The UK as unbound knowledge: could Britain offer virtual citizenship to the world?
Estonia recently decided to build on its credentials as a very digitally connected society by offering e-citizenship to anyone around the world.
An Estonian e-citizen can start a business based in Estonia (and pay Estonian business tax), open an Estonian bank account, get a digital ID card and use the Estonian online portal. The status doesn’t provide any of the more traditional citizenship rights, like rights of entry or participation in elections. But it’s estimated that some 10,000 people may have already taken it up.
Many countries are wondering whether they could do something similar, offering new kinds of virtual citizenship as a complement to their soft diplomacy and cultural outreach – the sort of work done by the British Council, Germany’s Goethe Institute, and China’s Confucius Centres. The UK could be unusually well-placed to offer an option of virtual citizenship to reinforce our already strong position of cultural, economic and political influence. There are long traditions of openness – to migrants, refugees, political exiles, ideas and trade - that this could build on. And a new offer to the world could make a healthy contrast with inward looking debates about leaving the EU or raising new barriers to migrants.
So here is a rough-cut proposal. The UK would offer membership of UKGlobal to anyone around the world through a simple online application process. This would give the member:
- Unlimited access to material on the BBC iPlayer
- Unlimited access to online resources from the British Museum
- Access to information and guidance from NHS choices and, in time, a fully fledged Health Knowledge Commons
- Access to material from UK University MOOCs, such as FutureLearn
- First level English language starter courses
...all authenticated using the UK’s Verify tools.
These are all services that have great value, but can be provided at very low marginal cost. They could be provided free at first, but with a small charge kicking in after a few months, e.g. £50 or £100 a year, or much less in some of the poorest countries or for students.
Given the quality of these resources, and the global hunger to learn English, it’s plausible that millions or even tens of millions could take up the offer, providing, in time, a very significant revenue source (10m people at £100 a year generating £1bn in gross revenue) and hopefully generating goodwill as well.
The UK could also look at the business side of the Estonian offer, providing a status of Global Business Member of the UK, enabling a company to be set up in the UK, and taxed here, and potentially bringing companies under a tighter regime of cybersecurity. The UK can’t easily become a Delaware for the world - but it could become a handy entrepot and base for increasingly global small and medium sized businesses.
I’m sure others could think of alternative packages, and market research could quickly establish likely willingness to pay. There are plenty of variants - for example, a platform providing these services could also market other UK products and services – from tourism to food.
Done well, UKGlobal could exemplify the very best of British traditions of openness and tolerance, and be useful to the world. At the very least this is an idea worth scoping out in more detail.