In 1968, the UK was poised to become a global leader in computing, with ICL (International Computing Limited) being a strong contender to challenge IBM. However, instead of achieving greatness, ICL became a symbol of failed industrial policy, with its Horizon system sparking a scandal and causing immense human suffering.
ICL was formed through a merger of several smaller companies and initially thrived, securing early contracts with various government departments. However, it struggled to keep pace with IBM and other American rivals, and eventually fell into foreign ownership, first with STC (Standard Telephones and Cables) and then with Fujitsu.
Under Fujitsu’s leadership, ICL continued to secure significant government contracts, including a £4.9 billion deal with the Post Office in 1999. Despite its involvement in the Horizon scandal, Fujitsu has continued to receive government contracts, including £3.6 billion in deals signed after a 2019 ruling found the company’s software responsible for the sub-postmasters and mistresses scandal.
The story of ICL and Fujitsu highlights the low value successive British governments have placed on supporting UK science and technology. Short-term thinking, poor management, and neglectful decision-making have allowed valuable technologies to slip into foreign hands. Other countries, such as Japan, have taken steps to protect their strategic industries, but the UK has been careless in this regard.
Fujitsu’s history and methods are uniquely British, and it has become the go-to technology firm for Whitehall officials. However, the lack of transparency, accountability, and governance associated with foreign ownership raises concerns about the long-term impact of such relationships. The Japanese firm could potentially face financial sanctions, but it is unlikely that a UK company would be able to weather such a scandal without more severe consequences.
In conclusion, the tale of ICL and Fujitsu serves as a warning about the dangers of failing to support UK science and technology. The loss of key industries to foreign ownership has had a devastating impact on the UK’s ability to compete globally, and it is essential that steps are taken to address this issue