Beyond the spin - the insider's guide to UK politics and IT

The Government's desire to make the UK 'the number one digital economy in the world' shows the dominance of IT as a key issue in...

The Government's desire to make the UK 'the number one digital economy in the world' shows the dominance of IT as a key issue in politics. In the first of six weekly columns, explores the truth behind the soundbites

Information technology is one of the dominant issues in UK politics today. It permeates all aspects of the Government's agenda. It's on every political party's manifesto plans.

Unfortunately, such laudable ambitions do not translate themselves always into equally laudable policies, or legislation. Unfortunately, the consequences of these decisions directly affect every IT professional in the UK.

At the heart of government is a major division. As the Government struggles to come to terms with the "knowledge economy" and the revolution in business and life that computer and communications technology has brought, the division between Whitehall and Labour's natural tendency to regulate and Tony Blair's desire to make the UK the number one digital economy in the world'' is all too clear.

It showed in the battle between the Department of Trade and Industry and the Home Office over the "cyber-snooping'' Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Bill. The DTI managed to get the controversial legislation hived off from its own proposals, but Home Secretary Jack Straw still got his way despite the industry's deep concerns.

In politics, and most of all in this ideologically bereft government, personalities are important. In a cabinet led by a prime minister who admits to having to take IT lessons to catch up with his children, the loss of Peter Mandelson - one of the few fully computer-literate ministers - is a huge blow.

But under the last Tory government,
IR35 - What a great wheeze that must have seemed to the tax inspectors at the time - what a mess it has turned out to be in reality
Bill Jacobs
the IT-literate somehow never made it either, to the benefit of the industry. Kenneth Baker forgot his technological expertise as his importance, and self-importance in government, grew. John Butcher got sidelined and then sacked for an embarrassing habit of telling the truth, while the same fate fell to Ian Taylor - an IT Minister with massive respect in the computer community - because his pro-European views did not fit with the wind of his increasingly sceptical colleagues. Now it's debatable if he'll still be in the party after the next election.

The impact of personalities on politics and policy is never to be underestimated, especially in your field where so few of our professional politicians have the slightest idea what they are talking about.

But watch the civil servants too. Remember that little Inland Revenue note to the Budget called IR35? What a great wheeze that must have seemed to the tax inspectors at the time - and what a mess it has turned out to be in reality.

And let's not forget the Government's ability to make a mess of IT procurement contracts with a knock on effect both in terms of company profitability and public confidence in the industry.

Then there's Europe where, apparently, remote directives rubber-stamped by Westminster Ministers and civil servants have a huge effect.

Almost every arm of government can affect your ability to make your business a success - be it a FTSE 100 company, a self-employed IT consultant or a supplier.

Some legislation, such as the RIP and IR35, are easy to follow. However, many, such as those that affect employees' statutory rights, privacy and data protection, are less easy to interpret. Understanding how much red tape will affect your working life is crucial if you're to avoid becoming ensnared in it.

Before Tony Blair goes to the country on June 7, you need to know whether he is delivering his promises on the "information society" and the knowledge economy.

You'll need to know how much of what he says has substance to it and how much of it is merely spin.

In addition, you need to know whether the Tories have finally come to terms with the new digital era and whether the Liberal Democrats can be more than sideshow.

Gleaning the real meaning behind the policies and the slogans is an essential business tool. The run-up to the General Election - foot and mouth crisis permitting - could prove to be a rollercoaster ride as the parties vie with each other to demonstrate their IT credentials in their efforts to woo business support. Buckle up for a white-knuckle ride.

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