Matthew Hancock is Minister of State for Digital, and is MP for West Suffolk.
While the Brexit debate rages on, a yet greater revolution is taking place, driven by the radical impact of technology. And in the midst of it, there’s a battle of ideas taking place. We are at a critical juncture. The changes being wrought as a consequence of new technology are a huge chance for people who cherish freedom – who believe in backing opportunity, in supporting aspiration, and that by unlocking the potential of every person our society thrives. In short, the tech revolution should be a Tory revolution, if we choose to embrace it. And it’s our duty to do so.
The alternative, offered by a backwards-looking, top-down, socialist ideology, is anathema to the principles of the tech revolution. It’s vital we win this argument now. The rules of the road for technology are being written now. We must use this moment to ensure technology works for the benefit of all, that innovation is promoted not stifled, and that Britain leads the way with this technology as we have repeatedly done with new technologies down the ages.
From Edmund Burke’s little platoons onwards, our economic and social values are underpinned by the knowledge that progress is mostly driven by people coming together to solve problems. Business, done right, is a force for good in the world. And with the amazing start-up companies using data to help save lives in the NHS, teachers impart knowledge, or improve social care, the idea that the state has all the answers has never been more wrong. Technology allows us to unlock the talent of everyone; to promote genuine equality of opportunity. That is the hallmark of Conservative values.
Technology allows anyone to start and grow a business, to build a life solving problems for other people: a core tenet of any Conservative economic policy. The modern economy makes entrepreneurs of us all. Sixty per cent of students leaving some of our top universities are now becoming entrepreneurs. They want a world that is flexible, dynamic, and based on human interaction, not a dictatorial state. We need a free economy that is accessible to all, so that anyone with aspiration and a desire to work hard can do so, where we support businesses and innovators to create and attract better paid jobs. This is what building an economy that works for everyone means in the modern world.
The recent Budget backed this vision, not just with money, but with the story the Chancellor told. We have extra resources for the next generation gigabit connections and 5G, for digital skills to help everyone benefit from these changes, for scale up funding and for an exciting new drive for open data through the new Geospatial Data Commission. These are important. But perhaps more important was the Chancellor’s argument: that the world is changing, and we must run towards that change, not away from it. The revolution is coming and we must embrace it to shape it to make Britain fit for the future.
Just as on the economy, when it comes to building strong civic responsibility and flourishing communities, technology can help do that too. Burke’s age-old piece of conservative wisdom applies today just as they did 250 years ago. From Facebook to Twitter to Reddit, these are the modern day versions of Burke’s little platoons, but on a far more global and vastly interconnected scale.
Yet embracing the tech revolution doesn’t mean blinkered acceptance. It is a core Conservative belief that freedom needs defending, and that robust rules are needed to ensure one person’s freedom doesn’t trample the freedom of others. This principle is just as true online as off.
So, yes, the big platforms must pay their fair share of tax. And our duty as Conservatives is to tackle online harms like cyber bullying, terrorist propaganda and child pornography, just as fiercely as we would if they happened on paper. Conservatives care about stopping the harms that are done online. And we care that this is done without stopping the innovations that come not from the state but from the ingenuity in each human breast. Building a framework for these platforms based on values that protect our freedom while mitigating the harms will allow Burke’s little platoons can live on into the digital age and help us build a stronger society.
And of course Conservative values are global: we look to the whole world, for friendship, and for trade. The digital revolution makes global engagement infinitely easier than at any point in history. It throws up global challenges that we must lead the solutions to, as we are by providing cyber security, protecting online intellectual property around the world, and through the Prime Minister’s personal leadership tackling global online terrorist material. By working through the tech giants, the amazing Internet Watch Foundation in Cambridge helps protect victims of child abuse wherever they are in the world. Our agreement with internet platforms to block search returns for pirated material supports musicians and creators the world over. Our protections stopping children viewing pornography, legislated here in Westminster, are being applied globally. We can provide global leadership in making sure the new technology is hewn to the benefit of mankind.
So we should be confident of our role and our values. The digital revolution is making the world more open not closed, more individual not collectivist, and more open to opportunity. These are our values. Now we need to get the message out to people young and old – using mediums ancient and modern, from the doorstep to Instagram. We must stop socialism. Backward-looking statism would be a disaster, now more than ever. Our optimistic, positive, forward-looking, modern conservatism is the tech savvy’s natural home.