When Theresa May became Prime Minister just over three years ago on 13 July 2016, she gave a now famous speech on "the burning injustices". The speech is famous not just for its ideals and ambitions, but ultimately where the May Government fell short in achieving these goals.
In many ways the theme of Theresa May’s premiership was to point to the destination, the grand vision, but often losing focus and coherence on the journey to get there. When it comes to Theresa May’s legacy for the UK tech sector, we see much of this theme.
At London tech week 2019 Theresa May said, that “how we harness that technological change and how we support you as pioneers of that technology is fundamental not only to the future of our entire economy – but the vision that I set out on my first day as Prime Minister – to build a country that works for everyone.”
During her premiership announcements to create a National Data Strategy, the AI sector deal, the inclusion of AI and the data economy in the four grand challenges, the creation of NHS X, supporting 2,500 AI and data master courses and funding up to 1,000 technology scholarships as well as a series of investments in key future technologies such as over £150 million for Quantum Computing set the starting gun for the UK Government to put the digital economy at the heart of its economic and Industrial strategy.
These initial investments and reviews of strategies were complemented by setting key targets such as spending 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027 and the target for the UK to be at net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, challenging tech innovators to come up with the new ideas and technologies that will help government achieve these missions.
However, while Theresa May repeatedly referred to the grand ambition of putting tech at the heart of the UK’s industrial strategy, under the May Government we also saw a variety of poorly designed policies that undermined this stated aim. As well as a rise in anti-tech rhetoric that showed, that while the fundamentals of their approach were solid the May Government too quickly and too easily slipped into knee jerk policy creation that betrayed a sense of joined up thinking on tech.
These policies such as the Digital Service Tax and the Online Harms White Paper, while rightly identifying the problems the tech sector must overcome, in their design captured a failure to take the broader holistic view of how tech can contribute to the new business models the UK economy will need for the future, instead prioritising short term political wins which failed to support the grand ambitions of the May Government and often brought the Government and the tech sector into conflict.
Policy announcements supporting tech, in particular the recent announcement of the Government’s competitiveness review at London tech week offer a huge opportunity to build a UK tech sector which can continue to lead the world as one of the best places to start and grow a tech business. However, her Government’s failure to work constructively with industry on how to further develop and improve policy, such as the digital services tax, meant that while the sector often received the rhetorical support from the Government, the working relationships were less rosy.
For techUK the May Government got many of the fundamentals right, however too often on the road to their grand ambition her Government too readily succumbed to wrong turns and diversions, with these easily avoided opportunity costs losing the Government some of the time and energy needed to secure an indisputable legacy as a champion for tech.