The government’s official policy document for leaving the European Union was published on Thursday, with the aim of clarifying the plans for the country’s departure from the EU. Think that was tautology? Try reading what I can only assume was the Lancaster House speech before someone stopped to look at the word count.
The White Paper, an official but unfortunate term for today’s largely vacant strategy summary, builds on the twelve point plan used by Theresa May to outline the government’s objectives on the 17th January. Unfortunately, it builds on the plan in much the same way that a student might ‘build on’ their essay to hit a word count, or a vendor might ‘build on’ a kebab with raw cabbage. In case that sounds appealing. I mean to say that the document doesn’t really add anything new at all, it just says it in more words.
I mean to say that the document doesn’t really add anything new at all, it just says it in more words.
Take point 10, for instance. Point 10 of the document is aimed at “ensuring the United Kingdom remains the best place for science and innovation”. As someone who uses science on an unerringly everyday basis, I am apprehensive about how the government plans to deal with losses to EU funding and university applications.
Ironically, after scrolling through what I thought at first was background context in search of our innovative strategy, I ended up rather abruptly at point 11. So I went back and read more carefully.
The first section deals with “Science, research and innovation at the heart of our Industrial Strategy”, which is to say where we are now and where we aim to be when we’re not where we are now. It references the UK’s current place in university rankings, chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement and January’s bestselling ‘Building Our Industrial Strategy’, whose blurb hopefully fared better than the description here (“It set out proposals to capitalise on the UK’s strategic strengths…”).
Next comes the sci-fi box office flop, “Close engagement with the science and research base”; Spielberg’s film was unfortunately rather more convincing – here the first paragraph announces the establishment of a working group on the impact of the EU exit on universities, research and innovation, the first meeting of which occurred back in December.
A separate paragraph unexpectedly reminds us what this means: “The Government has also taken quick and decisive action to respond to concerns of the science and research sectors, providing reassurance and certainty.” And the example provided suggests that researchers apply for EU research funding and wait for the UK to underwrite the payment.
The entirety of paragraph 10.10, meanwhile, effectively advises institutions to turn to the European Union for financial support: “The guarantees that HM Treasury has provided sent a clear message to UK businesses and universities that, while we remain a member of the EU, they should continue to bid for competitive EU funding.” Suggestions of funding from non-EU or UK sources are not provided, and the status of EU students is broached only as far as 2018.
Lastly, a short section entitled “A global leader in international collaboration”. It may previously have been “An international leader in global collaboration”, but I think this works too. It’s short largely because it concentrates on our pre-referendum penchant for collaboration, rather than our post-referendum penchant for sovereignty and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
It’s short largely because it concentrates on our pre-referendum penchant for collaboration, rather than our post-referendum penchant for sovereignty and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
Here detail is provided on the UK’s involvement in areas of research, publishing and intellectual property between 2012 and 2015 (sharp-eyed readers will recognise these as pre-referendum times), as well as its “proud history” of supporting innovation within the EU. The section’s most forward-looking sentence might well be the final paragraph, which succeeds in saying nothing whatsoever:
“As we exit the EU, we would welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives.”
And with that, science and innovation are taken care of. There is, as in the rest of the document, astonishingly little by way of actual policy (and a downright curious distribution of whitespace). Some would argue that this represents an unwillingness to betray our negotiating position. Others would suggest that we don’t have a negotiating position, and that today’s White Paper is the clearest indication yet.
If this analysis seems alarmingly perfunctory for a major policy document, it’s because there’s almost no new information. Apart from anything, the list is still bookended by fluff that should never have made its way into our actual strategy for leaving the EU, a bit like one of those thesaurus-reliant motivational acrostics. Because ultimately, bookending the twelve points with “Providing certainty and clarity” and “Delivering a smooth, orderly exit from the EU” two months before the Article 50 deadline translates to little more than a couple of slices of processed cheese on a shit sandwich.