Salvator Mundi: a record price for a priceless work?

So, let’s talk about this Leonardo painting that sold for $450 million.

Apparently Jesus was considered a bit of a stoner in 1500 (Photo: Robert Simon, public domain)

The painting was bought from Dmitry Rybolovlev, a name that will be familiar to anyone following the Trump-Russia story over the past year and a half. Rybolovlev bought a house from Donald Trump for $95 million, a couple of years after Trump had bought it for ~$41 million.

His private jet has also been spotted in many of the same places as Trump’s, both during the campaign and the presidency. This story in the Seattle Times sums it all up quite well.

Rybolovlev bought the #Leonardo painting for $127.5 million in 2013, according to the BBC. So he’s made a tidy $322,500,000 profit.

It’s unlikely any of this is connected, but massive inflation of asset prices of this type is highly suggestive. It would be great if such high profile art sales were used as an opportunity to educate people on the opacity of that world.

The Panama Papers investigations shed a lot of light on the extent to which high end art sales mirror other parts of the shadow economy. This story, for instance, is a great backgrounder on the relationship between private art sales and money laundering.

Look out for the key passage on the ‘freeport’, a special free trade zone that exists purely to hold precious art:

The piece also reveals that our old friend Mr Rybolovlev is at war with the so-called ‘King of the Freeports’, a guy called Yves Bouvier:

I highly recommend you read the rest of the piece if you want to know more about that world.

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Fixing Misinformation is a Misguided and Insufficient Strategy

Searching for new ways to stop the spread of false information is an understandable response to recent political developments, but proponents of the strategy are picking the wrong battle if they want to win this vital war

Recent revelations in the UK’s traditional media on Russian attempts to spread mis- and disinformation have been met with aghast intakes of breath. But this shocked response is really British exceptionalism, allied to a pretty incompetent domestic press. The issue of misinformation, disinformation and propaganda spread by social media has been at play for a long time in global civil society.

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Breathless headlines for a very old story: The Times/The Guardian (via BusinessInsider)

‘Fake news’ has become a co-opted cliché. It’s now more likely to be used by those who create and spread lies – such as the president of the United States – than those who unpick them. For the parts of civil society that have picked up the daunting gauntlet of defending the truth, the phrase is already a bad joke at best.

That doesn’t mean that they’ve given up on trying to solve the problem, though. Attempts to differentiate between misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda have become more sophisticated, and definitions are becoming more defined. According to experts on the topic at the most recent MisinfoCon, held in London in October, there are now more than forty projects engaged in tackling different aspects of the problem, mostly funded by the same few large philanthropic foundations. There is tremendous energy and enthusiasm among the motley community of academics, techies, policy wonks and activists attacking this. I consider myself to be part of that broad community.

However, the headlong rush to ‘solve’ this problem is misconceived and misguided. There are several different reasons for this. I’m aiming in this post to set out what those reasons are and how we could redirect our efforts, as a community, towards more effective and valuable outcomes.

I want to make clear at this point that I’m mostly writing about the situation from an English language perspective and I’m inevitably heavily biased towards the UK and US.

Jump to:

    1. Excessive focus on misinformation is a mistake
    2. Of firehoses and water pistols
    3. Wrangling the tech titans
    4. What should we do?

 

1: Excessive focus on one part of the information system is a mistake

At Mozilla Festival, also held in London in October, I attended a highly enjoyable session where the organizers (Melissa Ryan and Sam Jeffers) led several groups in imagining and designing ‘fake news’ articles. What this session proved beyond doubt is how easy it is to create such stories out of thin air. Although no one there had previously tried to write something viral and false, we all came with compelling ideas that would probably have gained at least some traction.

The rise of misinformation in the current age is not the product of newly creative bad actors. People – especially powerful people – have been lying since the dawn of time. It hasn’t become easier to create false information; it’s become far easier to disseminate it, and to profit from it. That’s an infrastructure problem; to correct it, you have to address the whole system and not merely one part of it.

It’s no surprise therefore that when we came towards the end of that session and began to discuss solutions, we drew a collective blank. Someone tentatively proposed better media education as a solution: that’s an admirable aim, but even if policy-makers acted now (and they aren’t), it will take at least a decade to make a noticeable difference. (I also happen to believe that the breakdown of trust in the media is arguably a consequence of improved media literacy.)

The best outcome of media literacy in a complex, tech-driven information ecosystem is perhaps not restored trust, but more sophisticated and granular distrust. To put it another way, we want distrust (i.e. limits on how far we are willing to accept information based on our experience and available data), not mistrust (i.e. a general cynical unease based on the complexity of modern life).

So attempts to change readers’ habits are long-term and therefore, I’d argue, insufficient as a solution for the immediate problems we face (by which I mean, we are already being governed by people who were elected in part on the basis of false information, at least in the USA and the UK). And attempts to reduce the amount of false information being produced are obviously doomed to fail.

In that context, it’s no wonder that we’ve turned to the kinds of projects that feel the most likely to succeed. But it’s short-sighted to focus all our efforts on the bad information in the system. We need to think much bigger, which brings me to the next point.

2: We can’t fight the falsehood wildfire with the tiny water pistol of truth

I have heard this point made occasionally at large disinfo- and misinformation conferences on both sides of the Atlantic (including MisinfoCon London and the Digital Disinformation Forum held at Stanford back in June). But it doesn’t appear to have sunk in yet.

It seems facile to point this out, but even if we removed all the false information from the 21st century information ecosystem overnight, it still wouldn’t be healthy. That’s because the news industry’s incentives are set up wrong. Far more intelligent people than me have written about the corrosive impact of advertising on journalism, going back many decades.

More recently, the rise of the monopolistic tech titans (Google and Facebook), who now control the vast majority of the advertising market, has accelerated the tendency towards what we sometimes call ‘infotainment’: clickbait headlines leading us into factoid-laden stories of limited value and relevance. This is only likely to continue as newsfeed and search engine algorithms increasingly surface content based on a blend of general popularity, low quality titillation and individual preference.

While there are very clear differences between the large tech firms in terms of their motives, I am not sure that any of them can honestly claim to hold the high ground on this. Perhaps Google’s search team remains committed to giving humans access to high quality information, although Yelp and others may disagree. But YouTube (a natural monopoly and, if you’d forgotten, a Google company) is, by contrast, a nest of vipers, while Google News is still promoting false stories from long-time fakers and trolls like 4Chan.

In short, the business model that sustained for-profit journalism is broken beyond repair. The reporting on Donald Trump during the US election bears this out. Misinformation became a problem towards the end of that campaign, but way before that had occurred, the mainstream news media in the US gave Trump far more publicity than other candidates. This is because they have to compete for attention in an ever-expanding sea of attention seekers. Trump was outrageous, controversial, brash; in short, a ready-made attention-grabbing brand. (This is hardly surprising given his own business dealings have been based on nothing more than his brand – his own name – for decades.)

The question then often arises: what should we do about the broken business model? There is a lingering belief that journalism can become self-sustaining. There are some interesting new attempts to prove that subscription models can provide lasting funding: two that spring to mind are The Correspondent and Jimmy Wales’ latest endeavour, WikiTribune. People will often also point to the increase in subscriptions at established for-profit newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post and Guardian as evidence that readers are waking up to the threat posed by misinformation.

I think people need to get real about the likely success of such initiatives. Even if something like WikiTribune does get traction, it’s going to take years for such a small organisation to start to produce the kind of investigative reporting that will make a dent, whether by raising standards in the news industry, or by improving transparency in the political landscape.

3: There is no consensus on regulation of the tech giants

While EU regulators have been on the case for a while, a happy recent development is that US legislators have finally begun to grapple with the monopolistic power of the social media platforms that have accelerated the spread of false information. Sadly, their focus is currently taken up mostly with the influence of foreign entities (especially Russia) on elections, rather than the general degradation of information quality that these platforms and their super-dominant technologies are creating.

These are extremely knotty political questions that have no easy answers. In that sense it’s not surprising that the open internet advocacy community has developed little to no consensus on how to approach the issue. This is partly because many in that community are equally worried (sometimes more worried) about government interventions as they are about private corporations. These are people who are used to fighting against excessive surveillance by intelligence agencies; their heroes are Snowden and Manning. As such, it doesn’t come naturally to petition the government to take action against excessive corporate surveillance.

There’s also the risk that by taking action, governments could actually give more power to the platforms. I’ve been back and forth on the issue of CDA230, the provision that protects the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter from being liable for content posted on their platforms. This is a law that is staunchly defended by freedom of expression activists in the USA.

However, it has arguably backfired in its intention to allow speech to flourish online by allowing all sorts of misinformation and hate speech to be posted without placing enough of a responsibility on these media companies – for that is partly what they are – and by failing to account for what happens when, as in other markets, a few dominant players emerge. A law created in 1996 when the internet was an anarchic Wild West of small, intensely competitive players now looks like an anachronism, protecting the few titans of Silicon Valley.

On the other, placing that responsibility on these tech/media companies now, when they are the de facto managers of online speech, both gives them even more power and adds to the risk of censorship. Once you’ve gone down that path, what is there to stop governments imposing similar conditions on other publishers or editor-like websites?

So, there’s no easy win here either. The reality is that only the threat of government intervention to regulate the market on the basis of competition/antitrust law – perhaps by breaking apart Alphabet and Facebook, which are both collections of monopolies – may be what goads the companies into taking real action.

So what do possible solutions look like?

1: Good quality information doesn’t come for free. So fund it.

One partial solution – crucially, one of which we (global civil society) can shape most or all elements – is to pour as many resources as possible into existing success stories, in an attempt to scale them. At the moment, philanthropic attempts to support media are too meagre to do anything but create additional competition, even between non-profit outlets that are openly committed to extraordinary collaboration. The same few foundations funding the same few organisations is all quite cosy, but doesn’t do enough to expand the amount of good quality information flowing through the system.

If we want projects like the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers to be more than annual events, then reducing the need to compete (or, to put it another way, reducing the barriers to collaboration) and improving the technology used by investigative journalists and civil society accountability organisations should be the two foremost priorities. What characterises the network of organisations that carried out those projects is that it is sufficiently removed from the profit motive and sufficiently focused on social impact that its leaders are willing to forego the benefits that derive from exclusivity.

It follows that the main way we can expand the amount of good quality reporting in the system is to crowd in more funding at a sufficient scale to make a difference. Omidyar Network’s announcement earlier this year of an extra $100 million to address the global ‘trust deficit’ was impressive, but it’s important to realise that the amount allocated to content production is probably only a third of that (it’s not entirely clear where it’s all going).

We need a global fund of sufficient scale that it can accept money from all-comers, including corporate and individual donors who, on their own, would pose too much of a reputational risk to organisations receiving money. This fund, if large enough, could support global public interest media in perpetuity. There are already strong proposals on how to fund this. Governments recovering assets and money on the back of investigative journalism, for example, could tithe some part of the return into a trust. Or, indeed, there could be a levy placed on the tech titans (or voluntarily paid by them), as proposed variously by expert commentators like Emily Bell, Ben Eltham and Steven Waldman.

2: Turn surveillance tech to the people’s advantage.

The thing that really drives the tech titans’ insane profitability is their successful drive to turn surveillance into something people don’t just passively accept, but to which they actively contribute. On Facebook, Google or Twitter, you are the product. Attention has been tied in an unprecedented way to personalisation through massive-scale analytics conducted by beautiful, sophisticated mathematical contraptions barely understood even by the people who built them.

By contrast, the world of journalism is barely even living in the 20th century, let alone the 21st, when it comes to technology. It’s telling that the most popular film about investigative journalism since the mid 1970s – Spotlight – depicts an investigation conducted in the early 2000s in which the reporters rely pretty much entirely on shoe leather, phone calls, door-knocking and interviews. It’s extremely trad journalism. It has very little to do with the state of the art of investigative journalism today, which is heavily reliant on mapping relationships between entities found in disparate, large and often incredibly unwieldy datasets.

Because of the dire funding situation for accountability journalism, no single organisation – even in the for-profit media space – has the money to invest in the quality data scientists and software engineers you would need to get the most out of a leak like the Panama Papers or the Paradise Papers. Due to increasing collaboration, those projects have yielded tremendous results, but they could have yielded far more if there were a common set of tools, used by everyone, into which data could be shared.

‘Surveillance tech’ is a scary name for something that is, itself, agnostic. What makes the tech titans scary is their incredible network effects, the impossibility of knowing their motives, and the lack of accountability around what they are and do. If we were to build an open source, publicly available data commons to store datasets relevant to transparency, accountability and democracy – such as all public registers of ownership, all public land registries, and structured data from major leaks – it would vastly accelerate and improve the investigative process. In time, you can also envisage this commons including ‘open source intelligence’ – scraped YouTube videos, tweets, Instagram photos and all the rest.

This would be a major technological endeavour, but it is not at all beyond the bounds of current software engineers. What it requires is money and a team willing to work for the good of humanity, rather than for their own financial interests, and those of some anonymous VC investors. If philanthropic foundations or enlightened rich people were to pool resources to fund such a project, it could change the world.

3: Stop being squeamish about working together.

One of the things that most characterises different groups within global civil society is a strong sense of identity. That’s not surprising.

There are the investigative journalists, often independent to the point of paranoia; there are the activists, fired up but sometimes without a compelling, evidence-based story to tell; there are the academics and policy people, who have some data and some answers but can’t get a hearing; there are the civic tech people, trying to work with all of the above and explain why things aren’t as simple as they seem; and there are the donors, who must somehow tolerate all of these groups explaining why they deserve their money.

I’m always struck whenever I go to a conference or an event organised by any one of these groups how insular each one is. As someone who has no qualification to be in any one of them, and therefore feels like a perennial outsider, I find myself wondering at what point this might change.

And then, looking outside, there are other gaps: between civil society and government, between government and Silicon Valley; between civil society and Silicon Valley. And this is to say nothing of the deeper social divides that brought us here in the first place: between the powerful and the weak, the ignorant and the informed, the rich and the poor, the young and the old.

The state of the world today – certainly the world of ‘liberal democracy’, the ‘open society’ or whatever you want to call it – seems urgently to require new thinking, new places to convene, new ways to work together. There are a few places where this is happening, or where it might happen. I was proud to work with OCCRP on its formal partnership with Transparency International because it was a serious attempt to bridge one of these many divides. The Open Government Partnership is another important and valuable nexus for such attempts. Encouragingly there also seems to be a serious move towards building and funding interdisciplinary institutes engaged on ethical issues raised by artificial intelligence technology, such as AINow. And I am excited to see what comes of the new Intellectual Forum at the University of Cambridge, led by the brilliant Julian Huppert (for whom I used to work).

But there’s room for far more. This is an area where a small amount of systems thinking allied to a small amount of funding could have huge benefits and concrete outputs.

Get in touch if you want to help.

Cross-posted from Medium

Brexit reveals the broken relationship between government and parliament

Much wringing of hands over the government’s so-called ‘concession’ yesterday. David Davis promised a vote on the final Brexit deal – a ‘take it or leave it’ vote, as reported by the BBC here.

The way this is portrayed by the media (including the BBC in that article) is that this is some sort of climb down by the government. In fact it’s nothing of the sort.

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As it’s been apparent since the referendum result became clear, any vote on a deal must include the possibility of staying in the EU, otherwise it is meaningless. It’s very strange that the government hasn’t recognised this, as by giving Parliament that power they would both be honouring the terms on which Leave won the referendum (“take back control” – sovereignty, remember?) and giving themselves more bargaining power by holding themselves accountable.

In coalition government, the best thing rank and file Lib Dem members could do was to up the ante on policy-making to force the parliamentary party to take more radical starting positions when negotiating with the Tories. This was quite basic stuff; when negotiating with a more powerful party, you have to hold your ground as best you can, not concede it from the outset. (I say it is basic, but it was also apparently beyond the grasp of some of our people.)

In the same way, the UK government would have been better off using Parliament’s bias to Remain in its favour. They would have been justified in doing so because the Leave side claimed it wanted to give Parliament more power. And they would have given themselves room to make concessions that are healthy for the UK economy, in line with the EU’s requirements, and supported by Parliament. In short, they would have got a better deal that reflected the result of the referendum more accurately.

It blows my mind that the same Theresa May who made what now looks like a remarkably decent pro-Remain speech (for a Tory) back in April 2016 has frittered away her political capital and her chance to ‘stand tall and lead’, in her own words, by manufacturing a situation in which her ministers can simply ignore the country’s elected representatives.

We can’t really blame the government though. It asked for unfettered power to negotiate the terms of Brexit by challenging Parliament over Article 50. And Parliament, to its everlasting shame, blinked. In voting through the government’s bill completely unamended, it enabled Theresa May to invoke Article 50 without binding her in any way to any policy that would have ameliorated the total uncertainty of the current situation.

Once Article 50 was triggered, the legal process ceased to be a UK-based one, and becomes European. David Allen Green’s excellent thread, starting with this, summates:

If you didn’t read David’s thread, here’s the gist: you can forget all you read or hear in the press about Parliament having a ‘final say’ on Brexit. The legal position is that the UK will leave the EU on March 29, 2019, regardless of any further legislation being passed in the House of Commons. Only the government can directly intervene to stop the Article 50 process, and even then, it would be dependent on European institutions to allow or confirm the revocation.

What does all this tell us? It shows us the extent to which government and Parliament are failing to work together in the interests of the country. The relationship between executive and legislature ought always to be adversarial rather than cosy; the way that our government is built, derived as it is from Parliament, makes this immediately difficult.

But more importantly, it shows us just how poorly our elected representatives understand their role in our democracy. They voted enthusiastically for an advisory referendum that meant they retained the power of decision-making on Brexit. They squandered that power. Now, it appears, they are demanding that power be restored, having voted enthusiastically for a legal process that took it out of their hands.

It’s almost as if we need to reform the way we choose them.

No Strings Attached

In a country where abuse of the system matters more than the system itself, giving without conditions is a revolutionary act

In India’s caste system, there is a class of people known as the Dalits. There are 165 million of them – around 1/6th of the total population. Dalits are not actually a caste; they’re a group so low in social standing that they don’t even merit official inclusion. The name means ‘broken people’, but they’ve historically been known to the outside world as ‘untouchables’. They are considered too filthy to be integrated into ordinary society. They don’t have jobs. They rummage through garbage heaps for scraps of metal or food. They sleep rough on the streets or in makeshift shelters.

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A school of untouchables near Bangalore,  by Lady Ottoline Morrell

When I was a kid, I believed I lived in a country where that could never happen. Of course, I thought the UK had its problems. We certainly had no shortage of self-consciousness about class. I grew up the son of a church minister, a job seen as comfortably middle class for no apparent reason, but certainly not for reasons of income. But I went to a private prep school, and to church, with children whose lives and houses did match that description – well-off, you might say; or, to put it another way, rich. In my dormitory town surroundings in West Sussex, I watched men in suits get on the train to London, flowing, like well-dressed automatons to the ‘dead sound on the final stroke of nine’.

The closest I came to poverty back then were the whispers about “Bentswood” – the estate a few hundred yards from my family’s church. The impression I had as a small child of this small council estate, now mostly privately owned after Right To Buy, was hellish. I vividly imagined bawling toddlers, vicious fathers and mothers smoking and drinking away the child benefit, and teenagers high or getting into knife fights. I based this solely on having seen one woman come out of her house in her dressing gown and slippers to pick up a newspaper, and on the fact that at Christmas, the estate was lit up with what I considered incredibly tasteless, garish tableaux that had little to do with the Nativity as I understood it.

In my church, there were people who were genuinely different. These were what we then called the ‘handicapped’; people with often quite serious mental health issues, and some who had physical disabilities as well. I knew they came from a special home and that they had people dedicated to looking after them. I knew how uncomfortable they made other people when they said strange things during the service. And I knew how uncomfortable they made me when they came near me and asked me questions smelling, as they often did, faintly or strongly of urine, and rarely willing to accept or able to understand my answers. Most of all I knew how uncomfortable it was when one of them, a middle-aged woman, kept coming to our house and monopolising my mother’s time and energy, frequently crying and sometimes shouting.

But these people weren’t ‘untouchables’. To the contrary, I saw people welcome and love them despite their discomfort. They were part of community life, in many ways more associated with the way things worked and the life of the church than many of the comfortable families that surrounded them. In short, they were shown compassion, love and warmth, and they could carry themselves with dignity. In some cases, it was possible to see them grow into completely different people: people who had more humanity, intelligence and empathy than the average ‘ordinary’ person. And because they often spoke with less of the repressed, self-conscious, buttoned-up fear I’d come to associate with the English middle class, what they had to say often resonated far more deeply.

The lesson I learned from observing those people was simple. They were given love and, yes, charity, without strings attached, and it transformed their lives for the better. I don’t know if they knew nothing was expected in return, but I know they responded anyway. Their problems weren’t gone overnight, but their lives, and ours, were enriched many times over. I believed that anything could be overcome in the same way, and that the benefit of this approach would be obvious to anyone.

Then, at 12, I moved to Brazil with my family and my eyes were opened to what poverty and hardship could be. Suddenly, all around me was evidence of a problem that was too big for a church or a community to fix. And these people weren’t mentally ill or disabled; many of them were healthy working age adults, especially men, who stood on street corners or gazed menacingly at passers-by.

For the first time, I felt the threat of poverty. I felt the tension that comes when you live in a society where there really are haves and have-nots, and where the gap’s too evident, and too wide, to ignore. For the first time, I was a rich kid, and though I lived in a rich neighbourhood, and even a rich state, I lived in a poor country.

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The sign reads, “We want a cure for hunger”. Recife, June 2013. Photo by Sebastian Freire

I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to realise that this problem could only be fixed by people with far more power and money than the richest families at my church. And I’ve never forgotten what it felt like to realise that the problem had been created by those same people. That good government could change people’s lives, but so could bad government; and that every decision a government makes – even one that only oversees a small dormitory town in West Sussex – carries weight, because it carries the lives of others in its grip.


The Iraq war turned me on to politics in earnest. I marched against the war, and watched brave, clever Robin Cook resign from the government to applause, and to no purpose. I joined the Liberal Democrats for the first time, having heard Charles Kennedy speak out equally bravely, and demand a higher standard of proof before we sent people to kill, and to die.

A couple of years later, I went to university in London. The 7/7 attack happened just before I enrolled for my first year. Overnight, the city I most associated with unrivalled enjoyment of all that’s best about humanity became a place where I sometimes looked over my shoulder. This was somewhere an innocent Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes, could be mistakenly shot multiple times by armed police who believed he was the Asian terrorist they were after. In my half-Indian skin, dark after a summer spent largely outside, I was wary about getting on the tube.

These two events, and their political consequences, may have been when I first noticed it. We no longer had a government that was generous, or patient. It was instead willing to ignore what had gone before for the sake of expediency or some intangible sense of security. The language used about citizens became almost imperceptibly harsher. And meanwhile, the Conservative Party was in the doldrums, increasingly far from power, or so it seemed; embracing unthinking nationalism over the euro, and preaching hate against immigrants and criminals. No, Michael Howard: I’m not thinking what you’re thinking.

The Tories were in such a mess for so long. I could barely remember what it had been like before Blair’s enormous majority in 1997. And although so much had changed in the world after 9/11, Afghanistan and Iraq, Britain still seemed like a country at ease with itself, that generally looked after its poor, and that was trying to make things better for its people. Maybe things couldn’t only get better, but in the UK at least, they didn’t seem likely to be getting worse any time soon.

But then luckless, clumping Gordon Brown finally rose to the position he’d dreamt of. And barely a year later we had a financial crisis that threw the country into disarray. It’s easy to forget that only ten years ago, we had a proper bank run in the UK. And after a decade of easy living, tightening belts was suddenly very much de rigeur. ‘Austerity’ was the new watchword, and having spent years trying to outdo each other in generosity (we should never forget George Osborne promised to match Labour’s spending plans), they now began to compete on meanness.

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Bank run at Northern Rock, 2007 (Photo: Lee Jordan)

Brown’s ascent was always marked with tragedy. He displayed a craven willingness to appease the worst kinds of political pressure. His first speech to a Labour conference as leader, much like Theresa May’s almost a decade later, betrayed him as a figure who would be more politically opportunistic and amoral than anyone had expected. It’s almost entirely forgotten that it was during that speech that he first promised to create ‘British jobs for British workers‘. He continued to stand by the use of the slogan, more typically associated with the National Front and the British National Party, despite criticism from his own MPs and even from David Cameron, who was then positioning the Conservatives as a modern, internationalist party.

Then, during the election campaign of 2010, Brown had his infamous run-in with Gillian Duffy. This was a cataclysmic error not because of what he said, but because of the circumstances in which he said it. Politically, he had no option but to renege on his comments, even though they were accurate. Duffy was a bigoted woman. But her views had been given oxygen by Brown himself.

Brown as Chancellor and then as Prime Minister had also contributed to a change in the way we thought about benefits. The thrust of Blair and Brown’s many changes to benefits policy, and especially the introduction of their flagship tax credits was to switch spending from traditional forms of social security payment to conditional (and very complex) programming that provided incentives to take work and then increase the number of hours in employment.

While this had some positive effects, particularly while the economy was growing, it had the effect of removing redistribution from the political arena, or at least obscuring the true intentions of Brown and the Labour government (which, in this area, to my mind at least, were honourable).


Since the turn of the tide in 2010, and the rise of the Conservatives to power, things have got far worse. Despite the restraining hand of the Liberal Democrats for the first five years, the damage was already done when meanness (or ‘austerity’) became the key metric for political competence. And the impact of this is clearly visible.

Walking around London now is a very different experience to what it was ten, five, or even two years ago. In the centre of town, around Victoria or Covent Garden, you can count dozens of people sleeping rough. London looks increasingly similar to cities in the US, rather than to its counterparts in Europe. And from what I hear, other major UK cities like Manchester and Birmingham have seen far greater rises in homelessness. The official statistics from local authorities bear this out (although they also look incredibly conservative).

That environment is what originally sparked my desire to write this. An article by Matt Broomfield in the New Statesman, arguing for giving money ‘directly and unconditionally‘ to homeless people, has been doing the rounds on Facebook and Twitter.

Just before Broomfield’s article appeared, I attended a Tech Solidarity event in San Francisco where a rapt audience of tech employees heard from Jennifer Friedenbach, the director of the Coalition on Homelessness. The non-profit org runs on $270,000 a year, employing 9 staff on a flat wage of $16 an hour (including Jennifer herself); roughly about the same as a single software engineer’s annual salary.

Friedenbach outlined a situation in which one of the wealthiest cities in the world has somehow contrived to produce one of the worst housing environments. The homeless people in San Francisco, she said, had had no difference in terms of ability, health, or other social metrics from the housed; the only difference was whether people received housing subsidies or not. But after a few months on the streets, homeless people displayed a decline in health equivalent to ageing as much as 25 years. Most damningly, she said, the cost of providing healthcare to the homeless in SF now outweighed the likely cost of housing them.

This is where we are, in rich Western democracies: so obsessed with conditionality, with testing whether people ‘deserve’ good treatment, that we impoverish them and ourselves in the service of… what? Accuracy? Efficiency?

The impact of this can be felt in all sorts of ways in the philanthropic world, too, which is obsessed with metrics and benchmarks to demonstrate ‘impact’, and loses out on huge opportunities as a consequence of the bureaucracy that this requires. (I’ll write more on this another time. This fear of failure is definitely not holding back the right wing foundations, which will gleefully throw money at and take risks on projects that share their values, regardless of whether they have their paperwork, monitoring and evaluation and theory of change exactly right.)

All of which brings me, finally, back to Bloomfield’s article, and to the point. How do we begin to solve this? The problem of homelessness is just one indicator for a wider set of political principles that, I propose, most people do not share, but have somehow become an essential measure of successful public policy. Whether a system is abused seems more important to today’s politicians and media than whether the system is achieving the outcomes we want as a society.

As individual citizens, we can of course vote for parties we think will change that. But in the meantime, in the vast majority of years, when we’re not voting at major elections, we should aim to model the values we want to see. I don’t want to live in a country that values meanness over kindness. I want to live in a society that is liberal and generous, and so giving money without conditions (not just to homeless people but also to worthwhile charities, or even extra tax) seems a great way to do that.

Every individual act of kindness is a statement of rebellion against the meanness of the state. Giving without conditions is a revolutionary act.

Time to Remove the Lib Dem Invisibility Cloak

Over the last couple of days I’ve been dipping my toe into that infamous Twitter meme, “1 Like = 1 Unpopular Opinion.” You can see all my inane (the S is silent) ramblings here, but I’d draw particular attention to no. 17:

A lot of people will look at that and laugh. The Lib Dems are, after all, at a low ebb, even by our own ebb-inclined standards. We somehow contrived to lose vote share at this year’s general election, even if we did gain a few seats. And despite having changed to a serious, heavyweight (if slightly long-in-the-tooth) leader, we’re still struggling to get a hearing in the media.

However, it’s not all our fault. Part of the problem is that people who could make a difference and get us moving forward keep pretending we don’t exist. It seems like every other day someone comes up with a bright idea to start a new liberal party that is pro-Remain. Sometimes it feels like it happens every single day.

A few days ago, for example, the Financial Times reported that a random bloke from Battersea (?) is starting a party called Renew. This prompted a Newsweek journalist to tweet:

There’s also James Chapman’s Democrats, which appear to have done precisely nothing, if they even exist at all.

And then today, lo and behold, another game-changing movement has arisen. This time it’s the Economist‘s Berlin Bureau Chief, Jeremy Cliffe (hitherto a sensible and extremely well-informed journalist, especially on EU issues) who is donning Macron’s clothes:

Just a couple of hours after his initial tweet proposing the ‘Radicals’ my friend Jon Worth had snapped up a Twitter handle, which got immediate attention:

Jon, who also lives in Berlin, then hastily wrote up the rapidly growing movement on his blog at what must have been some ungodly hour (I’m in San Francisco and so have no grasp of European timezones), mentioning my somewhat brusque response:

Look, I get it. I get that being part of something new and dynamic and Macron-like is much more exciting than joining a political party that peaked in 2005, screwed up massively in 2010/11, and has since had a descent roughly akin to a drugged-up squirrel that’s obsessed with that one R Kelly song.

But the UK doesn’t have a mechanism for a Macron. Whatever people say about our system being more ‘presidential’ than democracies with actual presidents, you have to be a political party of substance and scale to succeed in a general election. Starting a new party is going to achieve nothing while wasting your energy and distracting from the real goal.

Like it or not, if you want a pro-EU, pro-business, pro-tech UK political party, there is already one that has over 100,000 members, 12 MPs, thousands of councillors, and an internal democracy that compares favourably to every single one of its competitors. You can have an immediate impact. We are a party in which it’s literally possible to go from new member to MP in a year and a half, but you can also get policies passed with a bit of effort, and when we get into government, they really do get implemented.

The party you’re looking for – the party you’re reinventing – is the Liberal Democrats. We were in government just two years ago. If you are serious about stopping Brexit or at least providing some decent opposition to it, you should join us. Now. Today.

The EU referendum should be rerun based on this Leaver’s vision

You probably won’t have heard of Pete North. Unless you’re a political geek who’s followed the developments since the EU referendum exhaustively, you also won’t know what the Leave Alliance is. To cut a long story short, the Alliance has usually been one of the more sensible groups advocating Brexit, and North is its spiritual leader.

Yesterday North published a post on his personal blog setting out what he now expects to see happen. He takes for granted (as do I) that there will be no deal arising from the current, increasingly frantic, negotiations between the UK government and the EU’s team led by Michel Barnier.

He then sets out what the likely effects of this ‘no deal’ scenario are. They include:

  • A ten year recession, never before experienced by anyone under 50
  • Unemployment back to where it was in the 1980s
  • A spike in crime
  • Major cuts to the armed forces,  including RAF reduced by a third
  • Enormous price rises as British produce becomes accessible only to the rich
  • A skeleton NHS, poorly staffed, partly because immigration has slowed to a trickle

What is most striking is that he is happy to live with these effects. He says: “I have always primarily thought Brexit would be a reboot on British politics and culture. In a lot of ways it will bring back much of what is missing,” and that “I think, given the opportunity to vote again I would still vote to leave. Eventually it gets to a point where any change will do.”

I would love to see a polling company set out this scenario for people and then ask them to say which way they would vote in a new referendum. If we had had this kind of candour from the Leave side during the campaign in 2016, it seems most likely we would have had a very similar result to the 1975 referendum, with a vast majority for staying in.

I’d love to hear from people who voted Leave, too, as to whether they would have done so had this been the outcome offered to them.

#CatalanReferendum: democracy dies in chaos

The brutality being meted out by Spanish riot police today is sickening and potentially deadly. There are countless videos on my Twitter feed of defenceless elderly people, young students, and even dogs being treated with inhuman violence by agents of the state.

This must be condemned unequivocally, if belatedly, by the Spanish government, which must realise that far from aiding their cause, this violence is doing nothing but strengthening a narrative that has surely already overcome its own political mandate.

With every blow of a club or swing of a riot shield, the fact that this referendum is nothing of the sort – that it is against the constitution, and illegitimate – recedes further into the ether. What is being attempted is unprecedented, and has parallels not with the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 – which was entirely legal and done with the full consent of the UK government – but with attempts by Milorad Dodik’s corrupt regime to wrench the Republika Srpska out of Bosnia and Herzegovina and shatter the fragile peace that still clings on through the increasingly threadbare Dayton Agreement which ended the war.

It is also clear that this is part of a larger geopolitical movement. The insidious veneration of ‘self-determination’ at all costs is not designed to empower, but to fragment. It is not surprising to read that Julian Assange and Edward Snowden contribute nearly a third of all traffic on the Twitter hashtag #Catalonia, with Wikileaks and Putin’s mouth-organ RT also highly active. (RT has also published plenty of pro-Dodik material, condemning the recently imposed US sanctions against him.) It is also notable that Twitter has made sure Assange is the beneficiary of an extra 140 characters, so that he can spew skewed, unconstitutional, a-legal nonsense like this:

This kind of influence pops up wherever there is a chance to break apart the delicate structures that protect democracy and citizens. Wherever you look around the world at secessionist movements, Russian influence is growing. I have spent a lot of time in California this year, and people there are always shocked to hear that one of the prominent proponents of so-called #Calexit lives in Yekaterinburg. Let’s be clear: it’s not that these movements were started by the Reds under the Bed – they’re real, and have real support – but they are certainly supported, often with large sums of money and substantial political and media backing.

There’s also a clear link between such movements and the rise of other fringe nationalist groups – often manifesting through extreme conservatism, anti-LGBT campaigns, white supremacist groups, and more.

The breakdown of order in Catalonia is instructive. The masthead of the Washington Post claims that “democracy dies in darkness”. Rather, the massing examples of failed democracy – Brexit, Trump, and now Catalonia – show us that democracy dies in chaos. Media outlets such as the Guardian, which in its live reportage understandably takes the side of the protesters, describing their ‘peaceful defiance‘, are nonetheless failing to give this wider context. It is that failure that bolsters the kind of narrative Assange and his ilk want to spread.

This is a desperately difficult situation. It’s clear that state-sanctioned violence must be stopped. It’s clear that illegal attempts to wrench regions unilaterally out of constitutions must also be stopped. And it’s clear that insidious foreign influence to undermine democracy must be flagged appropriately and held accountable.

The naive belief that democracy can ever stand still – that it’s ever stable – is being ripped apart by huge shifts in the world’s political landscape. Democracy is really fragile, and people have really short memories. The only way to protect it is to constantly reform it, and by doing so, enable government that acts in the best interests of as many of its people as possible.