UK Politics

The UK economy needs Brexit to be a science and innovation “moonshot” moment

BY George Freeman   /  16 July 2019

After nine years in government, choosing a third Prime Minister in three years, the Conservative Party has to reunite and renew its popular mandate. But that won’t happen with a leader who promises more of the same. The only way we can win the next general election and keep a Marxist out of Downing Street is by choosing a candidate with a positive vision, communication skills and profile to take the battle to Corbyn’s New Left.

But I’m backing Boris Johnson for more than just his skills as a campaigner. The scale of the crisis the Conservative party faces is unprecedented in recent decades. This is a 1975, 1945 or 1905 moment of real change. As I set out in my recent book Britain Beyond Brexit, this is no time for tinkering. We are about to embark on a new chapter in our nation’s history. To succeed, we will need an economic policy that is as fresh and bold as that of the Thatcher enterprise revolution forty years ago.

The central insight of Thatcher’s generation was that private enterprise was the engine of our mutual prosperity. In seven years, that administration rescued Britain from being the sick man of Europe and made us the enterprise capital of the world.

We face such a crisis moment again. But the economic challenge this time is different. With a huge post-crash debt legacy, low growth and an economy dependant on cheap labour, we need a new economic growth cycle to raise living standards for all.

For too many people in Britain, “globalisation” has come to mean the UK being a London-dominated cheap labour service economy for the world’s super rich, rather than it a chance for Global Britain to trade our way out of debt by connecting to the faster growing markets. Through my work founding and financing technology companies for 15 years before entering Parliament, and then as UK Trade Envoy to the Philippines and then the world’s first Minister for Life Science in the 2010-16 Coalition, it’s clear to me that science and innovation are now the engines of our future prosperity.

From agri-tech to AI, genomics, regenerative medicine, synthetic biology, robotics, satellites, big data, hydrogen fuel cells, nanotechnology and carbon capture the UK is the laboratory of the innovations reshaping our world. As the developing world goes through agricultural and industrial revolutions in the next 30 years, that we pioneered here in the UK over the last 300 yrs, there are huge markets opening up for our innovation. But for decades we have been terrible at harnessing the full commercial value of these innovations.

The countries who put science and innovation at the heart of their economic mission will dominate the twenty-first century. And, liberated from the anti-science bias of much EU regulation holding back UK science – as set out in my report for the Fresh Start EU Reform Group in 2014 – we have a unique chance to lead the way as the crucible of the innovation reshaping the globe.

How? First, we need to avoid this political crisis turning into an economic crisis. With growing concern in the City and markets about the real dangers of a recession following slowing global growth, trade wars and Brexit uncertainty, we must restore business confidence.

If HMG was a company, it would be a sleepy old corporation with a sliding share price and Brexit would be like a management buyout without any clarity on the new company’s business plan. As in business, being clear on the goal is key. Clarity on our vision will make the mechanism of the Withdrawal Agreement easier to agree. What we lack isn’t managerialism, but a bold vision, and the Brexit credibility and positive energy to pursue it. That’s why it has to be Boris.

We need a proper vision of our future domestic and global economy.

Some people may have been surprised by my support for Boris. But they shouldn’t be. Boris gets the power of science and innovation. When I was Life Science Minister and he was mayor of London he launched MedCity and helped turn London into Europe’s leading city for science. He was a crucial champion of the “Eight Great Technologies” campaign I launched with David Willetts. He supported my Fresh Start campaign to unleash the global potential of UK science and innovation. We worked together on it when he was mayor launching the Crick Institute and supporting Hammersmith and UCLPartners.

He understands how science can power economic growth. Take one very specific example – genomics. The science of genetics is now driving a transformation of medicine and agriculture in a new “bio-economy” with vast potential for global growth. This isn’t a future aspiration, but a very real and current global race for dominance and the huge trade and investment that goes with it. But, for too long, we have been burdened with EU anti-genetic regulation, banning innovations like the the blight-resistant potato and the commercial opportunities of gene-editing.

In 2011, we launched the Life Science Industrial Strategy and the UK’s ground-breaking NHS genomics and digitalisation programme. The consequences have been seismic, triggering a surge in UK investment. China has already started copying our programme but at a much bigger scale. They understand how important this will be to their future economic growth and are making it a national priority. If we’re not careful, we will lose our first-mover advantage.

We need bold ideas that inspire the same way as JFK’s “Moonshot” idea did in the 1960s. Why don’t we launch a Commonwealth genomics programme, to use the global reach of the Commonwealth network to pool our collective resources and achieve life-saving breakthroughs in tropical diseases like malaria and other killer infections? It is the perfect demonstration of how we can use our unique assets – our NHS, our Commonwealth network, the research of our world-beating universities – to power a new cycle of economic growth. It is a model for our future growth post-Brexit.

Innovation is also going to be key in addressing the Brexit grievances in places where people feel left behind. We should be implementing Rishi Sunak MP’s Freeports idea and Enterprise Zones. We can also look at Capital Gains Tax incentives for long-term risk capital and “UK Science ISAs”, savings plans to pool investment, creating a chance for everyone to participate in this exciting sector

Of course, we must also prepare for the unlikely scenario of no deal. I do not want to see it. Nor do sensible colleagues. Nor does Boris, as he has said repeatedly in interviews. But uncertainty also has a negative cost. As Amber Rudd very powerfully set out this weekend, we must now recognise that preparedness to accept no deal has to be part of our negotiating strategy.

If it does come to pass, then long term confidence in our economic prospects will be key. Our science and innovation sectors will be even more vital.  It makes it all the more important for us to put science and innovation at the centre of our national mission, an urgent priority within the first hundred days, with a Minister for Science and Innovation and global tech transfer at Cabinet level tasked with leading this work across the relevant departments.

The crisis we face demands a profound response. We have a once-in-a-generation chance to put science and innovation at the heart of a new UK economic policy for Global Britain Beyond Brexit. Boris Johnson has embraced that mission. He is the only candidate in this contest with the vision and charisma to make it happen. If we get this right, we can put in place the foundations of prosperity for a whole new generation, just as Thatcher’s reforms did forty years ago. The prize is a truly great one – for the life chances of future generations.  We must seize it.

George Freeman MP was Minister for Life Science and UK Trade Envoy in the Coalition Government, is Chair of the Conservative Policy Forum and Founder of the 2020 Conservative Group of MPs and editor of their recent book ‘Britain Beyond Brexit: a New Conservative Vision for a New Generation’


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