The referendum is still weeks away and it feels like there’s not much more to be said on the topic. But as the battle lines are drawn, attempts to lump businesses one way or the other – small versus large firms, hedge fund chiefs versus investment bankers – have dominated the debate. But Britain’s thriving tech sector hasn’t had these clashes. There’s been a massive PR push to declare ‘near universal’ support for Remain from Britain’s geeks, with lobby group Tech London Advocates saying 87 per cent of tech professionals want to stay in the Union.
Whichever way the country votes in June, London’s and Britain’s tech sector will continue to go from strength to strength.
The digital sector is global and borderless by its very nature. If anything makes bodies like the EU irrelevant, it’s the flow of knowledge and information across the world in milliseconds. As Michael Gove put it, it’s an ‘analogue union in a digital age.’
Chief among techies’ concerns is how digital companies can continue to attract the best talent when Berlin, Stockholm and Tel Aviv are snapping at London’s heels.
Yet Taavet Hinrikus, one of the founders of TransferWise, made sure to spell out to politicians last year that “the biggest constriction to growth is hiring people” – regardless of EU membership.
This strikes at the heart of the referendum debate: which direction Britain will go should we decide to leave. Will we go down the anti-immigration, populist route, favoured by Farage? Or will we adopt a globalist outlook that doesn’t prejudice based on a migrant’s country of origin? “People should be treated equally whether they are from Austria or Australia” is how Tory MEP, Syed Kamall puts it. Which is not possible in the EU.
As important as European labour is, most digital companies in the UK want to attract experienced workers from the US, coders who have cut their teeth in Silicon Valley. And London is the premier European destination for tech professionals, seen as one of the ‘Big Three’ alongside New York and San Francisco. In this respect, continued membership of the EU is a hindrance as the government counterbalances free movement on the Continent with restrictions on those from outside the club.
Schemes like the noteworthy Tech Nation Visa, where exceptional talents are endorsed by Tech City UK, a publicly-funded body, show we can attract the best talent regardless of whatever migration regime we sign up to. This would continue to flourish no matter the referendum result.
Regardless of visa issues, the government should be doing more to train kids in the art and science of coding, like they do in Estonia. The issue here is that teaching on tablets is still seen as ‘cutting edge’ in Britain. There needs to be a fundamental re-evaluation of education and how school leavers are going to survive the approaching surge of automation forcing industries into obsolescence.
All of this isn’t to say that the tech sector should support Brexit, there are legitimate questions over what a Britain post-breakup would look like. But membership of the EU won’t be a defining factor in its long term success. It’s the analogue union after all. The horse and carriage to tech’s automobile.
The internet is a global platform and these companies will need to access markets on a global level if they’re to become the next ‘unicorn’. The government will obviously continue to support startups around the country after June, whatever the result, as 99% of all British businesses are SMEs and they can’t afford not to. Whatever the 23rd of June brings, Britain’s techies have nothing to fear.