Martin Veitch: IT's Like This...

Add one more to this list of things that should never go together: oil and water, chalk and cheese, Tom and Jerry, Bill and Monica, Terry and June... here's one: politics and computing.

Not since Caligula decided to make his horse a senator has there been such an ill-advised decision as that of the Labour Party to play the ‘we're old hands at technology role'. Even Tony Blair isn't perfect and this government's understanding of technology issues is as solid as a recycled press release left out in the rain.

As Peter Mandelson was waffling on in Blackpool last week about making Britain the most e-commerce friendly country in the world, he only joined a long list of folks who have tried to adopt the façade of keen-eyed, tech-savvy visionary but only succeeded in donning the fool's motley.

Not since Harold Wilson's Labour government of the 1970s have we had a government with the nous to understand the imperatives of making Britain a computing power to be reckoned with. Wilson famously vowed to bring the "white heat of technology" to Britain. He achieved that goal to some extent by sticking to the basics, notably by adopting the view that education is the seed of a future generation of innovators. Wilson's government brought in distance learning through the Open University, an invaluable resource for late starters the country over. His education spending also brought about the flourishing of polytechnics and the idea of vocational study, inspiring a generation of students to learn subjects like computing.

Of the Thatcher years, it can only be said that they combined the lunacy of a drive towards becoming a service economy with a Luddite approach to education.

Throughout, government has set a terrible example to the great unwashed. Visit the offices of the House of Commons with its mountains of paper, typewriters and carbon paper if you think there's any danger of Britain turning into an advanced wired state.

But it's always been a desirable boast to hype up some imaginary crashing wave of progress that will make up for the loss of our manufacturing industry. After all, it's easy to bluff. Technology is still widely perceived as being the domain of a few geeks and in the kingdom of the blind the one-eyed man is king.

More than any other government, Blair's Labour has hugged computing to its bosom but it is proving to be the embrace of a faithless lover. While the government has made some splendid speeches pledging to put computers in classrooms and pave the way to making Britain a force in online commerce, the foundations are just not there for Britain to rise like some virtual phoenix.

While it is good to hear Mandelson promise legislation to rid us of some of the regulatory clutter that threatens e-commerce, there are several pieces in the UK IT jigsaw that are still missing. Like, it's difficult to be a big deal on the Internet when your local phone charges are so high. Like, it's almost impossible for a British IT company to thrive because of the dire lack of second round funding for startups. Like, we have a transport plan that is an attempt to reduce traffic but offers no encouragement to the concept of teleworking.

Let's face it, the biggest boost to research and design in this country in the last year was the injections of cash by US giant Microsoft, which has bought itself a state-of-the-art research centre in Cambridge.

If government genuinely wants to help the computing sector it needs to do some research and get the basics right first. Otherwise, it would be more pragmatic to leave well alone.


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