Theresa May’s speech yesterday was packed with soundbites that would give the casual listener reason to be optimistic.
She intends to make Britain into a “great global trading nation” while investing in infrastructure, and said that the referendum result was a decision to go “truly global”. She used the word global 17 times in fact, stressed the importance of fostering British science and innovation, and acknowledged that sectors of the British economy need tailored solutions when it comes to accessing international talent.
Unfortunately, this optimism is likely to be restricted to listeners operating in a vacuum. Those of us who witnessed the campaign that brought us Brexit know that the resulting negotiations are more likely to be driven by a zero-sum focus on immigration as a number, rather than as a phenomenon and an opportunity.
The combination of internal party discord, recalcitrant European neighbours and the constant menace of UKIP mean that the Prime Minister is being forced to deliver a Brexit that appears to be very ‘hard'. This will rightly worry entrepreneurs in the UK tech sector.
A truly global UK would be an excellent result for the UK tech sector, which has been global in outlook since Tim Berners Lee conceived of the internet in the early nineties. Achieving this is a greater challenge, particularly when it comes to trade. It would require Britain to strike 53 trade deals in a short space of time without an existing staff of experienced trade negotiators. Failing this, WTO tariffs will threaten our automotive and technology industries.
The commitment to science and innovation will only come about with an injection of talent, and we have seen nothing from the government that addresses this crucial issue.
The heartlands that voted for Brexit are seeing their livelihoods crumble, and are not being equipped with the skills necessary to provide for themselves in the new economic paradigm. We need a nationwide re-skilling programme that empowers British workers outside of London. There are many great initiatives already in place, such as the Ada College for Digital Skills, Makers Academy, Just IT, Decoded, Teen Tech, Founders4School and many others, so the government simply needs to acknowledge our excellent private sector solutions and get behind them on a national scale.
As well as improving local talent, a global UK needs access to global talent. The Prime Minister reiterated her commitment to allowing UK companies to hire the best in the world, but every day without clarity on this issue damages our international reputation. The suggestion that ’selected' industries may be catered to on this issue is concerning. Tech entrepreneurs run lean outfits that aim to create value, and so do not invest in lobbying. They should not be made to suffer if immigration reforms are agreed behind closed doors.
The Prime Minister is still capable of delivering on her commanding and impressive promises, and the tech community is happy to take her at her word. If she moves fast on clarifying immigration and rejects an implied quota, she will carry the trust of UK business into the negotiations.
The Prime Minister’s work is just beginning, and I hope that the digital and technology sectors are given consideration in the government’s plans, especially when it comes to both home-grown and global talent.