Skip to content

CaSE Annual Lecture 2017 with Hilary Benn MP

30 Nov 2017

Over 200 guests were in attendence from across business, politics, academia, research charities, learned and professional societies, as well as those watching the lecture via live-stream and contributing to the debate on social media.

The event was kindly hosted by the Institution of Engineering and Technology in their Kelvin Lecture Theatre on London’s Embankment.

In his lecture, entitled ‘Britain’s Place in the World’, the Committee Chair offered his insight on the ramifications of Brexit, and how our science and engineering endeavours can contribute to Britain’s future. The lecture was followed by an audience Q&A chaired by CaSE Executive Director Dr Sarah Main.

You can watch a recording of the event below. Opening remarks were given by the President of the IET, Nick Winser, followed by Dr Sarah Main introducing Hilary Benn. You can also read our summary of the lecture and the transcript, as well as view photos from the event, and follow social media coverage from the night #caselecture17 (also found at the bottom of this page).

The evening was concluded with a note of thanks from CaSE Chair Professor Graeme Reid and a drinks reception. Thanks to Elsevier as main sponsor of the event, and Fragomen as additional sponsor.

The CaSE Annual Lecture is an opportunity for a leading figure to address the science and engineering community. Previous speakers have included the Science Minister Jo Johnson, Dr Ellen Stofan (NASA Chief Scientist), Professor Anne Glover (EU Chief Scientific Advisor), Lord Heseltine and Lord Willetts. For a full list of Annual Lecture speakers since 1987 see here.

Social media from the evening #caselecture17

Transcript of the CaSE Annual Lecture 2017 with Hilary Benn MP

Read the full lecture by the Chair of the Exiting the European Union Select Committee, the Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP, entitled ‘Britain’s Place in the World’, dated 23rd November 2017

Thank you for your very kind introduction and to all of you for coming along here this evening to the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

As I entered the building this evening I passed by the statue of Michael Faraday, whose legendary exchange with Gladstone when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer proves that scientists are often ahead of politicians in discovering things that can later be taxed.

I would like to begin by paying tribute to CaSE for all the work and campaigning you have done over many years, indeed decades, on behalf of British science and engineering.  

I am old enough to remember CaSE before it was CaSE.  The trade union that I worked for as a young researcher – ASTMS  – was an enthusiastic supporter of Save British Science.

It is sometimes said that in diplomacy the UK punches above its weight on the world stage.

Whether that is true or not – and it’s not been a good week with EU agencies leaving London for Paris and Amsterdam and the UK losing a seat on the International Court of Justice for the first time ever – it is certainly true when it comes to CaSE.

With modest resources, you have consistently over many years demonstrated both scientific leadership and the ability to work cooperatively with the wider scientific community.

To take the example of yesterday, by the time MPs were leaving the chamber to try and absorb the implications of the budget, CaSE had already produced a detailed briefing on its implications for science.

And with those qualities comes influence. Every science minister – some of whom have given this lecture in previous years – has come to learn that he or she had better pay careful attention to what CaSE has to say.

In past years, you have heard from ministers and shadow ministers and also from very distinguished former chief scientific advisers, some of whom I worked with as a Cabinet minister as we grappled with the relationship between science and politics.  But I have not come here tonight to talk about badger culling.

I also want to say thank you to all of you, and to all of your colleagues, for the work that you do not only because it is so valuable in itself – that spirit of enquiry – but because the fruits of your efforts have shaped and transformed our world in ways that would astonish our forebears and our ancestors. May I encourage you to keep it up.  

For all these reasons, it is a great privilege to have been invited to give this lecture tonight and to reflect on Britain’s future, and on the place of science and engineering within it.

Ours is an age in which people are seeking certainty, but there is only one thing we can be sure of.  These are very uncertain times. The world, our politics, are in a state of flux.

So let us be honest with each other.  This is quite disconcerting for society, including I suspect for scientists and engineers who, many people think, like observable facts, robust evidence, systems that work, measurements that add up, structure and order. But, of course you are also well used to investigating the things we do not know and the things we do not yet understand in order to improve the stock of human knowledge.

As one of your distinguished predecessors as Director once said “Science is more about plotting a path through uncertainty.”

Heavens, do we need that now.

Some of what is happening is the continuing fallout from the global financial crash a decade ago.

A crash that shook not only our financial institutions, but also our politics, our economies and our societies. It has produced in some an alienation and frustration with the status quo both here in the UK and beyond our shores.

At the same time, technological advances – smart phones, social media, automation and AI – are having a profoundly disruptive influence too. No wonder people everywhere are talking about the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

These advances have changed the way information is produced, shared and digested. Ideas can spread in seconds. Anyone can now be a publisher and produce news, fake or otherwise. Powerful forces have been unleashed.

And, as the Prime Minister said last week, we have seen how Russia has sought to influence politics here in the West by fuelling division and discord – and creating uncertainty – through Twitter bots and photoshop, although before we get too righteous we should remember that they are not the first government in history to have done so.

We are only just beginning to understand the way in which social media can be manipulated and the way in which algorithms now take decisions that affect our lives. I am glad that Parliament is now beginning to look at this as the Science and Technology Select Committee is doing as it starts its inquiry into Algorithms in Decision Making.

Thanks also to these new technologies, people can now see what life is like elsewhere on the globe, including what democracy, the rule of law and economic prosperity can bring, although some countries – precisely because they understand the power of these technologies – have taken steps to restrict access to the Internet.

Just look at the Arab Spring. People rose up to challenge existing structures and rulers in a way that would previously have been unthinkable. Tragically, the early democratic hopes of many were soon dashed and we have seen a wave of turmoil and bloody sectarian and religious conflict in the region that continues to this day, the consequences of which do not stop at their borders, or indeed ours.

From the migration crisis – the men who get into leaky boats on the shores of North Africa prepared to risk their lives in search of a better future in Europe – to the global terror threat posed by Daesh.

And we know from history that at times like these the populists prosper. Populists whose answer to the problems of the world is to blame someone else and in so doing to fan the flames of prejudice.  

We must stand together against the siren voices of those who make this argument, because their politics is destructive and it offers no answer to the challenges we face as a world.

The idea that we can somehow at this of all moments in human history shut the doors and close the curtains and wish that everyone and everything would go away is both to deny our shared humanity and deprive ourselves of the very means by which can seek to do something about these problems. Working together as people and nations.

Now these are the very arguments that dominated the debate about Britain’s place in the European Union.

I was a passionate remainer. I remain a passionate remainer, not because I think the European Union is perfect. Far from it. But because, above all other reasons, it has achieved something quite remarkable.

Arising from the ashes of the Second World War, six of the countries that had fought each other then – and in countless other wars in that and preceding centuries – came together to create the European Coal and Steel Community.

Its founders resolved to make a return to conflict on the continent of Europe – in the words of the Schuman Declaration – “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”.

Their vision was the most powerful and enduring memorial we could have hoped to build to the flower of two generations of young Europeans who gave their lives in war in the 20th century and who now rest eternal in those immaculately cared-for cemeteries. And it is the inscriptions on their gravestones – their names, their ages, the unknown ‘A soldier of the Great War Known unto God’ – that to this day call upon us, the post war generation, to do everything  in our power to prevent such slaughter from happening again.

And their hope has, on our continent, been fulfilled.

The 28 countries of the European Union have been at peace, although the conviction of General Ratko Mladic this week for his involvement in the worst genocide on our continent since World War II reminds us that we cannot ever take peace for granted.

A Union of 28 free democracies working together, proving what human beings can achieve when we replace conflict with cooperation and enmity with dialogue.

A Union that has brought prosperity and founded the world’s largest single economic market.

A Union that helps protect our security and has made us among the most stable and safest countries in the world in which to live.

Indeed, if all of humankind could cooperate and trade and work together as the nations of the European Union have done, then there would be more peace, more prosperity and more progress on this earth.

And, of course, it has given Britain a stronger voice in the world, a point I shall return to.

And yet for all these arguments, and many others that we remainers made in the referendum, we lost.  That’s the thing about democracy. Sometimes you lose. It’s painful. It’s hard. But we have no choice but to accept the outcome of the referendum, notwithstanding the sense of shock felt by many in the science community – people who live and breathe the importance of international collaborative research – as they woke up on that Friday morning to find that the UK had voted to leave.

When the Article 50 Bill was being debated in Parliament, many people urged us not to vote for it. They said it was only an advisory referendum. They said that only 37% of the electorate who voted to leave.  They said that people had been misled – and that is true.

But I think they missed the most essential point. If Parliament at that moment had turned round and said to the 52% who voted to leave – you did know what you were doing, we know better than you, we’re going to ignore the outcome of the referendum – then the only thing we would have achieved would have been to empower and embolden the populists.

They would have said “I told you the establishment wouldn’t accept the result”. And the consequences could have been explosive.

We have a big enough problem with populists in our politics today – from the Front Nationale in France and the AfD in Germany to some folk across the Atlantic Ocean – without giving them a helping hand.

Now, as we seek to respond to the referendum result we have to understand why it happened.  We have to understand because if we do not, how are we going to heal the divisions in a country that was split almost exactly down the middle? How are we going to bring the 52% and the 48% back together?

I think that as well as being about the EU and migration, the vote to leave was also about economic inequality, austerity, loss, change, a long wait to see a GP, houses our children can’t afford,  alienation, identity, and a belief that somehow our country had given up that which had made it great.

But above all it was about a search for control in a world in which for many people, because of the pace of change, it seems that they have barely any control at all.

I say that because we have to address those concerns that have nothing to do with the European Union, but that would be the subject of an entirely different lecture.

So what do we do now?

First, we have to acknowledge that we will be leaving the European Union at the end of March 2019. That is what the referendum decided.

However, it did not decide what our future relationship is going to be with our 27 friends and neighbours who will remain our friends and neighbours after we have left. It did not decide whether we should stay in the customs union and the single market. It did not decide whether we should give up on co-operation on foreign policy, defence, security and the fight against terrorism.  It did not decide whether we should abandon collaboration in science or working together to regulate medicines or co-operating to certify new aircraft as safe.

Every one of those issues that will have a profound effect on our country’s future, and on Britain’s place in the world, is now for us to shape and determine.

And be in no doubt if we leave the EU without a deal for Britain and a strong future relationship with our European neighbours, it is our citizens who will pay the greatest price.

So the question we are wrestling with is this. What shape should this new relationship with Europe take and how do we secure it given the current state of the negotiations as we wait to see if more money will unlock talks on that future relationship at the European Council in December?  

And what will this mean for science and engineering?

First, for people.

For the three million European citizens working here, and the 1.2 million Brits working in the other member states, the result of the referendum was a great shock.  I remember meeting a young research scientist at the House of Commons six weeks later who told me how she had been shouted at in the street to go home.

To make matters worse, speeches were made that gave the impression the people who have come to this country from elsewhere were a bit of a problem or might be used as bargaining chips.

This created a great deal of anxiety for people who have chosen to make our country their home  and who have worked hard in our universities and  research laboratories, paid their taxes,  raised their families and put down roots as our neighbours.

And now they, too, are seeking certainty.

In your world, it’s the best minds that make the UK a global force. I am told that the most cited pieces of research tend to be those that have been undertaken as a result of international collaboration.

So attracting and retaining world-class staff and attracting more talent is not only important for our universities and the research sectors but it is also crucial for the British economy given the huge strategic importance of science and engineering.

That’s why the Brexit Select Committee in its second report said that the UK should make a unilateral commitment to safeguard the rights of EU nationals living here in the UK, who by the way are not bargaining chips.

The Government has since announced it is designing a new system for EU citizens to make applications online for the proposed “settled status”, which is a welcome, but we need to know how it’s going to work in practice, given the scale of the task of documenting three million people, and whether those with settled status will continue to be able to bring their families here.

The next question is how to ensure that we have an immigration system after Brexit that allows talent to continue to flow into the UK and for UK-based staff to be able work elsewhere in Europe rather than seeing a return to the brain drain of the past.

The Financial Times reported recently that David Davis had promised bankers a ‘special post-Brexit regime to allow them to move freely across Europe’. If he can offer that assurance to those in financial services, I see no reason why he shouldn’t offer it to scientists and engineers as well.

The CBI has found that four out of ten UK firms have difficulties in recruiting staff with skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The Government should be making their lives easier not harder.

And if the UK’s future immigration system includes some kind of minimum income threshold, while bankers may not find this much of a hurdle, some scientists and researchers with much needed skills might struggle to make it here. Ministers should reassure us that this will not be the case and that it is their firm intention to remain part of the Erasmus student exchange programme after we leave. That would send a signal that the UK wants to remain a connected nation and a world leader in higher education.

And while I am at it, it is frankly ridiculous for the Government to continue to include students in its net migration target. People coming here to study, undertake research and build networks that are good for our economy and for Britain’s standing in the world, are not a number that needs to be reduced.

This is just part of a wider conversation we need to have about immigration.

Just reflect for a moment on the greatest social challenge that confronts us; the demographic time bomb that will see the number of people aged 65 and over rise by nearly five million over the next two decades.

Already, one in five of our care workers come from outside the United Kingdom – from Europe and the rest of the world – and we will need more carers as more people need looking after.

First it is our grandparents, then our parents and then us.
When my father came towards the end of his life, most of the people who cared for him with such patience and gentleness had come from abroad to this country.

And as well as providing that care, we will need to pay for it, which is why the economic contribution of those who have made Britain their home and have come here to work is so important as are the taxes they pay.

The truth is that leaving the EU is not going to stop immigration. Our economy will continue to need it.

And fundamental to the strength of the British economy is the freedom to bring in new talent and creative minds from abroad as well as to draw on the huge home-grown reservoir of those same skills and talents to build new businesses that employ workers in Britain and buy goods and services from firms in Britain.

We have lived with migration for centuries.

From the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans.
From the Jews fleeing persecution to the Irish fleeing famine.
From the Windrush generation and those who came from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh to work in the mills and in manufacturing to their present day equivalents from Poland, Lithuania and Romania.
And even some Americans, I would add, being the proud son of an immigrant from Ohio.

And one of the greatest things about our country is the way in which over the generations these successive waves of migrants have mixed and melded and married until it is almost impossible to untangle the threads of the journeys that brought them here.
But this does not mean than any of us, whether born in Britain or born abroad, feel any the less who we think ourselves to be. We are proud of who we are – English, Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish, British, European – and in that very British way, we get along.

Next, research.

When he recently came to give evidence to the Select Committee, David Davis said “…it is quite likely we will continue to participate in Horizon 2020…We will formalise that before December.”

We have already called on the Government to make this commitment. It matters.

Researchers in the UK have secured 3.6 billion Euros in funding through Horizon 2020 since 2014.

One in six Horizon 2020 projects are coordinated by the UK.

Not only does the programme serve to encourage partnerships that underpin the UK’s global reputation for research; it also has a prestige that a UK-only fund would be unable to achieve.

Ministers should now state firmly that the UK intends to remain part of the Horizon 2020 successor programme.

But even with current EU investment, the UK lags behind other nations when it comes to the percentage of GDP we spend on R&D; less than 1.9% compared to the OECD average of 2.4% and way behind countries like Germany, Japan and the USA.

If we are to compete globally after Brexit then Britain needs to invest more in R&D. After all, for every £1 spent by the Government, private sector output rises by 20p a year in perpetuity by raising the level of the UK knowledge base. This investment is a vitally important for a healthy and successful science and engineering sector.

And what about our participation in other institutions and the implications for regulatory stability?

Even though the European Medicines Agency is leaving the UK, we cannot afford to let it mean that London loses its status as a focal point for medical research and technology.

Similarly, whatever the relationship the Government wishes to pursue with Euratom in future – and I still don’t understand why ministers wanted to leave although if it was because it fell foul of the Prime Minister’s red line on the European Court of justice, then words fail me – it is essential that this decision does not reduce our ability  to take part in collaborative research or pursue international cooperation in the civil nuclear industry in future.

And if we look at the chemicals sector, for instance, as Steve Elliot, the Chief Executive of the Chemical Industries Association, said in evidence to our Committee:

“our industry is highly regulated and has to be, in order to give assurance. Chemical businesses across the UK will be grateful for any certainty and continuity….”

And of course we mustn’t forget the European Research Councils and the European Space Agency programmes like Galileo and Copernicus. Mind you, how could we possibly forget when every person who arrives at Terminal 5 is greeted by a giant picture of Tim Peake who is described as a European astronaut.

Now throughout the negotiations, we have heard all too many ministers repeatedly say “no deal is better than a bad deal”. This is nonsense. No deal is a bad deal. It is the worst deal of all. I don’t often agree with the Chancellor of the Exchequer but when he said that no deal would be “a very, very bad outcome” for the UK, he was right.

And the proof of that is to be found in the Government’s belated decision to seek a transitional arrangement.

We need that if we’re going to avoid the possibility of driving off the edge of a cliff. As the laws of gravity have long shown, doing that is generally speaking not a good idea.

But we need to get on with getting a transitional agreement. The Chancellor of the Exchequer describes it as a “wasting asset”. He is right in that the benefits diminish the longer it takes to agree one.

So we urgently need the rules of the transitional period to be agreed quickly so that everyone – including the scientific community – know where they stand.

We should not be surprised when some businesses start to put into effect their plans to relocate activities and people to continental Europe because they cannot take the risk of the negotiations ending in failure.

Now all of this, negotiating Brexit, working out what the implications will be for almost every area of our national life, every university, research institution, business and community, is necessarily taking up a huge amount of time, including for ministers, civil servants and Parliament – not to mention the Brexit Select Committee.

And does this mean we have less time to think about Britain’s place in the world? Yes, it does.

Our great country – our astonishing country – is one of the most successful in human history.

With less than 1% of the world’s population, we are its sixth biggest economy and generate 4% of its GDP.

Our language is spoken by 1.5 billion people worldwide, more than any other.

Our literature, our theatre, our films, our actors are loved the world over.

Our universities attract the brightest and the best.

We have more Nobel laureates per head of population than the United States, Germany or China.

British broadcasters are respected in all four corners of the globe for their impartial reporting, although not necessarily in the West Wing of the White House.

And we have helped to influence and shape the modern world through the power of ideas and values.
Our system of governance. Parliamentary democracy. The rule of national and international law.

And the belief that every human being has rights that are inalienable.

Ideas that have been a beacon of inspiration to people who enjoy none of these things.
All of this did not come about because we turned our backs on working with others. It came to pass because we embraced others, travelled, traded, built alliances, were open to new ideas and welcomed new people.

Britain’s story, our unique history as an island nation, has been shaped by how we have looked beyond our own shores and sought out the wider world.

And because we did so, Britain is not only a successful country but also an influential one.

Less than a mile from here is a building that was an important part of that journey.

71 years ago on 17 January 1946, the United Nations Security Council met for the very first time in Church House with Britain as one of its permanent members.

A week earlier in the Central Hall, just across the road, the UN General Assembly held its inaugural meeting.

These and the other great institutions fashioned in the aftermath of the Second World War were a conscious effort to establish a new world order.

A world order that some are now seeking to undermine or even destroy whether by rejecting the science underpinning climate change or claiming that working with others somehow impinges upon and constrains our sovereignty.

So what does it means to be sovereign in the modern world?

Some claim that we have somehow lost absolute sovereignty and that now we can regain it.

They are wrong.

We have always been a sovereign nation. A sovereign British Parliament joined the Common Market, a sovereign British people voted to stay in 1975, a sovereign House of Commons respected the result of the June 2016 referendum and a sovereign House of Commons – not just at the Government, by the way – will decide on what our future relationship with the European Union will be.

Why do we aspire to sovereignty? Because we think it gives us influence and control.

But leaving the union of 28 European nations will not enhance our sovereignty. Instead, it risks weakening our influence in the world.

What strengthens us is being connected to other nations and building relationships with them.

Sharing our sovereignty with others to our mutual benefit.

Now of course, as in any relationship, sometimes you get what you want and sometimes you don’t.

It’s a bit like families. But it’s not an argument for walking away because together we are better off.
Britain originally gained influence through military strength, the industrial revolution and Empire.
But in the second half of the 20th Century, we came to realise that it was far better and far more effective to be a global power that achieved its goals through co-operation rather than conquest.

As Dean Acheson observed “Great Britain has lost an Empire but not yet found a role.”

And today we have a similar challenge confronting us.

This conscious decision to exchange hard power for soft power was an enormously courageous step to take because it meant giving up the means by which we had prospered in the past.

But it paid off.

And we took that step in part because of the bitter experience of war and in part because we could hear the inexorable end of the Age of Empire coming in the growing cry for freedom from our colonies.

And so it was that their submission gave way to their self-determination as the winds of change blew away the old order and a new world emerged.

It was on 14 August 1941 that Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt met in Newfoundland to adopt a joint declaration – which later became known as the Atlantic Charter – that set out the Allied goals for the post-war world which became the basis for the United Nations.

The two most important of these goals were, first, self-determination so that people could be free to shape their own future and, second, global co-operation to secure better economic and social conditions for all.

And far from being in contradiction, what bound these two goals together was the dawning realisation that for states to truly determine their future in the modern age they would have to co-operate with their neighbours and with the rest of the world.
So, how can we best advance the British national interest today and in the future?

By continuing to do exactly that. By continuing to participate in and lead those very organisations that we helped to create which gave and give us influence.

Influence that can be seen today in so many different ways.

From the European Convention on Human Rights which we helped to draft to British Standards which allow the world to have confidence in the quality of goods and services.

From UK leadership on humanitarian aid – the UN Central Emergency Response Fund was a British idea – to the first climate change legislation in the world.

And when we think of the state of humankind at the beginning of the 21st century, what is the one word that sums up our condition?  

Interdependence. Interdependence.

The world I was born into in 1953 – the year of the Queen’s coronation – had a population of 2.7 billion people.

Today there are 7.5 billion of us.

By the time my grandchildren reach my age, they will be sharing this small and fragile planet of ours with 10 billion men, women and children.

What will be the challenges we will face?

I think that this century will be defined, first, by how we deal with the movement of people.

People fleeing war and persecution.

The movement of people in search of a better life.

People fleeing the effects of climate change. Make no mistake, if it stops raining in one part of the globe and rains too much in another, people will not stay to starve or drown. They will move in search of safety and security as human beings have done since the dawn of time.

Why is the argument for the development of all countries so powerful?

Because every person should be able to grow up safe, get an education, receive healthcare, get a job and raise a family in the land in which they were born if that is what they wish. And not only is it the moral thing to do to support that process of development; it is also in our self-interest.

And second, it will be defined by how we deal with, and reconcile, the two great forces of our age that Churchill and Roosevelt identified and which are in tension with each other like tectonic plates.

On the one hand the cry for sovereignty devolution and control  – call it what you will – that springs from a desire to have some say about what happens in our lives and our communities.

And on the other hand, the recognition that we have to co-operate as peoples and as nations if we are going to deal with the challenges which the world faces and make the most of the opportunities that the future will present us with.

Britain’s influence in the future – Britain’s place in the world – will be determined more than anything else by the relationships we forge with others.

And as we embrace that future world, as we know we must, science and engineering will be to the fore.

Vanquishing disease, battling climate change, cleaning up our oceans and our air, creating the next generation of technologies, exploring the universe and seeking answers to the questions that still perplex.

And making the most of our human ingenuity and its astonishing ability to transform the gifts the earth has given us into those medicines, those materials, those technologies, those rockets and that understanding that will change our future.

I am in politics because I am an optimist; because I believe that when our time is done, we can bequeath something better to our children and our grandchildren.

I know the same is true of you.

So as Clem Attlee said, when he faced the challenge of rebuilding our country in 1945, “Let us Face the Future.”

It is this spirit and I urge you to play your full part in shaping it.