business visionaries like William Lever and John Spedan Lewis, who changed not only the way we work but the way we live.

The ten Dragons who helped build Britain didn’t just surf the waves of change, they actually changed the tides.

Now as we think about life outside the European Union, I think we have to understand our history as a manufacturing nation, as a trading nation, as a nation of technological innovation.

This is a history we need to revisit, and urgently. So: here’s a couple of lessons.

First, let’s never forget the role of individual genius.

I don’t think we are the pawns of impersonal force.

Each of my Dragons understood that the future is not written.

Each was a man of huge energy, bordering on mania, and believed in their own abilities to transform the world around them.

Many suffered terrible setbacks and disappointments but carried on going.

They believed they could write a different future.  And they did.

Like Robert Kennedy, they dreamt of the things that never were and asked why not?

Today, we need such people more than ever.

We should nurture them. Encourage them. Perhaps even start inspiring them at school.

Second, let’s be technology optimists, not pessimists.

Dragons tells the story of our rise to become the superpower of the steam age.

Steam power, said Ian Morris, was “the biggest and fastest transformation in the entire history of the world”; it “made mockery of all the drama of the world’s earlier history.”

It created factories and cities and the concept of modern work.

It created travel for the masses and powered empires.

It changed our diets – made possible fish and chips.

It invented the modern concept of time, with the railway timetable.

And all of this, because of Matthew Boulton and his friend James Watt tinkering with engines in their workshop in Birmingham.

Today, the digital revolution of our own times is no less profound, changing the way we work, shop, communicate, do business, listen to music and watch television, and even fall in love.

I was reading the other day that the online dating site Match.com claims credit for a million babies.

Online dating, as much as advances in fertility treatment, is creating babies who would not otherwise have existed.

It is hard to think of an area which the digital revolution has not touched and yet so much of the change we take for granted.

Consider these everyday products and platforms:

  • The Ipad
  • Google Chrome
  • Snapchat
  • AirBnB
  • Spotify
  • Instagram

What unites them?

They are all platforms where politicians post inappropriate pictures.

But none of them existed a decade ago.

This is the revolution and we can either lead it, or be left behind by it.

First movers are fast movers.

They become wealthier.

They’re nations that offer better lives to their citizens.

Now in this country we love science.

In fact, we’ve honoured science by burying scientists with our sovereigns since we interred Sir Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey just across the road.

So: We need to think about the superpower that steam power created, and ask how can we Britain become a cyber superpower?

Third, here’s the final lesson. More of a warning, from history: for all the palpable advances that technology brought, it brings Dislocation, disruption and disquiet. What’s quaintly called ‘creative destruction’.

Sometimes it spilled into violence:

We all know about the Luddites. But years earlier in 1786, the Albion Mill towered over Southwark in South London.

Built by Boulton, it used James Watt steam engines to grind grain and knocked 2 shillings off the price of a bag of flour.

Within just five years later, it was burnt to the ground.

The ashes carried on the wind, lay thick on St James’s Park.

It was burned down by the millers who were seen dancing in the firelight singing, Yes to Albion, and No to Albion Mills. William Blake, a close neighbour, saw the wreck and thought the burnt out hulk resembled a “dark satanic mill”. And he turned it into a song.

So technological progress can come at a cost.

That’s why in my new role as Shadow Digital Minister, I’ll be asking your help with a big question:

As we navigate the fourth industrial revolution, with its driverless cars, drones in our skies, 3-D printing, and all of the other brilliant, baffling innovations, how do we make sure technology is our slave and not our master?

How can it benefit the many and not just the few?

How can new possibilities power a revolution in social mobility, creating both new jobs and new ladders to those jobs for anyone, everyone, no matter what family, what community, what school, you grow up with?

This needs government and entrepreneurs working together.

That’s the great lesson from Estonia, the e-capital of Europe.

When Estonia emerged from the north-west corner of the old USSR, its leaders took a big, bold decision to reinvent themselves as digital pioneers.

Today, everyone pays taxes, engages government services and votes online.

A country of only 1.3 million people holds the record for the most start-ups per person.

It takes five minutes to legally register a company in Estonia.

Of the businesses which have attracted investment from Seedcamp, a tenth are Estonian.

As the UK emerge from decades as the north-west corner of the EU, we need the same sense of purpose and vision.

We should aim to become the most advanced digital society on earth.

Old jobs, from barristers to barristas, may disappear.

But that means we must ready people for the new jobs.

Like the most enlightened entrepreneurs, from Bill Lever to Bill Gates, we need business success to share opportunities and assets, not hoard them in the hands of the few.

People like Lever, Cadbury or Titus Salt, they cared for their workforce so much; they re-imagined the idea of cities to help them live well.

Spedan Lewis proposed to revolutionise the way he shared knowledge, and power and profit. Philip Hammond would call him a Marxist!

When George Cadbury died, 16,000 of his workers and their families turned out for the funeral.

Which captain of industry today would hope for such as outpouring of affection?

As I wrote this book, my sense of awe and wonder increased.

As you read it – or should I say re-read it – I hope you share my sense of awe.

But I hope you wonder, like me, how we ensure the entrepreneur currently sitting in an east Birmingham primary school has the encouragement, the support, the inspiration that she or he needs to match the achievements of a Cadbury or a Gresham.

For all their foibles, faults and failures, these Dragons were brilliant, inspiring, worthy of posterity.

Contained within the pages of our past are the shards of light to illuminate our future.

This book was an amazing adventure to write – and I hope you find it an adventure to read.

Thank you very much.

 

ENDS

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