Economic Prosperity

William Hague and Tony Blair: "Science Is the Single Issue All Our Dreams Depend On"

Commentary22nd February 2023

When we were battling each other in the Commons as prime minister and leader of the opposition, we never guessed that two decades later we would produce a joint report on the vital steps that need to be taken to secure the future of our country.

But politics must change radically because the world is changing radically. We are living through a 21st-century technology revolution as huge in its implications as the 19th-century Industrial Revolution.

Just as it took the political debate decades to catch up with the events then reshaping the economy and society, so today we are in danger of conducting a 20th-century fight at the margins of tax and spending policy when the issue is how we harness this new revolution to reimagine the state and public services.

The private sector is already, by market necessity, being reshaped. Individuals are living differently. The risk is that, as ever, the state and government are the last to change.

Britain must discover its place in this new world. We both believe the challenge is so urgent, the danger of falling behind so great and the opportunities so exciting that a new sense of national purpose across political dividing lines is needed.

The world is set for the fastest and most comprehensive period of innovation in the history of human civilisation, embracing artificial intelligence; the use of data and the cloud; biotech and its ability to transform medical science; and innovation to produce clean energy and solve climate change.

Everything from education and fighting crime through to defence, as Ukraine is showing daily, should be altered by this revolution. It is the only way to improve services while reducing or containing costs.

Trying to achieve any political dream of left or right, whether that be a growing economy, a more equal society, flourishing trade, more profitable firms, an efficient public sector, world-class education, a healthier population, stronger defence, a way forward after Brexit, or an optimistic future for young people – you name it – will come to little unless we lead in science, technology and innovation.

Many people in Britain are fully alive to this. We are among the world leaders in the quality of our universities and the vigour of technology start-ups. The creation by the prime minister of a department focused on science and the emphasis by the leader of the opposition on green technology are important steps.

Both main parties agree on the need to raise research and development spending. Yet a more radical agenda –  all-pervading across government, pursued across party lines through the 2020s – is needed.

With America attracting vast investments through its Inflation Reduction Act, China seeking global leadership in the key industries of the future, and the EU moving to compete with them, we need to focus on how to mobilise and equip millions of Britons, with government and business, to get ahead. This cannot be done half-heartedly. And it cannot wait.

Our report, published today, sets out our ideas for a fundamental reshaping of the state around technology. This is not about traditional left and right debates. It should lead to a more strategic state with an entirely new operating model.

We advocate reorganising the centre of Whitehall to drive the use of data and AI across government, including digital ID for every citizen, a national health infrastructure that uses data to improve care and keep costs down, and sovereign AI systems backed by supercomputing capabilities.

Government should treat data as a competitive asset, use procurement to promote innovation in Britain, release risk capital by reforming pension fund rules and give more freedom to research institutions. It should continue to raise R&D funding, create new models of funding research, reform infrastructure planning to deliver fast decisions, personalise education with technology and build stronger partnerships on science with the EU and around the globe. Such a programme is the real growth agenda.

These issues – and of course opinions can differ on the precise prescriptions – should be front and centre of political debate. Technology is not some geeky side issue to be got to once the “real political debates” have raged. It is the issue – its opportunities and its dangers. The fact that it transcends partisan politics is, in our judgment, a good thing. A new national purpose needs new politics to achieve it. And the time is now.

This article was originally published in The Times on 22 February 2023 and is co-authored by William Hague and Tony Blair. Click here for their full joint report, A New National Purpose.

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