BORIS Johnson’s proposed reskilling revolution represents a golden opportunity for him to demonstrate he is keeping the faith with the Labour voters who helped him to his landslide in December.
Under the government’s ‘Right to Retrain’ scheme, £600million a year will be available to help individuals whose jobs might soon be eaten by automation. If even part of this funding were channelled into revitalising our dying heritage crafts, it would be a genuinely conservative programme to re-establish Britain’s reputation for world-class craftsmanship. This would please both Tories and so-called Blue Labour, whose emphasis on social conservatism has no chance of influencing either a Keir Starmer or Rebecca Long Bailey-led Labour Party. The best they can hope for is the Blue Labour-lite candidate, Lisa Nandy, who understands the need to devolve powers to councils and focus on our towns.
The government knows that simply building new infrastructure will not be enough to help retain Workington Man’s vote. Upgrading railways, fixing potholes and increasing internet speeds doesn’t help much if a robot took your job and you now fester on the sofa watching Loose Women. So a retraining revolution is inevitable; it’s just a question of focus.
According to the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), the crafts industry accounts for more than 200,000 jobs and £5.5billion in gross value added. Arts and culture businesses as a whole contribute more to the UK economy (approximately £10.8billion) than the football Premier League (approx £7.6billion). Yet crafts are dying owing to a variety of issues which government could help with: ageing practitioners (only 10 per cent of employees are under 24), a lack of funding for training, recruitment issues due to a lack of awareness, and specific small business bureaucracy which makes it difficult to pass the business on.
Every year the HCA publishes the Red List, a detailed breakdown of the crafts which have gone extinct that year and those critically endangered. (It is a fascinating read.) For example, the country which invented cricket has lost the ability to make cricket balls. It’s not just knowledge, culture, and history we lose, but our identity and any future chance to build that identity. As Patricia Lovett, chairwoman of the HCA, has said: ‘People come from all over the world for our craft skills. We need to stress what makes us British, particularly after Brexit.’
You might think that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport (DCMS) would recognise this. You’d be wrong. The HCA website says: ‘Heritage crafts currently fall in the gap between the Government agencies for arts and heritage, which focus respectively on contemporary crafts and tangible heritage (historic buildings, monuments and museum collections).’
Yes, crafts are apparently neither art nor heritage, not even culture. As such, they fall outside the remit of all current support. These were the skills – basket-making, chair-making, watch-making, industrial pottery, to name but a few – which once sustained and gave great meaning to a distinct local culture and a real community. Indeed, many of the remaining craft workshops are based in the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies.
I was reminded of this first hand on a recent visit to Dorking in Surrey when I walked into West Street Antiques. Guns, swords and armour line the red walls, each object a wonderful testimony to long forgotten talent. I spoke to the owner, Philip, who has run the shop for many decades and started antiquing at the age of nine. He relies on good craftsmanship and is worried about its slow death. ‘I had five good gun restorers but four have died in the last year,’ he tells me.
That the government doesn’t fund this type of training is strange – how many teenage boys would love to learn the craft of gun-making and restoration? It is made even more bizarre by how lucrative these professions are owing to the scarcity of practitioners. This is partly due to young people’s lack of awareness that such crafts even exist, let alone that they could be viable and fulfilling careers. As Philip tells me, ‘even the simpler trades, like French polishing, could easily make you £35k a year and upwards nowadays’.
The saying goes that there is an opportunity in every crisis. If that’s true, the dearth of meaningful work in the modern economy brings many opportunities, especially with the rise of automation. It’s here that Blue Labour and the Tories can converge to commit to something truly conservative: reviving lost culture, lost knowledge, and lost working class communities. Heritage Apprenticeships and free local council courses in the basics of carpentry and joinery would be a wonderful start and potentially give us the rare option of buying British. The value of Blue Labour is the lesson that one need not be a Tory to want a conservation society, instead of an indistinguishable, fast-fashion, disposable one.