Ian Taylor MBE, Minister for Science, Space and Technology in John Major’s government, recently (March 2023) sent us a note recalling a “first” in the use of the internet by government in the launch the IT for All programme.
This is the first time a British Prime Minister has sent out a message on the Internet. I am sure it will not be the last. The Internet is a modern marvel … it will soon touch the lives of everyone. It is a doorway to a future world (John Major, 1996)
Ian recalls “I introduced Bill Gates to John Major and Michael Heseltine. Microsoft were brilliant at helping, I had several talks with Bill Gates personally about ways he could assist UK schools.
“Alongside the Information Society Initiative, which was attempting to educate people on what the implications of the information society might be, we had a concept of IT For All, which, in those days, mainly meant schools.”
When Ian was first interviewed by Archives of IT in 2019 he talked about the launch event at which the PM delivered the message: “I managed to persuade John Major, who hated technology by the way, and science, … and he came. As we were going down the steps, to the basement, he grabbed my arm, forcibly, and said, ‘Ian, whatever you do, don’t let me sit in front of a computer.’ Well of course, computers were everywhere. But the press were there. And Martine McCutcheon had sort of agreed to be there, and, sort of, attracting a lot of interest. Anyway. John Major, separated from me, pushed towards a computer, and, I suddenly with horror noticed that he was sitting down, as seen in that photograph, in front of this computer.
“And I could see horror in his eyes at being embarrassed. And, I got on my knees, and pushed through. And, he was on a dais, or, like that, so, I was below. And the press were saying, ‘What’s your favourite website?’ or, whatever the words in those days were for it. Probably was website. And, John Major sort of, looked. And I said, ‘It’s your own, Prime Minister, you’ve just launched Number 10’s website.’ And I was frantically getting this up, because I had actually made sure I knew where it was, not for this purpose but generally. And so, in some of the later photographs, the, or other photographs, I think the website is, Number 10’s website is sort of, vaguely on the screen, which I had got up. But… I’m never quite sure whether John Major thought that I had saved him from embarrassment or put him into a situation by inviting him in the first place to this technology thing.”
The draft of the speech Ian showed us provides an insight to the state of the internet in 1996 and views of it:
- We already have one PC for every 6 people …
- … and, like it or not, nearly one in ten people have a mobile phone”
- “When Bill Gates visited me (John Major) in Downing Street, he talked about a future where IT is as much part of daily life as electricity is now. We are still a long way from this”.
However, Ian observed in another article:
Yet the message broadcast over the internet at the launch of IT for All touched on the importance of the IT industry to the UK:
- 2million internet users
- A £37Bn industry
- Employing 1 million people
- Constituting 7% of GDP
- With Scotland manufacturing over 33% of computers sold in Europe
And the Information Society Initiative was launched to encourage British companies, particularly small and medium-sized companies, to take full advantage of information and communication technologies. Ian explained this to the House of Commons in early 1996 – see here
As Minister of Technology it was appropriate that Ian should be the first to have an official email address firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can read more about the Information Society Initiative in our interview with Charles Hughes, who was seconded from ICL to the DTI to support it.