Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Something was missing from Theresa May's Brexit speech

The Prime Minister's Florence speech had nothing to say on an issue that could wreck the Brexit talks, her premiership, or both.

Theresa May’s big speech in Florence last week was intended to do two things: to quell the growing divisions in Conservative ranks over Brexit and to restart the stalled talks with the European Union.

As far as the first objective goes, even a generous marker would struggle to give the speech a passing grade. What about the second? To move on to the “future relationship” phase of the talks, there must first be sufficient progress on three areas: the status of the three million citizens from the EU27 living in the United Kingdom, the matter of the United Kingdom’s existing financial liabilities to the rest of the bloc, and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

On financial liabilities, May conceded that the United Kingdom will have to settle its accounts. As far as the rights of citizens go, the rhetoric was good but was undercut by the actual actions being taken by the Home Office right now. So, progress, at least.

What about the Irish border? Here, the speech had nothing at all to say. The difficulty is that for all the British government likes to talk up the potential of “innovation” and “creativity”, if you have a different customs regime – which under the government’s plans, Britain will have when we leave the European Union – then you have to have customs checks at your border.

That means that there will have to be a hard border somewhere on the island of Ireland. Either that will mean cameras and checks on the land border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, or customs checks at ports on goods and some kind of special status for Northern Ireland.

The latter approach makes sense for the economies of both Northern Ireland and the Republic, but effectively creates a united Ireland by the back door, something that is unacceptable for many unionists, most importantly the ten unionist MPs propping up the Conservative majority.

Which reflects on the real reason why Theresa May had nothing to say on the question of the Irish border: because there are no answers that won’t be economically damaging, politically destabilising or imperil her own position in parliament. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.