Brexit fears and frustrations are mounting for UK tech sector leaders

You wouldn’t exactly classify the leaders of the UK tech sector as a bunch of liberal lefties. For all the stereotypes of bearded Shoreditch sandal-wearers that surround much of the nascent startup scene, if you polled the average UK tech conference for delegates’ political views, you would find a sea of blue.

The tech sector likes to make money, and mostly, it’s pretty good at it.

So it tells you a lot when you see the increasingly difficult-to-disguise fury of the sector bubbling to the surface whenever the government talks about Brexit.

“We do not make the UK more attractive to the rest of the world by putting barriers in the way of trade with our biggest market,” said trade association TechUK after a speech by Boris Johnson this week where the foreign secretary attempted – mostly unsuccessfully – to convince frustrated Remainers of the opportunities of leaving the EU.

If you’ve been used to the sort of meek, carefully phrased statements that come from trade bodies over the years, you’ll recognise that line as the industry equivalent of thundering.

When secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport Matt Hancock – previously digital minister – habitually praises the UK tech sector in speeches, you can’t help but notice he never mentions Brexit. He knows what his audience thinks and he’d clearly rather not go there.

Senior industry figures told a House of Lords committee earlier this month that the prospect of a no-deal Brexit would be unthinkable. There is real fear for the future among the companies that are likely to be the future for the UK economy.

They will still make money, of course. It’s not as if Brexit means the industry will dry up. But UK tech leaders will be operating with one arm tied behind their backs without regulatory alignment to the EU, without easy access to the skills of EU IT experts, without research partnerships across the continent, and without frictionless flows of data, IT services and products.

This is a sector that thinks constantly about the future, that designs our future, that understands the enormous potential for positive change it can bring about. And it’s genuinely fearful for the damage Brexit could cause, and the dithering and uncertainty brought about by the UK government’s hapless approach.

The Lords committee learned that government communication with the tech sector has declined since the start of the year – perhaps our political leaders don’t like what they’re hearing so don’t bother to listen any more. And that’s a huge concern for the UK’s digital economy.

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