Opinion: Boris Johnson good or bad for UK tech?

Americans are optimistic. It is in the DNA of the US, it has to be. The original pioneers who left their homeland and travelled thousands of miles, to a strange land full of mystery, to make their fortune, were either desperate or hugely optimistic people. In all probability, they were both.

Boris Johnson, a living thesaurus, sweeps into Downing Street promising that belief alone can make UK tech great?

It is easy to be cynical, and Brits tends to be cynical people — they would say pragmatic.

Maybe though, belief in yourself, faith that all will turn out for the good, regardless of what the facts suggest, is the kind of spirit an entrepreneurial UK needs.

After-all, you try and find an entrepreneur that does not have an optimistic personality.

The hope then is that Johnson can somehow change Britain, make it an entrepreneurial haven, and put Britain on the technology map, (not that it isn’t already on this map, and already a lot more entrepreneurial than it used to be).

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His supporters point to his track record — the re-emergence of London as a cultural, entrepreneurial and technology centre. An idea, we are pursuing at the moment, with a forthcoming article on the emergence of Silicon Roundabout.

Recently, Andrew Roughan, Managing Director at Plexal, argued that “Boris Johnson’s appointment presents a fantastic opportunity for London and the wider UK technology industry.”

He continued: “His work as Mayor was pivotal for the capital’s technology ecosystem and without his support and funding, London may not have emerged as a global industry leader that it is today.

“Thanks to his past efforts, technology has become an integral part of London’s Olympic legacy. To build on this, Johnson must foster an environment for start-ups and innovators to thrive, as we develop innovative solutions to some of society’s most pressing issues such as mobility, cybersecurity and social inclusion.”

It is worth pointing out that when you talk to entrepreneurs about the London entrepreneurship culture that has emerged in recent years, not many put it down to Boris Johnson.

Notwithstanding that last point, that is one point of view, optimism is contagious, Mr Johnson arrives at Downing Street with enough energy to supercharge any entrepreneurial machine that uses optimism as its fuel.

But there are two arguments against. One relates to Brexit, the other very specifically to the issue of ethical tech. If politicians set the discourse, and if the UK’s big opportunity lies with ethical technology, as many believe, then we need politicians who not only practice the religion of optimism, but also set the agenda in their approach to ethics.

First there is Brexit.

Ask yourself a question. Why are the world’s largest techs based in the US and China? There are many reasons, but surely a key factor is the availability of a massive local market.

The UK market, or the German market, or the French market is tiny by comparison. An EU market is comparable in size to the US and China.

A hard Brexiteer would argue that geography is less important in the internet age, the local market is global in scale, and the UK needs to forge relationships worldwide.

But this ignores a simple hard fact, the UK’s biggest trading partners include Ireland, France, Belgium and Holland, small countries, small economies, but bang next door  — as of now, local matters.

Roberto Bonanzinga, co-founder of an AI-driven VC, InReach Ventures, and former partner at Baldertons Venture Capital puts it more strongly than that.

Speaking to Information Age, he suggested that the individual tech hubs scattered around Europe enjoy a symbiotic relationship, they benefit from each other’s success.

“We need to have maturity to focus on European technology,” he said, but “we are like shrimps moving backwards.”

He said: “Rising nationalism across Europe, exemplified by Brexit and the far-right surgein the recent European Parliament elections, poses an existential threat to the continent’s tech sector.”

He warned: “If the growth of nationalism leads to the Balkanisation of Europe, that will only increase the difficulty for start-ups struggling to scale up to a minimum viable level of users, revenues, and staff.”

Here, however, the argument becomes nuanced. Johnson, unlike his predecessor as Prime Minister, and unlike many of the people who voted Brexit, has an ambivalent attitude towards immigration — he just wants to see greater emphasis on immigration from outside of the EU, maybe less from within, applying a points system.

The jury is out on how appropriate this is, but a key point is missing from the debate. Free movement of labour works both ways, it also makes it easier for British citizens to live in other EU countries — and if we see pan-European techs, then such labour mobility applied to Brits may be essential.

There is another point. Immigration is essential to build tech success. (Remember this is true in the US, too. A co-founder of Google is a Russian migrant, the more famous co-founder of Apple, the son of a migrant from Syria.) But Brexit, of which Johnson was an important architect, has led to rising intolerance towards immigrants. You hear it over and over again, they don’t feel so welcome. Impression matters, and anti-immigration rhetoric, which Brexit encouraged, poses a threat to the UK tech scene.

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This takes us to the final element. Boris Johnson tells porkies. Not just the infamous £350 million a week claim, but the myth about the EU banning bendy bananas was started by Johnson. More recently still, he incorrectly said that the EU had interfered with how companies send smoked kippers in the post. As a journalist at the Telegraph he was notorious for making things up about EU bureaucracy — from the false claim that the EU had banned children under eight from bursting balloons to claims that the EU had banned recycling tea bags, when in fact, it was UK councils, acting independently, that had introduced such rules. Maybe we weren’t supposed to believe them, anymore than we might believe someone who says the moon is probably made of cheese. But millions did believe Johnson.

Words matter. Claims that Johnson is a racist may be wide of the mark, some of the more notorious things he has said were in fact within articles speaking up for immigration and tolerance. He has not suggested anyone who is not white skinned should go home. In his attitude towards globalisation and multiculturalism, he is quite different from Trump. He does, however, use colourful language that can cause offence.

But just as his words about optimism are seen by many as helping to foster an entrepreneurship streak, might not his lack of affinity for telling the truth discourage entrepreneurs from doing the same?

A recent report from McKinsey found that investment in startups, many of which are tech startups, tops $100 million in the US and China. The UK sits in third place, but with $10.6 million, enjoys just 10% of the investment seen in the two leading regions. India is just behind the UK, followed by Singapore. But Germany is in sixth, France and Sweden are not far behind, other tech hubs are spurting up across Europe.

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As for the UK, many believe its opportunity lies in becoming the global leader in ethical AI, leading the way on applying good practice in privacy, security and in ensuring ethical considerations are part and parcel of the fourth industrial revolution. Will Johnson encourage or discourage that development? Being transparent and telling the truth would set a good example.

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Michael Baxter

.Michael Baxter is a tech, economic and investment journalist. He has written four books, including iDisrupted and Living in the age of the jerk. He is the editor of Techopian.com and the host of the ESG...

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