Adam Afriyie is MP for Windsor. He was Shadow Minister for Science and Innovation from 2007 to 2010. He is Chairman of the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST), Chairman of the Parliamentary Space Committee, President of the Conservative Technology Forum and Founder of Conservative Friends of Science.
From Peel to Thatcher, the concepts of science and innovation have been integral to Conservative attitudes. Indeed, as a respected research scientist, Margaret Thatcher was the embodiment of science in office.
If science is about building on acquired knowledge to inform decisions for the future – a fundamentally Conservative notion – then innovation is its perfect partner. Innovation, as an evolutionary process, has always been a mainstay of Conservative thought. By invoking the past to make sense of the present, science and innovation blend the most appealing aspects of the traditionalist and progressive traditions of the party, and offer a convincing route to increasing the nation’s prosperity.
Conservatives are natural innovators
Adaptation is the key to survival. To innovate goes with the grain of human nature. Conservatives take this outlook a step further. We believe that people should be free to adopt new practices, rather than have ‘grand ideas’ imposed upon them by self-appointed elites in smoke-filled back rooms. We understand the intrinsic risks of radical change, but we recognise that to stand still or retreat into the past would be equally destructive.
But what is innovation? It is more than scientific discovery. Innovation is about the introduction of new products, services and ways of doing things that will improve our quality of life.
The Government’s role in innovation
If government is to allow innovation to flourish in wider society, it must first introduce innovative approaches to the process of government. It must adopt a two-track mindset: first, to incorporate innovative practices in the public sector and, second, to establish an environment in which innovation can thrive in the private sector.
At the second anniversary of the Conservative-led Coalition notable progress has been made, but the direction of travel has sometimes been muddled. The Prime Minister has set out his vision for a more dynamic British society with bigger people and a small state, but Coalition politics naturally gets in the way of putting that vision fully into practice. Radical and destabilising reform of the Lords is not a priority for hard-working families and job-seekers. It will not create the jobs and prosperity that an innovative and wholly Conservative Government can bring. It is time to reaffirm our progressive Conservative values in the modern world, not shy from them.
Francis Maude’s efforts to embed open data as an operating principle of government will drive economic growth and improve public services. Now could be the time for all new government IT systems to publish datasets for commercial use as the default position.
The Hargreaves review gives the Coalition has an opportunity to deliver an intellectual property framework that promotes innovation and growth. I believe that it is also now time to give the Intellectual Property Office a new duty to market the publicly registered intellectual property in its care.
The Government is committed to delivering the best superfast broadband in Europe by 2015. Given the state of the public finances, we cannot rely on government spending alone. Innovation holds the key to delivering our goal. When today’s satellites can beam high-speed internet access to every region of Britain, we must not inadvertently restrict the use of such innovative technologies that can bring instant access to remote areas.
Removing barriers to work
When I chaired the Conservative Deregulation Task Force in 2008, we sought to stimulate innovation and growth by removing unhelpful regulations. Progress has been made – despite stiff resistance from LibDems – but there is a long way to go. Now is the time to re-double our efforts to release private sector innovation, particularly in the area of employment law.
The pace of innovation will determine Britain’s place in the world. We must not only embrace innovation but actively remove the obstacles to it. The solutions to our current challenges will not come from the stranglehold of state bureaucracy and top-down control, but from placing our trust in the spirit of innovation.
But let’s be honest: even good governments are inherently bad at innovation. We need an economy with a bigger and more vibrant private sector. The Prime Minister has made some progress, but it is time to renew our efforts in the next Conservative manifesto.
Traditionalist or moderniser, innovation is in the Conservative DNA. Only by restating our core Conservative values can we secure the jobs and economic growth our country requires.