A digital future is our choice: what kind of modern Britain do we want?

Good Things' Group CEO, Helen Milner OBE, reflects on her discussion with Martha Lane Fox and their shared vision for a connected Britain.

A shared vision for digital inclusion

I first met Martha Lane Fox in 2009 following her appointment as the Digital Inclusion Champion by Gordon Brown at the tail end of the Labour Government. She was pointed to meet with me as someone leading in digital inclusion. I remember that first meeting well, it was very hot weather, and she gave me an ice lolly. It was clear from meeting her that we saw eye-to-eye. For us both, digital inclusion was – and still is – integral to policy delivery in modern Britain, and we wanted to make change happen. She didn’t want to just talk, action was important to her.

We sat down for episode two of our Digital Futures For Good series and we had a similar meeting of minds. We reminisced a bit but mostly talked about how, more than a decade on, there is still lots to do. 

To this day, Martha’s been a tireless advocate for digital inclusion, making sure it’s heard loud and clear in the world of business, media, and politics. She remains optimistic about what can be achieved with focused leadership and action. Her vision for the transformative potential of digital for all in society remains inspiring. 

Government’s role in digital inclusion

Our recent conversation delved into both the government’s role in advancing digital inclusion and the importance of community-driven action, such as those delivered by the National Digital Inclusion Network. Martha highlighted that digital inclusion goes beyond mere connectivity; it empowers individuals and engages communities through local, actionable solutions. She said:

‘[The Prime Minister] can do less than some people will imagine, but the thing they can do is keep it [digital inclusion] a priority top of mind of their cabinet. We are building a modern Britain and that means using the tools of the modern age to make sure no one is left behind, that we have put modern technologies at the helm.’

Reflecting on Government influence, Martha outlined the limited but impactful role the Prime Minister can play in delivery targeted at fixing the digital divide.

As a hypothetical Prime Minister, she emphasised making digital inclusion a priority in the first 100 days. She said she would ensure universal access and digital skills as it is a fundamental tool of the modern age. Without it, individuals and businesses will continue to lack the necessary skills and confidence to innovate and meet the demands of markets. Millions will remain locked out of essential public services and lack the confidence to leverage technology to improve their lives. 

Pragmatic optimism: Martha’s vision for a Connected Britain

Shifting focus to broader implications, Martha also discussed the wider UK context, noting:

‘We’re a small country geographically, we’re a small country population-wise, we’ve got these kinds of centres of excellence in this stuff. We only need to just push that extra bit and finish the job…’ 

Over everything else, Martha is a pragmatist. She recognises the UK’s strengths, its geographic and demographic scale, which she (rightly) believes positions the country to address the digital divide with targeted effort. 

When asked why this hasn’t already happened, Martha is candid about the slow progress: “It’s funny, isn’t it? I don’t know. I mean, I can only assume it’s because of the slightly chaotic nature of some of the governments and the shades of government in the last five, six years.” She argues that another champion simply won’t do—it must be a prime ministerial priority. ‘I think it’s got to come from the Prime Minister or someone in the Cabinet’. Only high level ownership and leadership to drive the digital inclusion agenda forward, using their platform to set the tone for government, business, and civil society. But they must have a strong holistic vision of what Britain can be.

We need a realistic approach that prioritises the essentials

Reflecting on her first 100 days as hypothetical Prime Minister, Martha declares:

‘You just have to make it your own personal priority, and I would make it a personal priority to build not just the best startups in the world and [also move beyond] the platitudes that come out of ministers for the last 15-20 years about technology, but actually have a detailed plan about what a modern Britain looks like.’

Martha’s insights underscore the necessity of a detailed, action-oriented plan for a modern Britain. She joins many critics who have criticised the superficial engagement with technology that has prevailed since Harold Wilson’s era. ‘Tech-startups’ are the latest craze that has captivated people’s imagination, offering novelty, innovation, and the potential to transform society. Yet Martha argues for a realistic approach that prioritises the essentials: connectivity, accessibility, and its practical use in improving public services for everyone.

A steadfast commitment to digital inclusion

Looking forward, technology continues to serve as a convenient rallying point for politicians seeking support from the public and their parties. Martha stands out by grounding the narrative in the realities of digital inclusion, challenging leaders to prioritise long-term societal benefits over short-term gains.

As digital tech continues to evolve, Martha’s steadfast commitment to inclusion will help ensure that advancements benefit everybody, not just the few. If we learned anything from her, it’s that vision and pragmatism will guide us to a more connected Britain. I feel lucky to have her at our side as we continue to act, and campaign, to fix the digital divide.

A personal note from Helen: “Twenty years ago, a severe car crash in Morocco nearly claimed Martha Lane Fox’s life. This year marks the 20th anniversary of her life-altering accident. Despite her ongoing pain and physical limitations, she’s decided to commemorate the event by climbing the three highest peaks in the UK, aiming to raise £300,000 for charities that make a difference. Donate to Martha’s Mountain Mission on Givewheel.”