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ALEX BRUMMER: Brexit must be launch pad for global UK

ALEX BRUMMER: A nimble economy with creative and scientific advantage, the UK holds many aces – it must now be careful not to gamble them away

  • Being part of the EU has distorted the vision of corporate Britain and government
  • As latecomers to the EU project, Britain has been a proselyte 
  • Both firms and government have chosen to see the nation’s future through the European prism 

Among the most critical roles in government as Britain embarks on its new global journey is the job of Business Secretary. 

Whether Alok Sharma remains in place, or there is a new incumbent, the historically sub-octane Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) will be responsible for firing up a fresh approach to technology, innovation and climate change. 

It must recognise the importance of science, R&D and our great research-based universities. All will be central to the cause if the Government is going to fulfil the vision of a thriving UK outside the EU. 

Flying the flag: The government must recognise the importance of science, R&D and our great research-based universities

Significant changes in strategic direction were taken last year in the shape of more aggressive carbon-free targets for the economy and the pledge to scrutinise closely overseas-generated takeover bids which could impinge on our national security. 

As much as we want to fulfil the Thatcherite vision of an open economy, the UK needs a broader definition of the public interest which embraces the economic consequences of takeover bids. 

There are a number of deals which were allowed in the interregnum between the referendum and January 1, 2021, which should never have happened. The most notable was the £23billion sale of Cambridge-based smart chip pioneer Arm Holdings to Masayoshi Son of Softbank in 2016 in the false belief that the Japanese tech entrepreneur was a long-term and safe owner. Neither has proved true. 

Arm’s valuable Chinese offshoot was sold off to a Chinese entity and exposed to a Beijing power struggle. Silicon Valley competitor Nvidia is now bidding for Arm, recognising the value of its Cambridge-grown intellectual property. 

Other recent transactions which should never have been done are the sales of satellite group Inmarsat and aerospace innovator Cobham. Both had valuable satellite technologies which are now having to be replicated or bought in. 

Among the current crop of takeovers, there are questions to be asked as to whether it is sensible for the UK, a leader in the design of computer gaming, to allow Codemasters to be swallowed by California-based Electronic Arts. 

In online sessions discussing my book The Great British Reboot, the most frequently-posed question is: couldn’t Britain have just as easily pursued a more global strategy, to support great sectors such as tech, pharma and the creative industries, from inside the EU as outside? Possibly, it could and Germany – with its robust manufacturing base – has had success in China. 

Being part of the EU has distorted the vision of corporate Britain and government. As latecomers to the EU project, Britain has been a proselyte. Both firms and government have chosen to see the nation’s future through the European prism.

The UK rigorously has adhered to state aid rules and competitive bidding whereas rivals have not. That’s why there are Siemens trains running on the Thameslink service rather than locomotives built by UK-based Bombardier. 

It is why during the pandemic EU governments provided assistance to aerospace whereas the UK insisted that airlines and aerospace companies should sort out their own problems. 

There has been a big fuss recently, from Labour among others, about how financial services is neglected in the new UK-Europe accord. There is some truth with the drift of an estimated 3,700 jobs and £1.2 trillion of assets under management to the Continent. 

Being tied to Europe in finance is not without problem. On issues such as short trading in shares, bank bonuses and a transactions tax on dealings, the UK has found its form of capitalism under attack. 

The Bank of England’s Andrew Bailey argued during hearings on the Woodford collapse that had UK principle-based regulation been in place, rather than rules-based scrutiny in Brussels, the result may have been very different. 

As the country presses forward with an ambitious infrastructure programme, with £100billion per year in the current spending envelope, escaping the EU will be of real advantage. 

Brussels rules, for instance, restrict insurance and pension fund investment in big projects. Outside the EU, the Bank of England and City regulators will have the opportunity to inject more flexibility into the system. 

As a nimble offshore economy with great creative and scientific advantage, the UK holds many aces. It must now be careful not to gamble them away. 

The Great British Reboot by Alex Brummer is published by Yale University Press

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