Prime Minister Theresa May almost turned market stall “spruiker” at Davos, touting Britain to a captive audience of the leaders of the biggest technology companies in the world. May painted her nation as the best place to develop artificial intelligence – a veritable post-Brexit silicon island.
At the same time May fell back on familiar territory: governmental control over the direction of the economy. She spoke in particular of industrial and digital strategies directed by her administration. She warned internet companies to act fast to deal with harmful content – or risk regulation.
“We’re absolutely determined to make our country the place to come and set up for the future of artificial intelligence (AI),” May told the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Swiss ski resort of Davos. Her audience consisted of top executives from Facebook, Microsoft, and Google, among many other world leaders. She noted that Google’s pioneering DeepMind artificial intelligence was founded in Britain before it was bought by the search company. Earlier in Davos, Google CEO Sundar Pichai had announced a new AI research center in France.
May, who has been given the adhesive nickname “Maybot” for her own somewhat mechanical speech delivery and lack of apparent emotion, didn’t actually say “Britain First.” But the sentiment of her speech had a similar ring to the “America First” enthusiasm of U.S. President Donald J. Trump.
Her commitment to Brexit is often compared to the jolt of Trump’s election. Both topics were frequently invoked by Davos speakers as examples of political earthquakes which derail an established sense of order in the world; something to which the WEF is dedicated.
Trump lavished praise on May in a Davos news conference, trying to put aside an earlier fracas about him cancelling a recent visit to London: “The prime minister and myself have had a really great relationship, although some people don’t necessarily believe that, but I can tell you, I have a tremendous respect for the prime minister and the job she’s doing.”
May was the first world leader to go to Washington to meet Trump after his election, and is scheduled to see him one-on-one in Davos before his own landmark address to the global elite on January 26.
“Britain will be one of the best places in the world in which to start and grow a business,” she said in her own speech.
At the same time May warned that the British government would work with others to ensure that internet firms (she specifically identified social media companies) do more to tackle obscene, damaging or terrorist information that so often appears on their platforms. May hinted at new laws to regulate online content.
In a specific aside she noted that extremists and ‘undesirables’ used the encrypted messaging application Telegram; she said: “No one wants to be known as the terrorist’s platform or the first choice app for pedophiles.” (For more on Telegram see our own analysis of its use in Iran’s unrest.)
May also spoke about inequality and the need to share the benefits of global growth more fairly, or risk a backlash from citizens; but May was less strenuous in her remarks, in comparison with similar statements by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
What seemed extraordinary about the speech was a determination not to use the word “Brexit”; nor to mention whether the United Kingdom is on track to leave the European Union in 2019. This is so despite Merkel commenting on how much she regretted the Brexit vote. May gave no hint of a change of plan.