Putting the IT into BrexIT: what do we (and they) really want?

We have heard much regurgitation of pre-referendum positions, interspersed with “firing from the hip” from those determined to preserve the past from the future. “Business as usual” is not, however, an option.  All players (including trade associations and professional bodies, not just politicians and bureaucrats) need to consult their supposed supporters before making claims as to what they want. They should also consult experienced diplomats as well as constitutional lawyers as to what is, or is not, possible when it comes to negotiation.

The “possible” ways forward range from EEA status, (alias capitulation), to “raw” WTO status, (alias turning the UK into the world’s largest free trade zone). The EU Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, has said “First you exit, then you negotiate” while the House Speaker, Paul Ryan, has called for the discussions on a free trade agreement with the US in parallel with the stalled discussions on TTIP. There were high level trade discussions between the UK and China, Indian and Japan during the run up to the referendum. No wonder the EU Trade Commissioner is seeking to continue “project fear” – the attempt to frighten the UK into premature capitulation.

Those who think that a UK reversion to raw WTO rules would be a disaster for the UK should read them. For example – rules to protect health and animal and plant welfare are permissible. A reversion to WTO rules would undoubtedly be a disaster for French, Belgian and Dutch farmers and for Danish and Spanish fishermen but for Britain … it would depend on whether we used the next two years to create an alternative regime based on the audit of hygiene and husbandry instead of subsidies and tariffs. Now let us look at IPR … and the potential for co-operation with India and  China on global reform.  Our negotiating position vis a vis any forward trade agreement with the EU is much stronger than we might think – provided we are seen to be taking Plan B seriously.

But this blog is about the IT industry response to Brexit. Perhaps the best start point is the five point Plan A from Julian David of TechUK.  My quibble is that the “primary objective”, as worded, is not sufficiently ambitious. The primary objective should not be continued access to a market where most digital transactions are routed via wholly owned and integrated operations running under US law. It should be to use the Brexit negotiations to help our European neighbours complete the creation of an outward facing, globally competitive, digital single market. While I personally “held my nose and voted remain”, I was struck by the view of one of our former top negotiators that a Brexit vote was the only way to achieve the necessary concentration of minds to succeed where we have so far failed. In doing so we will earn the right to stay in the single market we are continuing to help create, while no longer getting in the way of those who really do want “ever closer union”.   

I agree that “retaining and attracting talent is vital to the success and growth of UK tech” but would give priority to developing our own. I would also say that this is now even more important. That said, I thoroughly agree the need for a “smart immigration” policy. We need, however, to spend effort working out what that means, given that the horlicks of recent years has helped destroy the once vibrant UK independent ICT contractor market as well as depressed indigenous salaries and diverted corporate attention away from career development programmes.

I also agree that work should start now on securing international data flows and data protection and liked the comment on the need to look at the relative merits of maintaining, adapting or completely re-legislating UK laws, including the UK Investigatory Powers Bill. The aim should indeed be to position the UK as a global leader so that those based in the UK would have no problem in complying with EU (or Global) best practice. In this context the Government should move rapidly to announce its acceptance of the recommendations of the House of Common Culture Media and Sport Select Committee on cyber security – including for all the reasons given in my blog on their implications.

I also completely agree with the call for business as usual with regard to digital infrastructure.  I was greatly encouraged to hear John Whittingdale say the same at the All-Party Media Group reception on Wednesday. Like Julian David, I look forward to seeing the necessary reforms fast-tracked. But we also need to move equally fast to defuse the unnecessary conflict between network operators and landlords over the reform of the Electronic Communications Code. Where-ever possible it should be compatible with existing landlord-tenant legislation. The burden of proof should be on those wanting it to be different.

I also support the idea of publishing the postponed Digital Strategy as a draft to aid consultation.