‘Adequate food for all’: the new Brexit slogan, dead on arrival

Yesterday the newly-minted Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Dominic Raab, appeared before the Brexit select committee. I suspect that he didn’t expect to be demoted two weeks into the job, but almost simultaneously, that was what happened, as Theresa May – the Prime Minister who has shown such impeccable judgement and negotiating skill with her own party – takes on the mantle of lead negotiator.

Bearing in mind that Raab’s predecessor, David Davis, spent just four hours with Michel Barnier (the EU’s lead negotiator) this year, I suspect this is more of a cosmetic update than a meaningful power shift.

Raab was keen to reassure the select committee about something quite important to all of us: the government’s preparations for food shortages in the event of a no-deal Brexit. As recently as Sunday, he had failed to deny that the government was stockpiling food, calling it only a ‘selective snippet’.

Today, he clarified that it wasn’t the government doing the stockpiling. Instead, the government is working with industry to do the stockpiling. It’s a neat distinction, but not one I personally find reassuring.

He adopted another unnerving phrase in the course of this explanation: that there will be ‘adequate food supplies’.

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Inadequate politician (photo by Chris McAndrew, sourceCC BY 3.0)

Plenty of other people have pointed out the unattractive nature of this statement. I think I’ve seen at least three separate mock-ups for putting it on the side of the famous Vote Leave bus.

But there’s something more significantly wrong with Raab’s claim – not just wrong, but disturbing. Anyone who follows the issue of food in the UK will know that there is already a crisis. Food poverty has been on the rise in our country, most notably since the recession a decade ago.

It’s very difficult to find good statistics on this, because – guess what – the government doesn’t collect data. They claim, for example, that monitoring the number of people using food banks would place too much of a burden on the volunteers who run them. (Seriously.)

So it’s left to the civil society organisations – mostly cash-strapped charities – to do the role of our civil service. And they do a decent job. In particular, the Trussell Trust produces tons of research and advocacy. Importantly, they also adopt a cross-cutting approach, looking for instance at the impact of Universal Credit and benefit cuts on food bank users. Oxfam and the Child Poverty Action Group are also notable for their work on this issue.

Some key statistics:

  • According to UN data from 2014, more than 2 million UK citizens are in severe food poverty and up to 8 million live in households where there is moderate or severe food poverty [src]
  • The Trussell Trust doled out 1.3 million 3-day emergency food supplies in 2017/18 – 13% higher than the previous year (and they only represent 2/3 of the UK’s food banks) [src]
  • 1 in 4 parents are skipping meals because they can’t afford them [src]

I confess to being skeptical of some of this research. Some of these organisations are clearly on low budgets and probably do not have the kind of resources that are required to do really high quality research of this type.

That’s yet another reason why a government serious about providing ‘adequate food’ for its citizens would already be measuring food poverty and food insecurity. Emma Lewell Buck, the Labour MP, has attempted to introduce legislation to that end on several occasions, without success.

In a cruel irony, her most recent Bill, still going nowhere in Parliament, even uses that same phrase:

For the purposes of this Act “food insecurity” means a person’s state in which consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year. [emphasis added]

When the government won’t even get the information it needs to figure out how to help people who are already living below the breadline, there is no reason to trust Dominic Raab’s inadequate reassurances.


EDIT: I’m grateful to Andy Jolly for drawing my attention to the Food Standards Agency’s ‘Food and You’ survey. The FSA’s remit is much more to look at food safety and hygiene, but there is data in this survey that counts as official statistics. It is still inadequate so far as meeting the needs of citizens goes, but it’s more detailed than I thought, so consider this a partial correction.

You can find the ‘Food and You’ surveys here. Key statistics from the last one (April 2018):

  • 9% of UK households are food insecure
    • 18% of those aged 25 to 34 live in food insecure households (compared to 2-3% of those aged 65 or over)
  • Women are more than twice as likely to experience food insecurity than men
  • 41% of respondents aged 16-24 said they sometimes or often worried that food would run out before they had money to buy more, compared to 5-7% of those aged 65 or over
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Nick Robinson reveals how far the BBC may have strayed

Nick Robinson revealed something significant on Twitter today. He was replying to this accusation from a guy called Frederic Moreau:

For those new to UK politics, the DUP is the party at the centre of one of Brexit’s many dark money scandals, and also the party guaranteeing the current government a majority.

In reply, Nick Robinson wrote this:

Oddly enough, this was a pretty ‘interesting and revealing’ thing for a senior BBC presenter and former political editor to say. It’s especially interesting at a time when the BBC is under huge pressure to explain its continuing failure to act in the public interest by reporting on Brexit in a way that reflects the truth, rather than in a way that gives all sides equal weight.

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Nick Robinson [source]

Is Robinson right? Can there be room for interviews on the BBC that do not challenge? Bear in mind that the BBC is the UK’s public broadcaster, with an enormous audience and huge resources paid for by citizens (sometimes against their will). The BBC drives the news agenda in politics and much else. If governments and opposition parties want to announce something, they will try to get on the BBC to do it.

I would argue that there is no justification for an interview on the nation’s most important news show that does not challenge. I argue from authority: here are two key definitions of the purpose of journalism.

The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.

That’s from the American Press Institute [source], though. What if the UK has a different approach? Well, it turns out the Independent Press Standards Organisation (the UK print media ‘regulator’) has defined what ‘the public interest’ means [source] (bolded text is my addition):

  • Detecting or exposing crime, or the threat of crime, or serious impropriety.
  • Protecting public health or safety.
  • Protecting the public from being misled by an action or statement of an individual or organisation.
  • Disclosing a person or organisation’s failure or likely failure to comply with any obligation to which they are subject.
  • Disclosing a miscarriage of justice.
  • Raising or contributing to a matter of public debate, including serious cases of impropriety, unethical conduct or incompetence concerning the public.
  • Disclosing concealment, or likely concealment, of any of the above.

The three bolded points are relevant to Jeffrey Donaldson’s statements. If this doesn’t apply to the BBC, who does it apply to?

Robinson’s opinion is terrifying in an age of misinformation and disinformation. Getting people to voice ill-founded opinions and false information without immediate challenge is actively inimical to the purpose of journalism outlined above. Worse, we know perfectly well that once a lie pollutes the information ecosystem, it travels faster than the truth. It was always thus. Jonathan Swift in 1710 wrote [source]:

Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…

Never before has this been more relevant though, in a time when we have propaganda on steroids infecting our politics and our society, and when powerful forces both foreign and domestic are weaponising it for their own purposes.

I want to be charitable. Perhaps Robinson genuinely believes that by simply getting people to put forward falsehoods, other journalists and fact-checkers will come riding to the rescue and ‘challenge’ them, and in so doing, will ensure that citizens are informed. If he does, he’s naive. Politicians use the Today programme and other similar means to spread their lines and opinions. It is not enough to rely on people debunking things later.

The less charitable way to approach it, though, is that Robinson wants to be able to challenge some people and not others. As Chris Smith put it:

If Chris is right, we would see a pattern of left/liberal politicians being challenged in interviews, while right-wing/authoritarian ones were not. That might well undermine trust, as well as damaging the BBC’s claim to be serving the public.

All I know is that it’s becoming harder and harder to think charitably of the BBC.

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

Pregnant women: ‘Papers, please!’

It might just be the increasingly autumnal weather, but it seems that every day another government announcement is made that chills me to the bone.

This morning I read in the Telegraph of a new pilot scheme, devised by the Home Office, that will force pregnant women to prove their right to use the NHS when planning to give birth.

It seems that con men have been making money by charging women (particularly from Nigeria) to use NHS services.

With breathtaking alacrity, the story explains that the London trust that is piloting the scheme (St George’s) decided to impose a blanket condition on all pregnant women ‘to avoid charges of discrimination’.

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St George’s Hospital

There are several problems with this.

First of all, it’s victim-blaming. If it is true, as St George’s say, that it has fallen victim to “organised illegal activity”, the response should focus on the perpetrators of that illegal activity. This response does nothing to deal directly with the con men who are promoting so-called ‘maternity tourism’.

Secondly, it’s likely to lead to discrimination anyway. Harassed staff will screen to save time and white women will be asked for their proof of ID less frequently than people of colour.

Thirdly, this is another step towards a ‘papers, please’ culture in the NHS and in our public services generally. The story says the pilot is part of “national efforts to ensure that proof of ID is routinely presented before patients access all NHS care.”

Two better solutions would be doing proper detective work to investigate and destroy the networks that enable men to con pregnant women, and funding the NHS properly so that it does not have to embrace euphemistic ‘revenue protection’ practices. But the Home Office has almost always preferred lazy authoritarian solutions.

Finally, the story doesn’t go into details on what happens if heavily pregnant women are found not to have the right to use NHS services. Perhaps that would be too distasteful for the dainty consciences of average Telegraph readers.

Theresa May’s Britain: disgraceful, unpatriotic and openly racist

I can’t remember a worse day in British politics than October 4th, 2016. Today ranked far below even last year’s general election, when 49 of my party’s MPs were defeated, and June 23rd, a date I thought had established itself as comfortably the worst domestic political event of my lifetime.

I have spent the day in a state of bewilderment, anger, disgust and despair at the way the Conservative government is dragging the country into a disgraceful mire. They claim to base this on a single vote, a vote to leave the European Union, that was decided on a knife-edge – a mere 1.3 million votes out of 33 million. On the basis of this vote, they claim to understand what “the public” wants, and even what it thinks. Just look at tomorrow’s Daily Mail front page, if you can:

That is the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, calling other people elites. Making up non-existent elites that you can then blame for the country’s ills is textbook fascism.

Of course, this also illustrates another fundamental problem the UK faces: a media that is not just supine but more than happy to promote this kind of language in the face of the truth.

And the truth is utterly stark. The government that Theresa May is running can now only be described as overtly racist. The policy announcements made today by successive ministers were worthy of 1930s Germany and, as UKIP MEP Patrick O’Flynn rightly crowed, redolent of his party’s 2015 manifesto:

The fact that his party’s leader Diane James resigned tonight after 18 days in the job is no more than a depressing footnote to today’s events. The spectre of Nigel Farage’s inevitable return no longer feels threatening given what the Conservatives have become.

Theresa May was the one who popularised the concept of the Tories as ‘the Nasty Party’. Now she presides over some of the nastiest policies ever devised in British politics. It started early this morning with the announcement on doctors. When I read this I didn’t expect it to be the least worrying policy pledge of the day:

That’s the Defence Secretary promising that in future military conflicts, British soldiers will no longer be subject to the European Convention on Human Rights. In theory this would mean they were less susceptible to investigations into battlefield behaviour and abuses. In other words, because they’re beautiful British troops, we should just trust that they’ll do the right thing and remove the external mechanism designed to hold them accountable (you know, the one that British lawyers helped to draft after the second world war). Thankfully, it seems that this policy is actually unworkable in practice, but it certainly kicked October 4th off nicely.

It warmed us up for Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May’s main announcement of the day:

Ok, let’s think about this. There are innumerable problems with this policy. To list a few:

  1. Setting a deadline by which foreign doctors must presumably leave (or be deported?) makes working in the NHS far less attractive for current and potential new foreign doctors. Given the NHS has a massive staffing shortage at present, the government wants to expand its services, and there is a rapidly ageing population, this is shortsighted.
  2. Setting a deadline by which foreign doctors must leave makes it far more likely that they will leave sooner. Why would you want to stay in a country that doesn’t want your highly prized skills? There are any number of other countries you could work in.
  3. Further numbers of home-grown doctors being trained is a great idea, but recruiting people is currently proving difficult. That seems to be mainly a response from students to chronic mismanagement and confrontational behaviour by, oh, the government. Things have got so bad that this year medical degrees went into clearing for the first time.
  4. Even if you can manage to train enough new British doctors, they will be just that: new. These foreign doctors have probably been here for a while, and if by some miracle they stay for another nine years, they’ll be very experienced. So the NHS will lose a lot of experience and institutional knowledge regardless, decreasing the quality of care for its patients.
  5. Finally, even if you replace all the foreign doctors with British ones, you’ll have the same number you started with, when the problem is that there’s a shortage. I need not explain this further, but for Jeremy Hunt’s benefit, if you have no more doctors at the end of the process than at the beginning, you have spent a lot of time and money on solving nothing.

You’ll notice I’ve left out the biggest problem with it. That is, naturally, that it is racist. There is no justification given for the policy other than their foreignness. That is simple racism. Explicitly discriminating against foreign doctors purely because they are foreign is unequivocally wrong.

Next up was Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary. She had a smart idea about cutting immigration too. Here it is:

In case you don’t know, providing education to international students is one of Britain’s most successful exports. Our universities make a ton of money from it. That money massively subsidises British students, keeping tuition fees lower and helping universities plan their financial future.

This policy achieves an impressive triple whammy:

  1. Telling international students they aren’t wanted – thereby reducing demand
  2. Telling universities they can’t be sure whether they’ll be able to recruit international students in future – throwing their plans into disarray
  3. Ensuring that tuition fees will almost certainly rise for British students

Another irony of this particular policy is that evidence suggests a vast majority of the public understand the difference between student immigration and employee immigration, and think people coming here to study for a short period is a great thing. But it’s probably simpler for Amber Rudd to pander to racists.

That certainly seems to be the case for her other policy, a requirement for… well, here’s the Times headline:

Firms must list foreign workers. And if they don’t employ enough British people, they will be ‘shamed’.

Can the Tories even hear themselves saying these things? Surely this runs counter to all their instincts. Even if we’re only talking about being pro-business – the most mercenary of all possible considerations – this is going to be a nightmare for everyone; enormous bureaucracy for no discernible purpose. Meanwhile a lot of the people who invest the most in our economy or have the best skills are foreigners – think of London’s tech industry, which is one of the world leaders.

But again, the real question for Amber Rudd and Theresa May is how they sleep at night. How do they live with themselves? This is bordering on fascism.

Speculation has raged since this announcement on how these pledges might be implemented. My money’s on yellow stars for the foreigners so they’re easy to spot. And for those unpatriotic firms with too many of the blighters, maybe the UK Border Force could smash their windows. I’m sure that would get the message across.

Last but not least in this parade of political putrescence comes our old friend, disgraced former minister Dr Liam Fox, who was forced to resign in disgrace until Theresa May graciously gave him a Cabinet role heading up all the non-existent trade deals we will try to strike after leaving the EU.

It was pretty difficult to identify the most egregious moment of this spectacular shitshow, but I think this statement by Fox takes the prize. We already knew that May’s government had not ruled out using EU citizens in the UK as a negotiating tool, but this particular description betrays how infantile these people are.

Fox really appears to feel hopeful about the tricky – to put it lightly – negotiation the government has to perform with 27 other EU member states. And one of the ‘main’ reasons for this hope is the number of EU foreigners living in the UK. And the reason Liam Fox is hopeful is that the British government will be able to threaten other countries about the future welfare of their citizens.

Consider that there are 3.2 million EU migrants in the UK at present, around 5% of the population. Let’s assume you know 100 people. 5% means you almost certainly know some of these people personally. They almost certainly go to the same school as your children. Depending on where in the country you’re from, there’s a not-insignificant chance you might be friends with them or your relatives might be married to them.

If what Liam Fox said does not disgust you, appal you, and make you sick to your stomach, then I don’t really want to know you.

Some final thoughts. I am angry. I want to do something to stop this awfulness from continuing and succeeding. I intend to use the minimal tools at my disposal to do so. That means campaigning for the Liberal Democrats, even from afar, and supporting all other ways I know of to fight this danger, including trade associations, independent (and sane) media, and online debate.

You might be wondering what Labour were doing all day. A lot of other people were too. Surely, on a day of such infamy and disgrace, they would stand up as the opposition the country needs? Especially after Jeremy Corbyn chose to defend immigration at their recent conference?

Eventually they tweeted this:

As a fellow Lib Dem on Twitter put it:

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

If you are anywhere near as angered by this litany of disgrace as I am, then please join the Liberal Democrats, today, and help us campaign. David Cameron’s resignation has caused a by-election in Witney on October 20th. A victory for the Liberal Democrats would send the loudest possible message to Theresa May and her pernicious ministers that this approach to Brexit and to government is completely unacceptable.

What an “unfettered” Tory government might actually mean

A little more than 24 hours after it became painfully clear just what the Conservatives had achieved in the general election, there is already a developing sense of buyer’s remorse. Apparently almost 2400 new members have joined the Liberal Democrats since polls closed. This is obviously a good thing, although perhaps it just reflects the endless propensity of British people to back a plucky underdog.

But it was striking already across both old and new media yesterday how subdued the response to the prospect of five years of majority Tory rule was. There was limited triumphalism from newspapers that had mostly advocated some species of continued coalition or power-sharing arrangement. And the response on Twitter – certainly from people I follow, who are not all Lib Dems by any means – was quite sceptical.

David Cameron, yesterdayPeople are belatedly poring over the Conservative Manifesto to find all the horrors within that might now become a reality. Certainly there are some big, beastly policies that spring out immediately which would never, ever have happened under a continued Tory/Lib Dem arrangement. These include:

  • Abolition of the Human Rights Act

Because we, the people, like governments actively to reduce the number of rights available to us as citizens…

  • £30 billion in further cuts, including £12 billion from welfare – the so-called “rollercoaster” of public spending cuts that will be deeper and more rapid than anything between 2010-2015

Because we, the people, like governments actively to reduce the quality and breadth of public services available to us as citizens on the basis of an arbitrary numerical target…

  • No increases in the vast majority of tax rates

Because we, the people, would rather see the government hack away at vital services than ask us – or our wealthier friends – to pay a bit more to the Treasury…

  • “Abolish” long-term youth unemployment

This is code for the following policies: tougher Day One Work Requirements for jobseekers; introduction of a “Youth Allowance” to replace JSA for 18-21 year olds that forces them to take an apprenticeship, traineeship or do “community work” for their benefits; remove automatic entitlement to Housing Benefit.

Because we, the people, think the best way for new adults to start in life is through a combination of embarrassing and demoralising situations. Work for your benefits and live with your parents into adulthood.

  • Introduce a 50% workforce threshold for strike action, and make it harder for staff in health, education, fire and transport to strike

This will presumably be known as the No Bob Crow Bill. Other policies include the removal of restrictions banning employers from hiring cover during strikes – at a stroke, undermining the whole point of industrial action.

Because we, the people, want our employers to have even more power over us – the balance at the moment is far too much towards us, the bolshy workers.

  • We will give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote

Because we, the people, feel this is a sensible use of government and Parliamentary time in the 21st century. And because we like using hounds to kill foxes.

  • We will make EU migrants live here for four years without claiming any benefits

Because we, the people, want to benefit from the presence of people who “work hard and get on” without having to protect them if anything bad happens to them, like if they lose their job – you know, the one a lot of British people wouldn’t want to have to do.

  • “Deport first, appeal later”

This rule will be extended to all immigration appeals and judicial reviews, including where a so-called right to family life is involved. Satellite tracking will also be introduced for every foreign national offender subject to an outstanding deportation order or deportation proceedings.

Because we, the people, care more about getting rid of suspicious-looking foreigners than ensuring they have a right to fair treatment and due process.

  • Introduce new powers to force coasting schools to accept new leadership

Because we, the people, think the best way to make schools better is always to force them to change their leadership. Because problems always start at the top, and nothing can be blamed upon, say, social deprivation or the lack of buy-in from rich parents who can move to be nearer good schools.

  • We will address the unfairness of the current Parliamentary boundaries and reduce the number of MPs to 600

We’ll also introduce “votes for life” for expatriates who live abroad permanently, meaning all those angry people who spend their days on the Costa del Sol, whinging about the country they left, will be able to have an influence on future elections.

Because we, the people, think changes to our electoral system should be left in the hands of whoever won the last election, so that they can make sure the changes made benefit them as a party.

  • We will force Housing Associations to sell their stock at a discount

Extending the Right to Buy to tenants of housing associations? It’s just the beginning. Let’s also extend Help to Buy, give people free money if they’re saving for a deposit, and protect the Green Belt.

We pay lip service to building more bloody houses, but that takes a long time whereas all of these super-popular policies can be done pretty much straight away.

Because we, the people, know that the best way to solve a shortage of a thing is to increase demand for that thing. It’s simple economics.

  • An end to new onshore windfarms

We’ll stop public subsidy for these because they often fail to win public support (but, strikingly, not always).

Because we, the people, like a clear view of our electricity pylons, thank you very much.

  •  We will allow security services to know everything they want to about communications data – the Snoopers’ Charter

And we’ll do “whatever is necessary” to protect the British people.

Because we, the people, are happy for the government to know who we’re talking to, where, when and how. None of that is remotely intrusive as long as they aren’t actually reading the messages themselves.

  • We’ll stop taxing people when they inherit wealth up to £1 million

People should absolutely have the right to have £1 million dropped into their lap without having done a stroke of work to earn it.

Because we, the people, think the best way to make sure everyone in society benefits is to make it easier for aggregated riches to be retained solely by the extremely wealthy.


But does a majority actually mean the Tories will be able to push forward with all of this stuff?

The answer is probably – and hopefully – no. The Conservatives have won a very small majority of 12. That’s worse than John Major’s in 1992, which was 21.

The difficulty of maintaining discipline in such a Parliament cannot be underestimated. But I think it will be worse than it was even for Major. Thanks to the Coalition, the Tory backbenchers from 2010-2015 have had relative freedom to rebel, safe in the knowledge that the majority created by the stability of Conservative/Lib Dem agreement would be sufficient to pass government legislation.

That safety net no longer exists. So what you now have are right-wing Tory backbenchers hungry for red meat – and with a track record of rebellion. The Conservatives’ whipping operation, which was hardly rock solid towards the end of the last Parliament, will become critically important now. The question is whether Michael Gove (the current Chief Whip) or his replacement will be up to the challenge.

On the other hand, these right-wingers will be pulling the party further in the direction of Euroscepticism, spending cuts, and general nastiness. There are few notable exceptions: David Davis, for instance, will continue to fight the good fight on civil liberties, and there might be a small group that joins him. They might be able to get in the way of things like the Communications Data Bill.

But realistically, we should be afraid of what this government is likely to try to do. Against an opposition in disarray, even a strident backbench voice might not be too difficult to quell. Decent people need to mobilise fast against some of the worst aspects of this agenda.