The politics of innovation

The recession has intensified calls to unleash the UK’s potential in the IT sector. A press conference in Westminster this morning witnessed the launch of yet another such call, this time from UK software development tools vendor Micro Focus.

The company has put together what it calls a ‘Technology Manifesto’, a selection of recommendations that it believes could help create around 250,000 new jobs in the UK by promoting and enabling the country’s technology sector.

And on hand to endorse the manifesto in messianic style were three lords, representing each of the main political parties and their relative approaches to this most intractable of problems.

To a certain degree, the dignitaries reverted to political type. The Conservatives were represented by Tory peer Lord Young of Graffham, who was Secretary of State for Employment and Secretary of State for Trade and Industry during the eighties. He recalled the 1970s, when high levels of taxation stifled entrepreneurialism. The government mustn’t “kill everything by putting tax too high”, he said.

Meanwhile, Labour peer Lord Harris of Haringey rejected the assertion, made by investment guru John Moulton, who was in attendance, that in order to compete with developing economies the UK must “reduce some of the things that make employing people here so unattractive”, such as maternity and paternity leave allowances.

“It’s a myth to say that cutting back on terms and conditions you can compete with, for example, India,” countered Lord Harris. “We need to add the kind of value of that employers are looking for.”

The Liberal Democrat representative, Lord Razzal of Mortlake, made some sensible points. “One can overdo the concentration of the fiscal environment,” he said. “If someone thinks they’ve got a good idea they are not going to think ‘I’m not going to pursue this because of the fiscal environment’.”

However, his position was somewhat let down by technical details. When arguing that innovation generally needs to be left up to the private sector, Lord Razzal declared that “the Internet wasn’t invented by the government”, a statement that appears to ignore the crucial role the US Department of Defence played in developing its predecessor, ARPANET.

Party politics aside, the panelists were broadly in agreement on what is holding the UK’s IT industry back: almost everything. All the familiar bugbears – the education system; the regulatory environment; the business culture; even the national character of British people – received mention.

Given the scale of the problem, all efforts to stimulate the UK IT industry are of course to be welcomed and indeed lauded. And the Technology Manifesto, with its explicit aim of influencing party policy, is certainly more than just words.

But it seems a little rich that the author of this particular initiative is Micro Focus whose approach to furthering its own fortunes appears not to be investing in the UK industry so much as acquiring US companies.

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is the editor for Information Age. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and cyber security.

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