How politics scuppered Britain’s grand plan for tech

Press play to listen to this article

Voiced by artificial intelligence.

LONDON — The United Kingdom’s digital ambitions have a problem: its politicians.

On paper, the country remains Europe’s tech powerhouse. Local startups raised $29.9 billion last year, more than French and German rivals, combined. The country’s policymakers — spread across legacy institutions like the Competition and Markets Authority to new arrivals like the Alan Turing Institute — have global reputations. And the post-Brexit era was supposed to give Britain an opportunity to spread its wings after throwing off the perceived shackles of European Union regulation.

And yet, over six years since the country voted to leave the 27-country bloc, London’s tech strategy has been victim to countless government reshuffles, suffered from a lack of coordination between lawmakers about what the priorities should be, and left everyone from industry groups to digital rights campaigners frustrated over what the U.K. is trying to achieve.

“If we have more consistency of leadership in the next five years — and don’t have civil servants who are literally having to re-educate ministers on their brief — people will have more time to think about policy rather than politics,” Saul Klein, a London-based venture capitalist who has advised British governments since the David Cameron era, told POLITICO. He currently sits on the U.K.’s Council for Science and Technology, an advisory body for the British prime minister.

Michelle Donelan, the newly-appointed head of the U.K.’s Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT), said that Rishi Sunak — the country’s prime minister — had put turning Britain into the “world’s next Silicon Valley” at the top of his priority list ahead of next year’s nationwide election.

The new ministry is focused on bringing together public research and development funding for emerging technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum computing with policymaking on everything from digital competition to online safety. A DSIT official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning, said a series of announcements are expected from the department over the next 12 months, and that Donelan has a reputation within Westminster of delivering on the government’s political commitments.

“This is not going to be the same old Whitehall,” Donelan told POLITICO. “This department is going to be very much working hand in hand with the innovators, with the technologists, with the scientists of today and tomorrow. And that’s how we’re going to produce the results.”

Ambition, yes. Planning, no.

It’s not that London doesn’t have tech ambition.

Consecutive governments — including eight digital ministers in the post-Brexit era — have published a cavalcade of digital playbooks. 

There’s a data strategy to unlock the U.K.’s treasure trove of digital information. There’s an innovation strategy to pump in funding and entice high-skilled workers into the local economy. There’s a digital strategy to do everything from bringing prosperity to poorer areas to promoting the U.K.’s role in global digital policymaking.

On top of that, Westminster is awaiting the final throes of the so-called Online Safety Bill, London’s landmark legislation to clamp down on the excesses of the internet, that is expected to be completed by the autumn. 

Lawmakers similarly are expecting the publication of the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill, which will empower the country’s regulator to go after the likes of Apple, Meta and Alphabet for possible wrongdoing, in the coming days. A third set of proposals, the so-called Data Protection and Digital Information Bill to reform EU-style privacy rules, is now back in the mix after falling out of favor, according to Donelan.

As UK digital minister, Oliver Dowden wanted to tap into the country’s data to spark innovation and move away from EU-style privacy regulations | Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Yet four current and former officials working on the country’s digital policymaking told POLITICO that such plans had continued to be thwarted by repeated reshuffles in which incoming British ministers shifted priorities on a whim. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations within the U.K. government. Two of those individuals describe ever-changing policy priorities, with ministers divided between looking tough against Big Tech and reining back regulation from when the U.K. was part of the EU.

Oliver Dowden, who was digital minister over an 18-month period through September, 2022, for instance, was eager to tap into the country’s data to spark innovation — and show how the country was moving away from EU-style privacy regulations. His successor, Nadine Dorries, quickly scrapped that priority to double down on online safety. 

“The U.K. government is actually quite bad at deciding a long-term strategy on any particular issue,” said Ben Greenstone, a former senior official in the country’s digital ministry, who now runs Taso Advisory, a tech-focused consultancy.

 “Writing a government strategy document gives a minister a chance to stand up and say how important stuff is,” he added. “But, usually, you don’t find much substance to what that means for the day-to-day operation of government or for where funds will be allocated.”

Business over fundamental rights?

Despite repeated government U-turns on tech, there’s broad consensus across all political parties that digital and innovation must be placed at the heart of the U.K.’s future.

Both the Conservative and Labour parties have supported efforts to boost more investment into the country’s digital sector by urging local pension funds to put their money into local high-flying startups. The current government created the so-called Office for Science and Technology Strategy within the Cabinet Office to provide apolitical advice to jumpstart science and technology. Almost all British ministries now have a chief scientific adviser to embed digital policymaking into each department’s everyday work.

New institutions, including the British Business Bank and the Advanced Research and Invention Agency, will likely survive no matter who is living in Downing Street. Those government-backed institutions either provide money for fledging companies or are expected to help the U.K. develop next-generation technologies to keep pace with global rivals.

“All of this incredibly constructive and useful infrastructure that exists will be able to be leveraged by what is already one of the world’s top global ecosystems,” said Klein, the British venture capitalist with close ties to the government.

Yet digital rights campaigners say one thing is missing from Britain’s quixotic take on tech: people.

Other than the country’s Online Safety Bill, which will force the likes of Facebook and YouTube to take greater responsibility for protecting people online, the country’s other digital plans have prioritized innovation and business over safeguarding people’s rights online. Where the EU has unveiled a long-listing of new legislation to protect people online, the U.K. has taken a more business-friendly stance preferred by the United States.

In its data strategy, London focused on how industry could tap into reams of data to create the next big thing — a message subsequently echoed in a digital manifesto presented by Tony Blair and William Hague. That included potentially opening up health information stored within the country’s National Health Service to help local pharmaceutical companies to create new drugs.

Consecutive governments have tried to cast aside digital rules passed when the U.K. was part of the EU, framing the country as a business-friendly alternative to its counterparts on the other side of the channel. Proponents say this is exactly what Brexit allowed the country to do. Critics claim the Conservative Party is undermining long-standing protections that are the linchpin of the U.K.’s digital success.

“There have been a lot of shuffles, a lot of internal strife within the government, but the fundamental approach to these things hasn’t really changed,” said Mariano delli Santi, legal and policy officer for the Open Rights Group, a campaigning group focused on digital rights. 

“Fundamentally, there’s no regard for the rights of the individual,” he added. “If the next party that comes into power will do anything differently, that’s for them to demonstrate. We are not in a position to predict the future.”

Annabelle Dickson and Tom Bristow contributed reporting

Latest news
Related news