Some ten millennia separated the agricultural revolution from the emergence of Britain as the First Industrial Nation. A mere two centuries has seen the supersession of the first industrial revolution by the second. This has not yet acquired a definitive title. However, if we may denominate an era by its staple, we see the Age of Corn giving way to the Age of Machinery, and then the Age of Machinery being succeeded by the Age of Information. A new staple does not eliminate the old, but, being more profitable, displaces it—even physically, to less mature economies. Just as industrial workers did not cease to eat while tending their machines or pondering their returns to investment, so the service workers of today still depend on the mechanical infrastructure which constructs their commodities and maintains their environment. But value in the economy is more and more derived from the quality and timeliness of information. Though food sustains it, and iron and plastic construct it, information now drives the world economy. No one doubts that they are living through an Information Revolution.

This article draws attention to an irony in the history of political economy: the British political elite making the same mistake twice in less than 150 years. The mistake in question is the misidentification of the long-term source of value in the British economy at the point of transition between staples. The first time, as every schoolchild once knew, the mistake was corrected by Sir Robert Peel when he sealed the end of the Age of Corn by repealing the Corn Laws. However, come the second point of transition, what do we see? Apparently mesmerized by the content of the dominant staple, the British governments of the 1980s ignored the emergence and long-term prospects of a new staple; consequently they persisted with a policy of promoting the manufacturing interest long after it became clear that the uk had no more lasting a comparative advantage in machinery than it had earlier had in corn. This proclaimed defence of the Iron Laws was at the expense of the dynamic but fragile ‘information interest’, emergent in the British economy since the eclipse of the imperial economic system in the late 1950s.footnote1

The emergence of this interest derived from Britain’s comparative advantages in scientific research, elite education, and quality cultural activities—design, the media, art and music.footnote2 All of these rising sectors depended for their vitality and competitiveness on the higher education system. Because British higher education then offered—in comparative terms—an unusual degree of formative contact with critical and creative minds at work, its most outstanding graduates, socialized to expect fulfilling work, often competed to work in sectors allowing the most liberated exercise of the mind. Higher education became the live germ of a post-manufacturing production system with a competitive edge in imaginative ideas. To emphasize the parallel with the staple it displaced, we may select a term which resonates with ‘manufacturing’ and call higher education the ‘mindfactory’ of the ‘mindfacturing’ industries. It produced the producers of new, high-value, overwhelmingly abstract goods and services, the ‘new invisibles’ of the post-imperial trading system.

The elite sectors of higher education—including certain colleges of art and design, of music and drama, and some polytechnic departments—had a number of distinctive characteristics: collegial self-management, the self-confidence in criticism of a highly selected elite, respect for excellence in the specific skills of each aesthetic and intellectual practice, high social esteem for creativity and innovation, and a positive attitude to risk taking. The reward for high achievers in this productive system was, in international comparative terms, also distinctive: not high incomes and conspicuous consumption, but independent and interesting work. Having encountered such intrinsic values in their education, they wished to continue to enjoy them in their work. The interrelatedness of these characteristics suggests that this productive system was a niche culture, flowering only under organizational conditions similar to those found in the higher education institutions where its workers had received their cultural formation.

Herein lay its fragility. That higher education system, that formative cultural matrix, existed in an economic enclave protected by the state. This protection depended on a long-established but contingent view of its interests taken by the controllers of the state. By 1980 those controllers had changed, and with them changed the proclaimed view of the state’s interests. In historical perspective, British higher education between 1945 and 1980 appears as the state-sponsored workshop of the discipline of originality for an elite destined for leadership roles across those parts of the culture which gave scope to critically trained and creative minds. Today, however, as the generative source of a culture of intellectual adventurousness, of self-surpassing excellence in individual achievement, and of norm-questioning deep play, the British higher education system has been all but smashed—not by superior competition from the mindfacturing systems of other countries, but by its own former sponsor, the state.

Of course there are still universities, indeed more than ever; they have not been closed down, their wealth confiscated, their occupants expelled, their work terminated, as the monasteries were suppressed in the 1530s. But it is only the name which remains; they are not the same institution, any more than Charterhouse is still a Carthusian monastery. In being organizationally reconfigured to take on a politically decreed role in the economy, they have lost the right to collectively self-manage their own work, the vital ingredient in the discipline of originality. Losing that self-management has turned their occupants into employees, to be deployed as utility dictates. Losing the discipline of creativity under criticism has brought the consequential loss of their cultural role in British society. From producers of cultural norms which animated a dynamic sector of society they have become the consumers of procedural dogmas emanating largely from the moribund sector of society which had never had much regard for their products and which the universities were bidding to displace: manufacturing industry. From being to a large degree ends in themselves, they are now means to the ends of the politicians in office, as in Italy or Indonesia. From cultural capital for society they have become political capital for governments. University ‘chief executives’ no longer claim that their institution is based on an Idea, but emphasize its functionality, its ‘fitness for purpose’, its accountability. The Research Assessment Exercise has given employees an urgent material interest in minimizing their formative contact with students, not effectively countered by the Teaching Quality Assessment exercise. More time is spent looking over one’s shoulder than peering into the unknown—and those whose raids on the unknown have any potential commercial value are promptly exported offshore into ‘science parks’, where their commercial utility is not compromised by day-to-day contact with students. In every sphere utility rules—and audit checks.footnote3

I have two grounds for regret at the eclipse of the intrinsic values in British higher education. One is the honest regret of a first-hand participant: the result has been a less good education for students. The second is the regret of an onlooker, bemused at the historical irony that a consequence of the subordination of higher education to the purposes of economic policy by a supposedly economically realistic government has been to throw away a leadership position in the world’s fastest growing, highest value, longest term industries. In this perspective, Thatcherism has made Britain the butt of a Toynbeeian historical joke. Whilst my original concern with this issue was as a consequence of the first regret, the experience of students, this paper is only concerned with the second. I came to believe that the second caused the first. I also came to believe that the only way to communicate how I understood this to have been brought about was to stand back and see it in historical perspective, to encapsulate it as an instance of a ruling elite making a major historical mistake as a consequence of elevating dogma and will to power over the lessons of history. For our history already had this lesson: the imposition of the ‘philosophy of manufactures’ on the ‘mindfacturing interest’ was as explicitly the policy of the Thatcher governments as the protection of the agricultural interest against the rising manufacturing interest had been the policy of the governments of the 1820s and 1830s—a policy whose reversal inaugurated the British century.