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The politics of the AI age

The politics of the AI age


The Blair-Hague report has plenty of technical recommendations; where will it leave democracy?


There are two ways of reading Jean-Claude Juncker’s famous comment: “We all know what to do, but we don’t know how to get re-elected once we have done it.”

One is that democracy is doomed; necessary policy is bad politics. The other, more optimistic reading is that there are people who know what’s needed. It might be difficult and different, but they have a clear sense of direction.

This week, two men who spent a fair chunk of their professional lives looking to do each other in came together to offer a vision of a better, healthier, smarter and more prosperous Britain. Tony Blair and William Hague, previously leaders of the Labour and Conservative parties, published “A New National Purpose”. It argues that the science and technology revolution of the 21st Century will dwarf the industrial revolution in its consequences and it requires a fundamental reshaping of the state, a once-in-a-generation change in the operating model of the British economy.

I wouldn’t generally recommend policy papers as weekend reading. And, to be sure, it’s not as good as Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, the best short novel I’ve read in years. But, if you have an hour, read it, because it makes you raise your sights, understand better the machinery and culture of government and give you reason to believe that the UK doesn’t need to be on a path of inevitable decline. We do have choices; just not the ones generally presented.

I’m James Harding, the Editor of Tortoise, and when we got up and running in 2019, I tried to set out “What we are for”. Perhaps the Blair-Hague report appealed to me in particular, because it too confronts what I thought of then as the “obsolete politics” of our times, of left and right, a world of new, accelerating problems being met by old ideas. 

So, in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail, I hope to do two things: one is reflect on the radical and, to me at least, sensible changes that they propose; and the other is to ask what is the politics that will accompany the smaller, more effective state that they envisage? It’s one thing to know what needs to be done, of course, another to work out how to get elected doing it.

Read in a certain mood, there’s plenty in the Blair-Hague report to make you worry deeply for the future of the UK. “Without radical change, we risk decline,” they write, showing a mastery of understatement. Because here’s a sample of some of the data points that follow:

  • Amazon spent over $40 billion on R&D in 2020 – that’s double the UK government’s R&D budget.
  • The US and China account for more than half the world’s supercomputing power; the UK contributes 1.3 per cent, less than Finland and Italy.
  • Even in biotech, an area the UK should do well in given the strengths of its universities, the NHS and history of innovation in life sciences, there’s not much to shout about: only one out of 27 of the biggest advances in synthetic biology came from the UK.
  • Technology accounts for less than 5 per cent of the UK’s total market capitalisation; in Germany, it’s 11 per cent; in the US, roughly a third.
  • Only two of the world’s top 100 R&D spending companies – GSK and AstraZeneca – are based in the UK; Germany has a dozen.
  • And, while the UK likes to talk about setting the standards and safeguarding the values of the Artificial Intelligence age, it’s worth noting that Beijing made 90 per cent of the standards proposals for surveillance technologies submitted between 2016 and 2019.

Talk of Britain these days – as Boris Johnson used to – as a “global science superpower” is not scientific. It’s arrogant, delusional and self-defeating. 

Britain is adrift. And, to the credit of Blair and Hague, they’re not coy about saying why. The UK seriously underinvests in R&D and, they add, taking a swipe at both Labour and Conservative governments, we “have done for 40 years”. They blame the Treasury’s “excessive power” and “policymaking by accountant” mindset. Hostility to immigration has been a problem too: 14 per cent of UK residents are born in another country, but 49 per cent of the fastest growing businesses have at least one foreign-born co-founder. Brexit is a big part of the problem: it has not only made it harder for would-be migrants to come to the UK, Brexit’s also torn Britain away from EU research programmes such as Horizon.

But here’s where the two men really get into their stride. They meet these problems with dozens of what they wonkishly call “technical recommendations,” but they are, in fact, a manifesto for a rewriting of government, the education system, health services and the capital markets.

There was a fair bit of talk this week about their proposal for digital IDs, seized upon by the newspapers and radio programmes for being, apparently, controversial. The truth is that digital IDs is one of the least radical and most doable “technical recommendations” on their to-do list. For example, Blair and Hague suggest:

  • Changes to pension funds that, together, would create a different kind of UK wealth fund. They say that pensions capital gains tax exemption should only remain for funds worth £25 billion and over – forcing a huge consolidation of the pension fund industry – and then only if those funds invest 25 per cent of their money in UK assets: UK infrastructure, UK equities or UK growth companies. And they also propose combining two of the government’s pension programmes to create a UK Pension Plan Investment Fund – much like the Canadians have – and then instructing that fund to invest 25 per cent of its total £100 billion into similar UK assets. 
  • Here’s another suggestion: they recommend a rewriting of government’s approach to investment, either curtailing the Treasury’s oversight of departments or breaking the Treasury in two; asking science and technology experts to review investment decisions rather than Treasury officials using “value for money” criteria. In other words, as they put it, “a significant cultural change towards risk tolerance”.

Some of the recommendations are revealing, because they’re woolly or have a whiff of wishful thinking. They suggest the UK should establish a “T3” – Technology 3 – of the UK, EU and US on global technology standards; that sounds great, but those continental economies aren’t exactly cooperating with each other much now – why would they turn to us? The UK can play a leadership role in the global regulation of AI, they say, given the co-location of technical and governance expertise in London. Really? Without leadership in technology itself or a meaningful role in a continental market like the EU, it’s hard to see this country being a standard-setter for responsible AI. Rule taker, maybe, not a rule maker.

But, perhaps most interesting of all, the two men recognise it’s time for a different kind of government “A successful British state,” they write, “will likely be smaller in scope but more effective in its delivery.”

When I read that, I thought: I’d love to know what they think, as politicians, is needed to get to this smaller, more effective state: what will the UK government stop doing? And how to do that, while still getting reelected?

And then when I heard them talking this week about getting beyond 20th-century political arguments and tinkering rows over tax and spend, I wondered what they think will become of their parties now, given how consumed both parties are by exactly those old arguments.

What is a Conservative party conserving? What is a Conservative party in an age of accelerating change? An oxymoron, a reflex, an obsolete emotion? And, by the same token, what is Labour in an age of automation and artificial intelligence where people are much more than workers, where work itself might play a different role in life? Is Labour, like Conservative, just the same: a brand, an idea that’s out of date? The two political parties forged in the industrial revolution must surely look, both to Blair and Hague, like shire horses in the age of the motorcar, soon to be overtaken. 

But overtaken by what? Because politics never rests. Science and technology are going to cleave new dividing lines. Simply put, the factories of the industrial revolution forged the politics of capital vs labour, Left vs Right that dominated the 19th and much of the 20th centuries. Those evolved into arguments over public ownership vs private enterprise, state vs market arguments in the postwar years. And then after the fall of the Berlin Wall came the age of globalisation and with it, what Tony Blair defined as a political dividing line between open and closed, parties that wanted open societies and economies, ones that wanted to close and keep control and the world at bay.

Surely the accelerating and exponential power of science and technology is going to create a new political dynamic again, an evolution in politics, but to what? To me, it looks like the logical extension of left and right will be an argument that pits society vs the individual, shared interests against personal freedom, the public interest vs the human interest. But it’s hard to know now. It’s the argument, funnily enough, I’d love to hear between Tony Blair and William Hague. What is the evolution of left and right in the age of science and technology? They don’t spell it out in the New National Purpose. But then, there’s no “technical recommendation” for politics.