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David Gauke is a former Justice Secretary, and was an independent candidate in South-West Hertfordshire at the 2019 general election.
“Just as it took the political debate decades to catch up with the [19th century Industrial Revolution] reshaping the economy and society, so today we are in danger of conducting a 20th-century fight at the margins of tax and spending policy when the issue is how we harness this new revolution to reimagine the state and public services.”
So said Tony Blair and William Hague last week when launching their joint report A New National Purpose: Innovation Can Power the Future of Britain.
They are right. Right that the challenge of the technological revolution is “so urgent, the danger of falling behind so great and the opportunities so exciting that a new sense of national purpose across political dividing lines is needed”. And also right to say that technology should be “front and centre of political debate”, and currently is not. The question that is not particularly asked is: why? Why is the technological revolution not at the heart of our politics?
Before turning to that question, it is worth setting out the Blair/Hague argument. They make the case that Britain has many positive attributes to benefit from the technological revolution – our universities and a traditional strength in many of the key sectors – but that international competition is increasing and in areas like AI, life sciences and climate tech we are falling behind. The fact that much of the world is increasingly being divided into three protectionist trading blocs (the US with its Inflation Reduction Act, China and, in response, the EU) does not help.
Blair and Hague are also keen to remodel the state to place greater emphasis on technology. This involves protecting R&D expenditure, a shift in approach towards data and, most controversially, introducing digital ID for citizens.
This latter proposal has, predictably enough, provoked howls of outrage that this will presage an authoritarian state. The principal consequence will be to make life easier for the public. It is also true that digital ID could be used by government to address such problems as illegal immigration. It would be much more effective in tackling the issue of small boats than, for example, half-baked plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda.
But if technology is going to be so transformative and our policy response so important (and Blair and Hague are persuasive on this), let us return to the question of why it is not a priority within our politics.
Some will argue that it is not a priority for the public. When worried about paying the bills or getting a hospital appointment, talk of technological revolution sounds remote, even irrelevant. It is all a bit “Davos-man” – coming from people who spend their lives in “expensive hotels and airport lounges” (as Justin Webb on Radio 4’s Today put it when questioning them).
This may be true, but it does not make Blair and Hague wrong in their analysis. No doubt they do spend much more time jetting round the world talking to leaders of technology companies – but that just makes them well informed about what is happening now and what is going to happen in future.
Unlike former politicians, current politicians have to be focused on the immediate concerns of the electorate. But if there was ever a case for demonstrating leadership and showing vision, this is it.
The problem is not just the public may resist entering into unfamiliar territory, so might politicians and commentators. Blair and Hague write about “the danger of conducting a 20th-century fight at the margins of tax and spending policy”, but quite a lot of people rather like a 20th-century fight at the margins of tax and spending policy. Allister Heath, for example, writing in response to the report had a few quibbles about the recommendations, but quickly moved on to complaining that it did not advocate cutting taxes. Of course he did.
This highlights a potential problem. Is science and technology not at the heart of our politics because it is not contentious enough to hold our attention for long? Yes, we can get exercised about tax and spend, Brexit, immigration, Ukraine and edits to the works of Roald Dahl. But the creation of an Advanced Procurement Agency? Not so much.
It is all a bit technocratic – and also a bit motherhood and apple pie, some will say. Yes, yes of course we should do all this – all very sensible but where is the dividing line? Without more controversy, there is no drama, no excitement. With luck, the new Science, Innovation and Technology Department will move things along, but this is essentially an issue for Whitehall to get on with, the argument goes.
There is something in it but, were we to be totally focused on embracing technology, we would quickly see how controversial this could be become.
Embracing technology in the delivery of public services? There would be plenty of resistance from some of the public sector trade unions were such reforms to be combined (as they must be) with identifying resulting cost savings as some jobs could be done away with. Re-orient defence expenditure on new technology? Listen to the complaints of defence traditionalists who would prefer to prioritise more troops and tanks. Ensure that British scientists have access to the EU’s Horizon programme? That means restoring a sensible relationship with the EU and there is no shortage of resistance to that.
Let us take another example. Emma Duncan recently highlighted that, according to a local estate agent, there is demand for over a million square feet of lab space in the Cambridge area, but only 10,000 is available. This seriously constrains the ability of our life sciences industry to expand and prosper.
Blair and Hague rightly advocate planning reform – which, of course, is controversial – but there is another issue here. There are plenty of places that can benefit from the technological revolution, including many cities in northern England, but a lot of businesses and scientists want to be located in the golden triangle made up of London, Cambridge and Oxford.
Rather than try to force them elsewhere in the UK, we should embrace this and, in particular, the Oxford to Cambridge arc. But not only would that face resistance from Nimbys, but also run counter to the desire to reduce regional inequality. To put it bluntly, too much focus on levelling-up will hinder our progress on science and technology.
When put like this, a pro-science and technology agenda is far from being platitudinous and requires some politically tough choices. Reprioritising spending resources on areas where the benefits are long term. Taking on producer interests, including some public sector trade unions. Engaging constructively with the EU. Reforming planning law. Embracing the Oxford to Cambridge arc. If you think that does not sound like an agenda anyone in British politics is convincingly pursuing, you would be right.
If science and technology is to become our new national purpose, as Blair and Hague advocate, we need at least one of our political parties to embrace it. Just at the moment, it is not clear that this is happening. That needs to change.