The Prime Minister has set a clear vision and strategy, with priorities to help him secure the ongoing support and commitment he will need for delivery. It may not be popular with the metropolitan elite but the strategy behind the Conservative manifesto and campaign strategy struck a chord with a clear majority of the English. As Rachel Wolf, one co-authors of manifesto says: The manifesto was for neither rich nor poor – but for those “just about managing” (i.e. most of us). It focussed on fairness, public service delivery and “place”- e.g. using infrastructure and R&D spend to bring jobs and services to the regions.
The aim is to reverse policies whose practical effect was to herd the people into the over-crowded South East and onto commuter trains into London. We can now expect to see the transport infrastructure of the North (and other parts of the UK) improved before the EU umbilical chord of high speed rail is extended to Birmingham (HS2). We can expect to see public funding for provincial airports given precedence over that for Heathrow. But the biggest changes are likely to follow from the coming attempt to devolve power from Whitehall (not just Brussels) to Town and County Hall.
How will we know that real, not cosmetic, change is under way.
Throwing more money at the NHS, Public Services and Infrastructure projects is easy. Bringing about real change is not. An early focus on some of the critical points of leverage will show that Government is serious. Thus the retention of Nicky Morgan at DCMS shows the Prime Ministers commitment to avoiding delay on broadband roll out and, probably, on expediting action on-line harms. That latter was suspended to avoid a firefight with the digiterati during the campaign but is very popular with women voters and those with children and grandchildren.
The most urgent point of leverage is rapid action to address the skills shortages in the way of delivering full fibre broadband networks to enable affordable NHS services at the point of need and the rebalancing of the economy, bringing jobs and skills to where people want to live, not just to enable us to stream Netflix or Amazon without degrading the BT network.
But perhaps the most important is to provide skills for the many, not the few: and certainly not just for the 50% with the mix of academic aptitude and parental support to be willing and able to incur student debts they may never repay. Our Universities may depend on their earnings from overseas students while the future of the rest of us depends on upskilling our own workforce rather than relying on immigrants.
Action on specific skills shortages is the point of leverage for delivering on both Broadband and the NHS.
- Broadband rollout needs immediate action to create outdoor facilities to enable trainees to practice using modern construction techniques and equipment to build and maintain full fibre and 5G network. I have blogged on this before . The solution entails expedited planning permission for brownfield training sites linked to FE Colleges serving former mining areas and/or attached to Agricultural Colleges. I passed my work in this area to the CEO of Highways Electrical Association (who chairs the DPA Digital Infrastructure Skills Sub Group) earlier this year. The recent fire in Milton Keynes probably caused by an underground gas pipe not being where expected, illustrates the importance.
- NHS needs an equally rapid exercise to identify why UK nursing degrees and apprenticeships are so unpopular (not just expensive to both students and employers). I have read some of the analyses. If they are correct, the solutions will include the of use of modern blended learning techniques to improve local access to high quality, relevant training and greatly expand numbers for the same cost. There are problems with Clinicians, Technicians, GPs and their support staff but change has begun. The NHS skills problems are, however, symptomatic of the systemic problems affecting the UK approach to skills policy as whole.
But I would also like to such actions into context for those wondering how the wider changes will affect their businesses and ways of working.
How long before we know what really lies ahead: growth or stagflation?
I think will know with three months:
Until the end of January the focus will be on getting the first phase of Brexit completed. New Ministers will be reading their way in. Existing ministers will be expediting changes already under way so that they will be better able to justify their survival when the reshuffle comes.
After the end of January we will see the focus switch to getting proposals into the budget for the second phase of Brexit and the first phase of economic recovery across England and Wales. We will also the start of debate on what we want to keep from our current relations with the EU and what we want to change. GDPR, the new AVMS directive and co-operation on On-line Harms and Cybersecurity will be on the agenda. So to will be the procurement directives.
The plans for economic recovery should not be based on the North at the expense of London – which as a Mayoral election coming up. They should be based on coupling infrastructure investment and export led jobs across the whole of England and Wales, while also freeing London to be the Fintech centre for the world and entrepot for a more outward looking EU. The NHS spending plans for commitment in the budget will be critically dependent on those changes leading to genuine growth and an increase in tax revenues, including from those who currently pay VAT and Corporation tax in Luxembourg and Brussels. If they do not, then we are doomed to stagflation. The budget has to cover all the bases.
I should add that I have long believed that Scotland and Northern Ireland should be given the freedom to choose between independence and subsidy from London. I do not equate the United Kingdom with rule from the Palace of Whitehall. Alternative models include those for the parts of the British Isles which are outside both the UK and EU but still ruled by the Queen as Duchess of Normandy and Lord of Mann.
There has been a seismic change. It is not just politicians who are no longer trusted
The UK IT “Establishment”, (the lobbyists and country managers of the big outsource suppliers and Internet multinationals and those running their UK R&D and technology transfer operations) will not find it easy to come to terms with the seismic political change of power that has occurred. We can expect a period of denial before they do more than try to “capture” the new intake of MPs and help the Civil Service resist the new rebalancing and devolution agenda. But it is critical, for the economic health of the UK , that their employers understand and exploit the scale and nature of the opportunities that a post-Brexit Britain will offer – and actively help secure the necessary constructive relationships with both the EU and the US. I spent five years as a corporate planner for a UK-owned multi-national, helping decide where we invested in R&D and manufacturing, where we did not. One of my most important roles was to ensure that the “host” countries on my patch knew why we made those choices and how they could change them. In a post-Brexit world it is critical that UK central and local government similarly opens their minds and compete on what really matters, not just candy floss short term tax breaks.
“Getting Brexit done” means moving forward to positive negotiations on the nature of our future relationship with the European Union. A one-off, drawn out, deal, agreed behind closed doors, will not work. It will lead to stagflation and split the UK for ever. The way forward is open, incremental and democratically accountable. All the things professional lobbyists, diplomats and civil servants hate.
It entails recognising what the majority want to change and what they do not. They want to stop immigrants overloading “their” GP surgeries, Hospitals, Housing and Schools and taking “their” jobs and those of their children. They want to stop beggars and criminals coming to the UK to claim benefits and clutter the streets. But they also “know” we need skilled immigrant nurses and doctors who speak good English. They have also come to enjoy travelling across Europe without the need for passports or health insurance. Most also want higher standards for animal welfare, food hygene and environmental protection than the WEU can agree and enforce across all members states.
The electorate is not stupid. It does not know who to trust
We also need to recognise that most voters are not stupid. They see through the special pleading of the lobbyists who “know” what is good for them, employed by those who have done well out of manipulating Whitehall into gold plating pan-European regulations which, for example, drive SMEs out of business and/or increase costs by changing what was not broken and which the rest of the EU finds ways round.
They are also highly sceptical about anything said by IT experts. The Edelman global trust surveys indicate that trust in technology companies and on-line information sources has fallen over recent years. But the most recent (2019) also indicates an interesting change towards wanting to trust your employer and a hunger for “news”. Overlay those findings with the changes in employment patterns, the implosion of news sources and the split between the 40% who work outside London for private sector employers (mainly SMEs), the 40% who work in the public sector (and its supply chain) and the 20% who work for big multinationals or financial services (mainly in the South East). And you can better understand the growing polarisation between “devolution coupled with freedom of choice” and “centralised socialist regulation”. “Progressive liberal democracy” in being squeezed in the middle.
And that is the fault of the way we have used IT and Internet
Now let us look at the contribution of IT professionals. I will begin with their interpretation of “freedom of choice” as “take it or leave it”. We have long suffered from those who “know” what users “need”, without ever asking them what they “want”. Examples range from the National Plan for IT in the Health Service to Verify.
Now we have the GDPR, negotiated between Government, Corporate and Privacy Groups. It has made no perceptible to the policies of those who demand a blanket acceptance of unknown surveillance software as a condition of service. But it has led to an implosion of services around dominant players and the deletion of personal records and collapse of contact across sports and social clubs, health and welfare charities and local authority services. “Computer say no” is the new excuse for poor customer service. Looking ahead we have to consider how to reconcile GDPR with the approaches of the rest of world. The US may have no federal legislation but it is reasonable to assume that the new Californian approach to Data Protection approach will spread across the other states.
Meanwhile the liberal intelligentsia is very exercised by “fake news” generated by indigenous political interest groups. I do not think discussion has moved on since a debate organised by ISOC a couple of years ago. A bigger problem is “no news” because most of the advertising that used to support newspapers has gone on line. There are no budgets to pay for professional local and regional journalism or editing (alias quality control). How do you find out what your local council is really doing or how your local hospital is performing?
Is the current Internet fit to support Critical National Infrastructures (including Health and Business)?
Perhaps a bigger problem is, however, the way we have come to increasingly rely on on-line services without addressing their inherent vulnerability. The image of the built is built on the myth that it was designed to survive World War 3. Unlike its rival (the ITU plans for X25), the Internet was not designed. It was “merely” an evolving set of protocols and processes for networks to talk to networks so that if one fails the message will hopefully find a way through the others available and get to the address given. It is now a jungle of components of uncertain provenance, from the robust and well-engineered to the flaky and amateurish. It also has many known “single points of failure”, albeit most of these are to do with the physical infrastructures (cable and/or wireless) over which traffic runs.
I was delighted that last week the CEO of the Internet Society took time out from the current fire fight over the sale of the Public Internet Registry to speak (at Chatham House) to the consequences of the current consolidation of Internet processes into the hands of dominant players with their single points of failure. The message I derived was the need for information to enable those using the Internet to make better informed decisions on the risks they are willing to accept and/or pay extra to avoid – e.g. hot standby routings using different suppliers, technologies and peering centres. Unlike most events hosted by Chatham House this one was “on the record”. The full video is available here.
The Internet, running over Broadband, is the critical infrastructure for the NHS, as well as the post Brexit Economy
That event reinforced the reasons I was so pleased that the Conservative dash to create the Gigabit instructure that Britain needs to deliver improved Health and welfare at affordable cost, (let alone be globally competitive), was based on competing fibre and 5G networks, not the re-creation of the BT monopoly, with its single points of failure, taking down communities for days, sometime weeks, on end. Looking ahead to a post Brexit world I would like to see the UK positioned as a neutral host for Internet and inter-operability governance events and research: neutral between the US, EU and China. In much the same way as Brexit enables London to retain its positioned as de facto neutral host for most of the worlds Financial services governance and disputes resolution.