The Brexit process has profoundly affected the UK, including many of its key sectors, from science and technology to security and defence. In order to understand the impact to some of the primary fields of the economy, and of research and development, we caught up with a very senior figure in British politics, who has extensive experiences in these areas.
Ian Taylor MBE was a Member of Parliament (1987-2010), Minister for Science, Space and Technology (1994-97), and advisor to the European Space Agency (ESA). He holds the Sir Arthur C. Clarke Award for Individual Achievement in Promoting Space and Science (2008) and is the Chair of the Advisory Board of UK Innovation & Science Seedfund (UKi2s) which invests risk equity capital in ventures emerging from the national science research base.
Mr Taylor, as a long-standing Minister for Science, Space and Technology, and a key investor in scientific research, what is your view on the impact of Brexit on science?
There are all sorts of issues which British science and technology are experiencing due to the Brexit process. The Royal Society recently published a detailed analysis of how Brexit has harmed UK science. The impact has been huge, with the UK’s annual share of EU research funding falling by €500 million in just four years. There is also a decline in current UK applications to Horizon 2020 by nearly 40%. Furthermore, there are 35% fewer scientists coming to the UK through key schemes, not to mention technology workers and other key experts. This is already the case prior to Brexit actually taking place. [The Royal Society’s analysis paper can be found here]
If Brexit happens, the issue will deepen as there are likely to be more employment obstacles. We have not worked out what the widely proclaimed ‘points system’ for visas is going to be, so it is all very well saying we will get the best and brightest to come to Britain, but that is a long way from the reality. Just think of the psychology, if you come here, you want to feel welcome, and you want to be sure that you are going to be able to bring your family and settle. So, we have not thought through those things beyond the legalities.
Furthermore, we are already seeing that scientific teams, which have been working in the UK and have been funded by the Horizon2020 programme, are now breaking up. They are saying that the next research budget will probably exclude Britain, and they have now got to build new relationships, so they are going back to their own countries to do that on a collaborative basis. Even many non-EU scientists and countries, such as India, are saying that they like sending their top scientists to Britain because we are part of the EU. This gives India access to collaborative programmes; however, as we may no longer be part of it, they are thinking carefully about what the implications are.
There are those in the UK which would counter this argument and present a vision for Britain as a ‘Singapore in the North Atlantic’.
Singapore is a huge success story; however, I do not think that the people who promote this idea for the UK understand the governance issues and the level of welfare standards and employee protections in Singapore. We are a highly socially developed country, and we have rules and regulations, we have extensive protections for workers’ rights. We also have an extremely expensive, but much loved and needed National Health Service. There are all sorts of things which are very British, which people do not want to give up so that we can become a Singapore in the North Atlantic. I believe that anyone who tries that will very quickly lose public support. So, it may initially sound like a positive argument; however, it would be an awful prospect for those living in this country, and it is completely implausible.
The case for a Singapore in the North Atlantic also completely misses the point that if we try to move in that direction it will be noticed in Brussels and we still do not have a free trade agreement with our biggest trading partner. So, the EU will say that we have to unwind some of this idea if we want to deal with them.
This points to the major problem with the Leave campaign – we were promised during the referendum that there would not be a problem with staying in the Single Market and ensuring frictionless trade. Even David Davis, who was Chief Negotiator for exiting the EU and by the way Chairman of the Federation of Conservative Students, after me back in the 70s, made many of those arguments. I am afraid this is the problem with Brexit – the public do not know the facts at all.
That is why I favour a second referendum, we have decided in principle, now let us test it out when we know what the implications are and if people are happy with them. For example, if Nissan is going to close their Sunderland plant, are the people in Sunderland happy that this is a consequence of the leave vote that they made in the first referendum.
There is increasing debate around a People’s Vote. What do you think are the chances it will take place?
There are several problems with a referendum, and I will make it quite clear – I was opposed to the concept of referendums, I believe in the Parliamentary system that we have and that it is the best way of putting public opinion to the test.
I also happen to think that we had a 2017 election which came after the last referendum, and that is an important decider, so the criticism of this Parliament is wrong in one way, in that it is the Parliament that the public decided on in 2017.
However, most political parties, except for the Liberal Democrats and perhaps the SNP, are divided on this issue. The two principal parties, either of which could form the government, are bitterly divided on it. This, therefore, is an issue, against my better judgement about referendums, that ought to go back to the public. We need to find out if this is really what they meant when they voted the first time because now we know what the implications are.
That also begs the question of what is going to be on the ballot paper. In one-way Labour’s policy of putting whatever post-General Election deal Parliament might agree alongside Remain is actually a good one. The Electoral Commission might have views on that, it will take time, and we are testing the patience of our European friends as to whether a longer extension is going to be required. I think they will give us an extension if we had a specific plan to put this to a referendum.
If Brexit happens, do you think that the US administration would take that as a chance to develop a trade agreement which is very favourable to the UK, in order to make a point that they are allies in the revival of nationalist policy and the fightback against supranational structures?
Theoretically, yes and talks are progressing. However, Trump appears to want to stay President and therefore, get re-elected. As a result, what is more important than what Britain wants is what Trump’s base electors want and Trump’s policy of ‘America first’. It will, therefore, be very difficult to turn a political statement, into reality.
You have also got to bear in mind that American companies want to do deal with 450 million people in the EU 27 countries, and we are only 66 million. There is confusion in Washington on what terms to do a deal with Britain, while at the same time wanting to continue to have an excellent trading relationship with the EU itself.
Furthermore, I fear that a wonderful quick win for trade with the US may not be in the UK’s interest if you analyse the terms it will be made on, the fears about the NHS and the effect it will have on trade negotiations with Michel Barnier and on finding an agreement with the EU, which is our biggest market. So, politics and economics start to clash there as well.
When you were the Chairman of European Democrat Students in the 1960s (at the time known as the Association of Christian Democratic & Conservative Students), there was a lot of momentum behind European integration and a strong sense that it is a guarantee for peace. This motivated people to support the European project; however, the same level of motivation seems to be missing today. Is the question of identity missing in the European project, and how can we address that?
You are absolutely right that it is difficult to say at present that there is a strong pan-European identity, whereas for my generation the recent history of WW2 left us desperately trying to create European structures so that we can stay peaceful, stable and secure. We saw those clear advantages, which is why in the 60s I was campaigning for the UK to join. Also, in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a sense that the EU was a magnet for the former communist states, and this was a matter of pride.
The problem, certainly in Britain, is that we have lost this sense of European enthusiasm. So, when I say the EU might change after a potential Brexit, I mean that there might be internal changes and pressures and a lack of real identity. I think the European Parliament is both part of the answer and part of the problem. The EPP group is slightly diminished this time, with less power, you see this in the way the Commission balance is gone. These are dynamic changes, and the European Parliament is probably the one democratic body that ought to increase its identity and influence.
There are big challenges for the EU, internal and external, and I do not know how they are going to turn out, but that is exactly why you cannot opt-out of politics. I can no longer be a member of the House of Commons, but I cannot intellectually opt-out because if you do, you are leaving the vacuum for someone else. If the UK leaves the EU, we will no longer have the influence to shape the way it develops, yet it will still have a huge impact on our country.
That is why I am so keen that this generation does not opt-out. Do not leave it to other people, because the other people you would leave it to, are usually not as sensible and wise and gallant as you are. Never forget that, it is very important.
Mr Taylor, thank you very much for your time and your insights.