It’s safe to say Rishi Sunak promises to be one of the UK’s more ‘tech friendly’ recent prime ministers. He takes the reins at a time of unprecedented turbulence, with immediate domestic priorities in need of urgent attention.
Yet Sunak must not backpedal on the commitments he made to the nation during this summer’s Conservative leadership contest. His field of priorities may have narrowed since then, but the tech industry will be keeping a watchful eye on whether he can deliver on his promise to forge the UK into a “tech and science superpower”.
There are several examples from his tenure as chancellor that show Sunak is someone who understands and truly promotes UK tech. In September 2021, he convened a conference at Plexal, based at the Here East innovation campus in East London, bringing together a diverse group tech leaders, investors, CEOs and experts.
While there, he listened to the issues and challenges facing tech startups and scaleups following the launch of Future Fund in 2020 and Future Fund Breakthrough in 2021, two funds he established to support startups adversely impacted by the pandemic. He organised this session with tech leaders to ensure he understood how he could continue to support UK tech as a world-leading tech ecosystem.
Elsewhere, the fintech sector has been a shining example of a UK tech success story – and Sunak has had an important role in its progress. He began to implement some of the recommendations of both the Kalifa and Lord Hill Reviews in order to boost the fintech sector and make the UK public markets more competitive respectively – especially for tech and fintech unicorns.
The most salient point is this: Sunak has restored a semblance of calm – for now at least. Tech is a notoriously resilient industry but, following a chaotic few weeks of economic and political turbulence, stability must become not just a mantra, but rather a mainstay of his appointment. Tech investors are welcoming this and will look for further positive signs in the Autumn Statement.
It’s not only what he has promised in tangible, measurable aspects of his manifesto – confidence in the Square Mile really diffuses into the tech ecosystem. The sentiment that there might just be a window of stability is critical. The markets have breathed a sigh of relief as they welcome a former investment banker to the country’s top job, the pound has somewhat rallied from historically low levels and fiscal indicators point to a sense of confidence that went indisputably wayward under Sunak’s predecessor.
Despite a now infamous awkward moment with a contactless bank card, Sunak is an advocate for payments of the future. He established a digital currency task force and, during Innovate Finance’s Global Summit earlier this year, he laid out a plan for the UK to become a world-leading digital currency and cryptocurrency hub.
As a self-confessed “tech geek”, a quality he freely admitted during the opening keynote of this year’s London Tech Week, Sunak has both personal and professional ties to the global industry. His wife is heiress to NYSE listed global consulting and IT services company Infosys and an angel investor. His formative years were spent in Silicon Valley – famous for fostering an infectious atmosphere for innovation and entrepreneurship.
While there is initial cause for relief with his appointment, important questions remain. For example, how will Sunak deal with the impatience surrounding the long-awaited Online Safety Bill? Will he want to curtail the strength Big Tech companies or at least derive more tax revenue from their profits? These are becoming sticking points not just for the tech industry, but the wider electorate and Sunak must find the bandwidth to prioritise them.
If the UK is to continue to rank alongside the global tech superpowers of the US, China and India, then the digital sector must play an essential part in driving the country towards economic growth. Many tech hubs are being impacted adversely by the macroeconomic environment, so there is still much to play for in terms of UK leadership in tech.
If Sunak can put a stop to the revolving door at Downing Street and stay the course, the tech industry will hold him accountable to his pledges to forge the UK into a technology superpower. The hope is that the prime minister’s previous track record and rhetoric is put into action to enhance the growth and dynamism of UK tech.
Russ Shaw CBE is the founder of Tech London Advocates & Global Tech Advocates, and a regular UKTN columnist.