By Professor Charlie Jeffery, Senior Vice Principal, University of Edinburgh
We are now at the UK-India Tech Summit in Delhi where we are exhibiting University of Edinburgh technologies in Li-Fi and robotics. Our robotician-in-chief Prof Sethu Vijayakumar even had the opportunity to present Marty and our other robots to the Prime Minister, Theresa May, who was here to open the Summit alongside the Indian Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi.
Actually the Summit is a collection of Summits: on Technology; Innovation and Entrepreneurship; Design; Intellectual Property; and, last not least, Higher Education.
Against that background it was interesting to observe the differences of approach by the two Prime Ministers. Both emphasised the strength of the India-UK partnership with all its historical and cultural roots. Both focused in particular on what the future of the partnership might be now the UK has decided to leave the EU – this after all was the Theresa May’s first big bilateral outside of Europe.
And she gave us a bold vision of a free-trading UK forging a new, global, outward-looking role with – as she put it in regard to the UK’s relationship with India – ‘limitless possibilities’. There were honourable mentions along the way for Tata and other major Indian companies in the UK and of UK tech companies leading the way in India.
Prime Minister Modi took a different slant, emphasising the knowledge base underpinning cutting edge businesses and rooting that in ‘modern scientific investigation’, the research partnerships flowing from it, and the ‘mobility of young people’ enabling them to take up education and research opportunities abroad.
This carefully worded foray into the UK’s immigration debate found few echoes in Theresa May’s speech. Though she did talk about the ‘exchange of ideas, innovation and technology’ she did so in the context of trade and investment, and though she did talk about the movement of people this was limited to accelerated procedures for business people to get through passport control.
One might say the two Prime Ministers were talking past each other with two different visions of what free trade means. Those different visions captured the wider conundrum facing the UK Government as it moves towards a post-Brexit trade policy: for many, and not only in the EU, free trade is about more than business deals, but rests on the movement of people and the ideas they carry between the places trading with one another.