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Matt Warman MP on Governing the Digital Economy

We live in a period of unprecedented technological change – from Uber drivers’ new ways of working to fields that are in the near future likely to be worked even more by robots, the digital economy is more physical than ever. So what is government’s role in smoothing a huge transition, catalysing it and also protecting workforces from potentially unintended consequences?

It is an easy, if slightly lazy, trope to suggest that just because every previous industrial revolution has created jobs rather than destroyed them, so too will this fourth one. While it is likely to be true in the medium to long term, it may be a bumpy process in the immediate future. The path to tread surely sits somewhere between resisting the calls of a new generation of Luddites who want to see robots taxed and letting ‘progress’ run riot. To take a totally laissez faire approach risks fuelling a bubble that might not do the economy much good, while also storing up problems for the future that will only have to be fixed anyway once the dust has settled.

In the 70 years from the beginning of the industrial revolution that began in 1760, wages rose a measly 22 per cent, according to the Journal of Economic History. Much was going on at the time to muddy those figures, but it is as we think about today too. With some economists already claiming working age people in 1969 were better off than their equivalents today, there is plenty of evidence that regulators and policymakers need to tread carefully. And counter-intuitively, meanwhile, workers’ rights saw unprecedented improvements, alongside the beginning of the first notions of leisure time for workers as well as employers.

There are, therefore, a number of vital topics to address: how does government best foster growth, protect workers and promote industries that will make the most difference without falling into the trap of picking winners.

I do not think, as some do, that we lack the tools to tackle these challenges. Indeed, the changes are very often data driven, meaning they can be measured in more ways than ever before. That provides an opportunity to focus tightly on those issues that will make the most difference to Britain’s historic productivity challenges: rural robots should allow us to tackle food security, safety and a post-Brexit approach to unskilled migration; driverless vehicles and drones may yet show that congestion, safety and a host of other related issues can be tackled relatively quickly; digital taxation will challenge the nature of accountancy.

What each of these examples reveals, however, is both that no profession is safe from the digital onslaught, and that in the intermediate period there will be some peculiar consequences. Amazon is often criticised for creating a host of hard, tedious jobs in warehouses where workers’ rights have been scrutinised at length. What those doing the scrutinising often ignore is that if Amazon (and others like it) could replace those human pickers and packers with robots of course they would. So might the best balance to strike be both to protect those workers like anybody else while also providing Amazon with incentives to invest in the research and development that encourages the building of those robots?

It is, indeed, in upskilling workers that the future lies – the successors of super-profitable companies such as Google, Apple and others will be the engines whose taxes fund the kind of investment in education that will need to be just as unprecedented as the changes through which we are living now.

Finally, therefore, a thought on that tax challenge: a global, searchable index of tax laws and regulations is not that far away. The assumption is that such a thing is in the interests of tax avoiders and those who make money from advising them. The reverse is of course the real case: how else can we encourage the kind of cooperation that means everybody fairly pays what is due other than by understanding what the complex interactions truly are, rather than leaving it to mere human beings to spot loopholes and then seek to close them? That, more than drones or driverless cars, will empower legislators to deliver the world for which we all so often campaign.

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an introduction from James Johns of HPE and Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view last week. Next week will be SNP MP, Calum Kerr’s take on how he responds to the challenges of governing the digital economy.

Matt Warman is the Member of Parliament for Boston and Skegness & former Technology Editor at the Daily Telegraph.

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Daniel Hannan harks back to the days of empire - the Angevin Empire

Did the benign rule of some 12th century English kings make western France vote Macron over Le Pen?

I know a fair amount about British politics; I know a passable amount about American politics, too. But, as with so many of my fellow Britons, in the world beyond that, I’m lost.

So how are we, the monolingual Anglophone opinionators of the world, meant to interpret a presidential election in a country where everyone is rude enough to conduct all their politics in French?

Luckily, here’s Daniel Hannan to help us:

I suppose we always knew Dan still got a bit misty eyed at the notion of the empire. I just always thought it was the British Empire, not the Angevin one, that tugged his heartstrings so.

So what exactly are we to make of this po-faced, historically illiterate, geographically illiterate, quite fantastically stupid, most Hannan-y Hannan tweet of all time?

One possibility is that this was meant as a serious observation. Dan is genuinely saying that the parts of western France ruled by Henry II and sons in the 12th century – Brittany, Normandy, Anjou, Poitou, Aquitaine – remain more moderate than those to the east, which were never graced with the touch of English greatness. This, he is suggesting, is why they generally voted for Emmanuel Macron over Marine Le Pen.

There are a number of problems with this theory. The first is that it’s bollocks. Western France was never part of England – it remained, indeed, a part of a weakened kingdom of France. In some ways it would be more accurate to say that what really happened in 1154 was that some mid-ranking French nobles happened to inherit the English Crown.

Even if you buy the idea that England is the source of all ancient liberties (no), western France is unlikely to share its political culture, because it was never a part of the same polity: the two lands just happened to share a landlord for a while.

As it happens, they didn’t even share it for very long. By 1215, Henry’s youngest son John had done a pretty good job of losing all his territories in France, so that was the end of the Angevins. The English crown reconquered  various bits of France over the next couple of centuries, but, as you may have noticed, it hasn’t been much of a force there for some time now.

At any rate: while I know very little of French politics, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess the similarities between yesterday's electoral map and the Angevin Empire were a coincidence. I'm fairly confident that there have been other factors which have probably done more to shape the French political map than a personal empire that survived for the length of one not particularly long human life time 800 years ago. Some wars. Industrialisation. The odd revolution. You know the sort of thing.

If Daniel Hannan sucks at history, though, he also sucks at geography, since chunks of territory which owed fealty to the English crown actually voted Le Pen. These include western Normandy; they also include Calais, which remained English territory for much longer than any other part of France. This seems rather to knacker Hannan’s thesis.

So: that’s one possibility, that all this was an attempt to make serious point; but, Hannan being Hannan, it just happened to be a quite fantastically stupid one.

The other possibility is that he’s taking the piss. It’s genuinely difficult to know.

Either way, he instantly deleted the tweet. Because he realised we didn’t get the joke? Because he got two words the wrong way round? Because he realised he didn’t know where Calais was?

We’ll never know for sure. I’d ask him but, y’know, blocked.

UPDATE: Breaking news from the frontline of the internet: 

It. Was. A. Joke.

My god. He jokes. He makes light. He has a sense of fun.

This changes everything. I need to rethink my entire world view. What if... what if I've been wrong, all this time? What if Daniel Hannan is in fact one of the great, unappreciated comic voices of our time? What if I'm simply not in on the joke?

What if... what if Brexit is actually... good?

Daniel, if you're reading this – and let's be honest, you are definitely reading this – I am so sorry. I've been misunderstanding you all this time.

I owe you a pint (568.26 millilitres).

Serious offer, by the way.


Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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