Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founding Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
A century after the invention of steam-powered machines in the mid-18th Century, the world’s industrial landscape changed again. The 1870s saw the emergence of new sources of energy – electricity, gas, and oil – heralding the start of a new industrial revolution.
This meant disruption in traditional factories and an upheaval in working conditions. For the first time there was automation in urban workplaces, rather than just a displacement of rural jobs.
It was at this crossroads in our country’s history that Benjamin Disraeli was finally able to articulate his vision for One Nation Conservatism that he had advocated for much of his political career, aiming to unite factory owners and factory workers behind one political message.
His Government achieved domestic reforms that still resonate in the modern context: a Factory Act to protect workers, relaxation of bank loans to give credit to the masses, and the first rights for workers to sue employers in the civil courts.
In less than a decade it was Disraeli’s ‘One Nation’ Conservatism that made the greatest advances in adapting the Party’s policies to the Second Industrial Revolution, swifter than any previous government had been in the 100 years since the First Industrial Revolution.
The lesson that Disraeli gives us modern Conservatives is that we must be bold. In the digital age we should not be afraid to once again re-shape Conservatism, and be radical in response to some of the novel challenges posed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, just as we have in the past.
As a Party, and as a country, we need to find solutions to issues such as the market dominance of a small number of tech firms; the ethical questions posed by advances in science and medicine; and changes in workplaces where robots and AI-powered machines will become pervasive.
We also need new messages to fight back against populism and appeal to parts of the electorate that feel they have not had the opportunity to share in the success of our growing economy.
Just as Disraeli enacted his One Nation vision, our next Prime Minister has to help Britain get to the future first by embracing technology to deliver prosperity. Whilst new policies will be needed in response to a dizzying array of new technologies, and a much-changed societal and economic landscape across Britain, four freedoms – four guiding principles – should define our Conservative approach to governing in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (‘4IR’).
1) Economic Freedom
Key to success in any industrial revolution is ensuring continued economic growth. Every government, including future Conservative administrations, should always work to raise living standards, create jobs, and spread the benefits of globalisation, of which the 4IR is just the latest and fastest phase.
We need to ensure the UK remains a country where businesses thrive. The success of the ‘Big Bang’ in the 1980s was due to Thatcher’s willingness to deregulate and allow innovation to flourish, and we must adopt the same approach to innovation in the 4IR.
We need to have world-class digital infrastructure, as important today as the canals and viaducts of previous industrial revolutions. The groundwork has already begun – we have started to build regional tech hubs, and the roll-out of full fibre broadband and 5G is underway – but this coverage needs to be comprehensive across the country and delivered more rapidly.
Our competitors certainly aren’t wasting time. For example, Singapore has developed a clear strategy to take advantage of the 4IR leveraging open cross-border data flows, 22 transnational free trade agreements, and a strong ethos of policymaking in collaboration with the private sector, all whilst building one of the most tech-savvy workforces on the planet.
Conservatism 4.0 should prioritise the key infrastructure and skills necessary to give our people and businesses the freedom to flourish in the new economy. There is no reason why Britain should fall behind given everything we have going for us.
2) Personal Freedom
Whilst Singapore enjoys undisputed economic success, the country is listed by the Economist Intelligence Unit as a flawed democracy. In pursuing rapid economic growth in the 4IR, we must not allow technology to be used as a tool to erode our cherished freedoms and democracy, nurtured over hundreds of years.
With artificial intelligence and growing inter-connectivity through the Internet of Things, protecting our personal freedoms is key and the second important principle underpinning Conservatism 4.0.
Smart speakers are now recording in our homes and apps track our every movement. In the wrong hands, this information could damage or endanger people – so we must be on the side of the consumer and the citizen when it comes to protecting this data.
We should be delivering a smart state – not big government. A willingness to intervene to prevent social breakdowns is legitimate, but as a Party we should recognise that as far as possible people should be free to make their own choices.
The internet, initially seen as a place to share knowledge free from government control, is becoming ever more closely scrutinised. We need to be clear to what extent the Government can and should be regulating our online lives – and it is a debate that has be conducted in the open.
A new generation of tech-savvy politicians will bring fresh ideas and thoughts to that debate. But ultimately, we should be cautious about curtailing free-speech and content online. China’s online oversight of its citizens’ private lives would never be tolerated in this country. But we need to recognise the power that new technology can have in the hands of big tech firms or over-mighty governments. Our Data Protection Act, passed last year, was a positive reform that gave power back to the consumer.
Just as the White Paper on Online Harms has opened up discussion on what content should be available online, a debate has to take place in other similar areas too. But any future Conservative legislation should always place weight on individual liberty and freedom if we are to make Conservatism 4.0 work in the digital world.
3) Innovation Freedom
Conservatives should always be the Party that backs innovation and favours new technologies. We must be dynamic and digital – and unlike Labour, we shouldn’t tax robots or ban popular disruptive services such as Uber.
We should be focused on creating the most pro-tech business environment in the world, and that means being unafraid of cutting corporation tax to make our country investment-friendly whilst giving our home-grown talent a positive tax environment in which to succeed. With our world-leading universities we can create more world-leading British tech-firms in the coming decade, replicating the entrepreneurial spirit that exists in Silicon Valley.
To be on the side of the entrepreneur we need protection for innovators that fail first time round. In America, tech entrepreneurs can wear failure as a badge of pride. Here they might be less well celebrated for their efforts.
Conservatism 4.0 has to be about creating an environment where innovators are given space to flourish – and that includes the right tax environment, regulations that allow innovation and experimentation, and a more supportive culture for those that take a risk. Freedom to innovate for companies and individuals is key to Conservatism 4.0’s ambition for more entrepreneurs and more new businesses.
4) Democratic Freedom
Democracy should always be our most treasured freedom. But in the digital age, we need to think about how we can renew and engage citizens in the democratic process.
Across the world we see the power of technology propelling populists on both the left and right, often focusing their attention on people who feel disenfranchised from politics and ignored by incumbent decision-makers.
Conservatism 4.0 should be about giving people more opportunities to engage with those in power through technology. But to truly renew our democracy for the 4IR, citizens must be free to use technology to engage more deeply with the political process.
In Spain, one of Madrid’s most successful projects is the Decide Madrid platform. It allows residents to propose, support and vote on policies for the city. So far more than €260m has been allocated to over 800 projects, from new nurseries to solar panels on city buildings.
Meanwhile in Taiwan, there is a digital system in place to bring together citizens and government to collaborate on legislation relating to new technologies. Issues such as the regulation of drones, Uber, the online sale of alcohol and revenge porn have all been debated.
While not every issue is suitable for these kinds of projects, digital platforms can be used to enhance our democracy especially when considering local issues or the challenges faced by technology.
Democracy is a freedom we should never relinquish. But in order to ensure it isn’t assailed by populists we need to look to technology – not as a problem, but as a way to enhance and invigorate democracy for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In the same way that Disraeli set out a compelling and unifying political brand that refused to differentiate between classes, Conservatism 4.0 is about bringing together a country much changed by technology based on four freedoms that benefit everyone. Businesses free to trade and disrupt existing markets, citizens free to live their private lives, innovators free to develop new ideas, and democracy renewed by citizens free to participate more meaningfully.
By adapting Conservatism for the Fourth Industrial Revolution our Party can maintain its ability to govern for the whole country, acting as an antidote to populists that want to throw-up barriers to the world and socialists that believe in a state-controlled economy.
Conservatives have always believed in freedom, and by adapting our approach for the new social and economic landscape shaped by the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we can make it our rallying cry for continued electoral success in the digital age.