Why the Conservatives must embrace the technological revolution
It is easy to dismiss Conservatism as a staid, statist ideology. The clue, one might think, is in the name: the Conservatives are those who wish to conserve the country in the way it is. Progressives, on the other hand, wish for it to progress towards a better and brighter future. It would seem obvious, then that Labour, the party that claims to be the home of ‘progressives’, would be forward-looking and open to innovation while the Conservatives would argue for things to remain as they are – or, indeed, for them to return to how they once were.
Yet at the moment, the opposite is true: the Conservative government is investing billions in tax credits for research and development, setting ambitious targets for broadband coverage and renewable energies, and offering innovative start-up businesses grants, loans, and mentoring opportunities. Meanwhile, Labour and their allies are banning Uber from London’s streets, opposing HS2 and Heathrow Expansion, and seeking to scrap the tuition fees that keep our universities afloat in what appear calculated moves to bring Britain back to the 1970s.
The theoretical explanation for this seeming paradox is simple: pragmatic Conservatives can deal with change as and when it happens, while Corbyn’s left must reconcile any developments with 150-year-old ideological dogmata. To them, ideas ranging from class struggle to the plight of the working man are absolute and unchanging; the same principles hold true now as they did in the era of the steam engine and the workhouse. With every change in the shape of society or the economy, these ever more ill-fitting ideas must be re-fitted and someday, the thread will run out. The Tories’ approach to government, on the other hand, embraces technological revolution and scientific discovery. Far from being threats to an outdated ideology, these are sources of pride in the goodness of the government that allowed them to flourish. Creating the hope for a batter future for everyone.
This is not a new phenomenon. The Conservatives have long been the party of technological progress and scientific advancement. In the 1950s and 60s, Tory governments championed Concorde, computers, and Calder Hall – the first nuclear reactor in the world to be connected to the grid. The Labour government that followed, for all its Wilsonian rhetoric, cancelled most aircraft projects, part-nationalised the burgeoning computer industry, and merged British auto producers into the technological graveyard that was British Leyland. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher – a research chemist in her own right – led a government that more than any before it forced British industry back on the path of research, development, and innovation.
The policies used to achieve this were sometimes very unpopular: accelerating the demise of outdated heavy industries like steel and coal brought benefit to the overall productivity of British industry, but also caused much pain amongst working families. But to these sticks, there were carrots, too: the breaking up of state monopolies on gas, electricity, and telecommunications not only gave millions of Britons a direct stake in the previously aloof and distant service providers upon whom they depended but fostered a culture of innovation in those previously stagnant industries.
We are in a comparable situation today. Some of the policies required to keep Britain ahead of the curve technologically will be unpalatable to many. Energy independence from fossil fuels, for example, is in the long term not only an absolute environmental requirement, but a foreign policy imperative. Yet the construction of new, modern power plants is all too often politically disastrous: The construction of Hinkley Point C has nearly bankrupted EDF and caused a series of political crises from Somerset to South Wales. In a country where even the construction of wind turbines is routinely the object of local ire, it is perhaps unsurprising that the construction of new nuclear reactors would raise the hackles of many.
But it is unconscionable that other, less naturally controversial projects, in primis the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon – the first application of a revolutionary British technology with the potential to power nearly 10% of the UK – be kept in limbo for years out of political incertitude. The housing crisis, too, has technological remedies that must receive more government support. Innovative methods of off-site prefabrication are far removed in technology, materials, and workmanship from the shoddy ‘pre-fab’ blocks of the 50s and 60s that still blight our cities to-day.
Yet the association lingers, and the reputation of prefabrication amongst the general public remains so poor that many refuse outright to buy such homes. This not only increases costs to homebuyers, but puts the British construction industry on the technological backfoot – and, most critically, reduces the number of viable sites for sorely-needed new homes by increasing the cost of construction. In so obvious an instance of market failure, it is the government’s prerogative to embrace the future of construction by providing financial support – whether in the form of grants, loans, or tax credits – to local authorities, property developers, and individual buyers who choose these new, more energy- and cost-efficient homes over the brick boxes of yore.
There are, of course, more popular and immediate ways to support the advance of technology. Established internet-based service companies like Uber and Deliveroo are incredibly popular with millions of Brits. Indeed, the young city-dwellers whom the Conservatives have so far failed to reach are disproportionately those who make use of them; their benefit must prevail over the vested interests of a few local interest groups. Simultaneously, smaller start-ups must be encouraged to set up shop and, crucially, to continue growing. In this sense, much has already been done: financial support, mentoring opportunities, and even – as recently announced by the Home Secretary – a dedicated start-up visa.
There nonetheless remain regulatory, financial, and tax barriers that must be torn down for these firms truly to flourish. Opposition to such measures stems largely from Labour politicians and trades unionists, who regard the digital economy not as an opportunity for Britain’s future, but as the apotheosis of an arch-Capitalist system. Yet supporting internet-based companies, especially start-ups, not only wins votes but sets a clear sign that Britain will remain open to innovation and technological revolution post-Brexit. With the Left having strayed from its Wilsonian belief in the transformative power of the white heat of technological change and choosing to instead embrace a reactionary return to an imagined socialist utopia the Conservatives cannot simply defend Britain’s past, but must embrace its future.