While Brexit dominated the Conservative leadership campaign and will likely dominate his premiership, Boris Johnson takes the keys to 10 Downing Street as the UK arrives at an economic and environmental crossroads. In a world that is becoming ever more digital, the choices he makes around technology and innovation will determine the success of the UK economy after Brexit.
As the economy digitises, the prize is the creation of a high-paid, high-skilled workforce and a turbocharged economy, but this will require ambition, investment and joined-up thinking. Under Theresa May’s premiership the Government made some welcome announcements to help cement technology’s role in driving the UK economy, from the Office for AI to the Centre for Data, Ethics and Innovation. But there was also an ambivalence about the significance of tech in a modern economy or an overarching vision of where we want to be in five- or ten-years’ time.
Of course, how the UK leaves the EU will have a big impact on that vision. A n-deal Brexit would be a huge setback for the sector. Tech businesses have been clear about the damaging impact of no-deal – over 70 per cent of respondents to a TechUK member survey said it would have a negative impact on their business.
Avoiding no-deal will be vital if we are to succeed in securing many of the opportunities that lie ahead for the UK beyond Brexit. These are opportunities dependent on our thriving digital services, which account for 46 per cent of all UK exports, with services as a whole accounting for 80 per cent of the UK economy. Future trade discussions must look beyond goods and reflect the needs of our services-driven economy, particularly with regards to alignment of regulation with the EU.
Securing the UK’s position as a global hub for innovation
To succeed after Brexit the UK must remain at the forefront of the next wave of digital innovation, enabling tech businesses to start-up, scale-up and succeed in the UK. A Johnson government should be an unambiguous champion for this innovation and clearly tax structures can incentivise or dampen this innovation.
Rather than across the board tax cuts the Prime Minister should look at efficient and targeted support for R&D investment which is often of greater value to dynamic modern businesses. For example, a new ‘facilities tax credit’ for businesses building their R&D facilities here in the UK and enabling new types of research utilising online platforms would help boost R&D spending and drive productivity throughout the economy.
Delivering the skills and talent the UK needs to succeed in a global digital economy
It is crucial that we work to ensure that the opportunities of the digital economy are open to all, which means upskilling the UK workforce and offering them clear pathways that are transparent, understandable and attractive. To achieve this, we propose the creation of a Government-backed skills platform to help make these connections and ensure everyone can build the skills necessary to seize these opportunities.
While growing the UK’s own skills base, the UK must also ensure it remains an attractive destination for overseas tech talent. We must make our immigration system easy to navigate, efficient and responsive to the needs of business.
Prioritise the deployment of world leading digital infrastructure
In his leadership campaign Boris Johnson set an ambitious target on digital infrastructure. While much of this investment will come from the private sector, his Government can help by tackling the barriers that delay rollout and waste both time and money. Even with these barriers removed there will remain some areas of the country where it is uneconomical to invest and where Government funding will be critical if fibre is to be extended to the most remote areas.
Championing an open, secure and responsible online world
Finally, Boris Johnson has written articulately about the importance of free expression and open, competitive markets. These are global challenges best approached working with our European and global partners to find effective remedies, for example on digital tax where an OECD-level solution would be more impactful than domestic measures.
This does not mean sitting on our hands in the UK and doing nothing. Government and industry must continue to work together to tackle diverse challenges such as online terrorist content and misinformation. The Online Harms White Paper provides the starting point for this collaboration, but currently raises more questions than it answers. TechUK hopes the new administration will get down to the detail of finding specific and targeted measures.
Enacting this agenda will help ensure the UK maintains and increases its dominance as Europe’s leading digital economy. We look forward to working with the new Government over the months and years ahead to help make these ambitions realities.
Vinous Ali is the head of policy at TechUK