Saturday, 12 January 2019


In politics, as in so much else, timing is everything. It is a self-evident, even banal point, but one that is routinely ignored in favour of the idea of agency: that politicians are able to decide and act as and when they wish, independent of other factors. David Cameron's decision to call a referendum on EU membership after 6 years of austerity was an example of bad timing, if we assume that material conditions had some bearing on the outcome, as much as it was evidence of thoughtless agency. Theresa May's elevation to the leadership of the Conservative Party owed a lot to fortunate timing: being the last woman standing after the other candidates withdrew, so avoiding the need to win the vote of a membership that hadn't entirely forgiven her for her "nasty party" crack and that fundamentally disagreed with her on the merits of the EU. The pressure currently being exerted on Jeremy Corbyn to back a second referendum is likewise an example of the over-estimation of agency - the trope of the "magic grandad" who can mandate a people's vote - as well as poor timing. There is no Commons majority for another referendum largely because there is no credible choice available, and that won't change until May's deal is decisively rejected, and probably not even then.

Labour's strategy is neither as incoherent nor opaque as right-wing and centrist commentators have claimed. The key to it isn't a desperate triangulation to keep both remainers and leavers happy but a simple calculation on the optimum timing of a popular vote. A second referendum (or third, if you include 1975) has always been likely as a formal confirmation (or considered rejection) of Brexit. The 2016 vote wasn't clear enough to provide a mandate for either the withdrawal terms or the likely compromises entailed by the future relationship, and Parliament is accurately reflecting sentiment in the country by failing to agree a definite preference. Given that Theresa May is unlikely to call a popular vote, the best route to one would be through a Labour government. Though they might stand on a manifesto of negotiating a better deal, they are also likely to commit to a further referendum, both because this would be the only way of putting Brexit conclusively to bed, either by opting for a specific future relationship or remaining in the EU, and because it incentivises remainers to vote Labour. The recent claims that Labour would rule out a second referendum and so ensure electoral disaster ignore not only the party's agreed policy but its self-interest.

Danny Finkelstein is alert to the possibility: "By the way, the Labour Party is now toying with fighting an election proposing a renegotiation with Brussels which would be followed by a public vote. In this vote, would they back leaving the EU? Or are they seriously suggesting they renegotiate a deal which they then urge voters to reject by recommending we stay in the EU after all? Brussels would certainly want that. So you’d have two sides negotiating a withdrawal agreement that both hope would fail. I think we can safely scrub that one off the list of sensible ideas." I think we can safely say the Tories are worried at the prospect. Labour's approach would honour the 2016 result, it would satisfy both Labour leavers and cross-party remainers, and it would explicitly remove the risk of no-deal. Of course, getting to that point requires both an extension to the A50 notice period and a general election win, and is complicated by the impending European Parliament elections in May, but it remains both within the bounds of the possible and the best strategy for Labour in the circumstances.

Though the commentariat has generally assumed that May is deliberately running down the clock in the belief that MPs will eventually get behind her deal as the only way of preventing a no-deal outcome, it is also true that circumstances are narrowing her options. Her track record, both as a remainer and someone who dissembles, means that many MPs think she is bluffing and would not allow no-deal if push came to shove. The delay of the meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, the likelihood that the government will be defeated next week, and the Grieve amendment requiring May to present a plan B within 3 days collectively point to an imminent crisis. She will probably survive a vote of no confidence moved by Labour, even if Corbyn formally commits to renegotiation plus a final referendum, because Tory remainers are still Tories (Soubry will no doubt accuse the Labour frontbench of "playing politics"). A plan B is unlikely to alter the Commons arithmetic unless May proposes a substantive change such as a permanent customs union, effectively stealing Labour's clothes. The approaches made to some trade union leaders in recent days may suggest a testing of the water.

I suspect that a permanent customs union would be a step too far for her. Though there are rumours that it is under consideration, it would still allow Labour to say "not good enough", even with the addition of various promises on workers' rights and environmental protections. The optics would be terrible - the government in a subservient position to Corbyn - and it would alienate those Tories for whom the prospect of independent trade deals and reduced regulation are among the chief attractions of Brexit (surely Liam Fox would finally have to resign). May's deal is a mess, but it is also the best she can do in the circumstances created by her red lines. A move towards either a harder or softer Brexit would lose as many votes as it gained. Though there is a large bloc of Labour MPs in leave-voting constituencies who would be happy if the government adopted something closer to their party's approach, few of them would be willing to defy the whip and vote for it, while the Blairite remainers on the backbenches, who might defy the whip, seem to have concluded in recent months that putting country before party would be self-defeating, as it would cede the moral high ground to Corbyn in the struggle for the hearts and minds of party members.

If we assume the Withdrawal Agreement is decisively rejected next week, then May will have painted herself into a corner. She might decide to request an extension to the Article 50 notice period, but that would only be agreeable to the EU27 if she justified it by plans for either a general election or a second referendum. As the latter cannot at present command a majority in the Commons, it would have to be the former, but that would prompt informal but probably irresistible pressure for her to step down as party leader once the extension was agreed, despite being safe from a formal internal challenge for the next 11 months. In the circumstances, calling a snap election, so there wouldn't be time for a leadership contest, would be her best bet, her poor track record in this area notwithstanding. 2017 was an error of timing. She failed to see that the narrative of austerity had shifted since 2015 from blame Labour to blame the Tories, and she underestimated how damaging to her chances a lengthy campaign would be. Her circumstances now are that she has run out of time and may have no option but to roll the dice once more.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

The Decline of the Provincial

The "row" over Greggs' vegan sausage roll is as confected as most of the firm's products. It's a marketing campaign that has astutely coincided with the return to work and a slow news week, both of which demand some tasty but ephemeral filler. However, the wider resonance of the bakery chain in the ongoing kulturkampf of taste is worth dwelling on for a moment. I think its popularity among media types is not a reflection of native class anxiety, as some foreign-born observers have supposed, but of a nostalgia for the provincialism that has largely been marginalised in British public life since the 1980s. Greggs is iconic precisely because of its origins in Gosforth (the north end of Newcastle) and its against-the-tide success in having expanded nationwide while retaining its headquarters on Tyneside. I should emphasise that I'm using "provincial" here to mean a web of social relations and a distinct culture rather than just a geographical territory (what we mean today by "regional") or simply a pejorative synonym for backward. The first point to make about Greggs is that a provincialism reduced to commodities is no kind of provincialism at all: it's just a brand.

A provincial culture is one that can thrive independent of the metropolis and (by extension) the nation state. What matters is not the products of that culture but the self-consciousness of a shared social and political agenda in a particular area, together with a sensibility that positions the provincial in a triad with the metropolitan and the international. The second point to make is that the provincial is not coterminous with the urban. The North East is not just Newcastle; it encompasses communities as distinct as Morpeth, Sunderland and Durham, and it is bound together by more than a fondness for ham and pease pudding stotty cakes. British provincialism - in the sense of that emergent self-consciousness and sensibility - was a product of the Industrial Revolution, and so determined by small towns as much as great ports, and it was undone by deindustrialisation in the 1980s and an increasing dependence on the central state in the 1990s. That said, much of the contemporary "problem of small towns" relates less to the process of deindustrialisation, which was completed decades ago, than the ongoing cultural vacuum created by the atrophy of that provincial sensibility.

While some in the 90s saw salvation in a "Europe of the regions", this idealism made the mistake of assuming that a continental style of provincialism, based on a history of financial autonomy and weak central authority, could simply be grafted onto British root-stock, despite being utterly alien to these islands. Without any meaningful devolution of economic power, the result was a focus on cultural production, which was structurally biased towards the great cities (so Newcastle did better than Sunderland) and socially biased towards metropolitan norms (liberal, cosmopolitan etc). The latter was subsequently amplified by the commercialisation of higher education and the emergence of a homogenised, national student sub-culture that has become socially significant in large cities such as Manchester and Leeds. Parallel to this, the retention of regional manufacturing capacity, notably in the food and drink industry, resulted in a synergy with cultural production in which hitherto quotidian commodities became signifiers of nostalgic provincialism, from "genuine" Cornish pasties to Tunnock's Tea Cakes.

The rot set in for the North East when John Hall, the erstwhile majority owner and chairman of Newcastle United Football Club, started blethering about "the Geordie nation" in the early 1990s. As a Tory donor and property developer (he made his money building the Metrocentre in Gateshead), his claims to want to make Newcastle the Barcelona of the North, both in terms of its economy and sporting prowess, had a hollow ring even then. That he would eventually sell his shareholding in the club to Mike Ashley should have surprised no one. But Hall did at least remind us that British provincial culture was more than just the specific working class cultures that we now nostalgically associate with the industrial cities of the North. It also included an assertive middle class that was self-consciously commercial and non-metropolitan, even if it ultimately ended up acting as a comprador for City interests in the 80s and 90s as Hall did. In the last great provincial TV sitcom, Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, the aspirational Bob and Thelma are as provincial in their outlook as Terry, despite their commitment to "getting on". For the record, the last great provincial band was The Fall, the last great provincial film maker was Terence Davies.

The result of the cultural flowering of the 80s was the substitution of urban-centric, regional identities for provincial sensibilities. These identities were essentially mini-me versions of the metropolitan. Perhaps the most significant example is Scotland, where a new civic nationalism took root that was as arrogant and censorious as London ever was. The peoples of Glasgow and Edinburgh may still look askance at each other, but the difference in culture between the two cities is far narrower today than it was 50 years ago. Scottish painting, music and cinema were all the better for this commitment to a national art, but it came at the cost of smoothing over local variety and ostentatiously rejecting England, which had the counter-productive effect of encouraging English nationalism. Where the provincial sensibility still clung on in Scotland was in its literature, though that has weakened over the years as the idea of a national canon has become dominant. Authors like Irvine Welsh have sought to escape this constraint by aiming for the international, which paradoxically allows them to preserve a provincial tone, but that doesn't augur well for the future.

In contrast to Scotland, provincial literature in England started to decline in the 90s even as cities such as Liverpool and Manchester began to reassert themselves as creative and commercial hubs. There are obviously still writers in the provinces, but they are largely writing for a national (essentially metropolitan) audience. This decline is partly attributable to the commercialisation of higher education and the BBC, both of which traditionally provided berths for provincial writers. It is also partly attributable to the disappearance of a provincial press, which had helped form a provincial readership. National book chains preserving a shelf of "local authors" is no substitute, particularly when "local" means nothing more than geographical proximity. Equally, writing about an Amazon fulfilment centre in the East Midlands doesn't make you provincial any more than writing about the miners' strike would make you DH Lawrence. The current vogue for "Brexit novels" may have produced a shift in focus from the big city to small towns, but these state-of-the-nation commentaries, mostly by baffled or resentful remainers, are metropolitan safaris rather than the organic products of a provincial sensibility.

Northern Ireland is different again, being part of a wider Irish culture in which themes of national identity or resentment towards a distant power (whether London or Dublin) are always present. Anna Burns' Booker prize-winning Milkman is indisputably a novel of the North, but it is also recognisably within that wider tradition of cosmopolitan Irish literature that encompasses Joyce, Beckett and O'Brien. Its reception, along with other cultural signposts such as TV's Derry Girls, points towards the gradual absorption of Northern Ireland into the wider Irish cultural milieu, a process that has steadily advanced over the last two decades since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and which has been brought into sharper relief by Brexit. The corollary of this has been the gradual muting of the liberal Ulster Protestant voice in Irish literature, represented by writers such as John Hewitt and Tom Paulin, which was robustly provincial as much as it was challenging of unionist pieties. If Scotland and Northern Ireland have subsumed the provincial within the national, Wales appears to have rejected both in favour of the self-caricaturing role of Sancho Panza to England's Brexit-maddened Don Quixote.

The decline of the provincial in the UK has contributed to Brexit, but not just in the obvious sense that it was symptomatic of the deindustrialisation that stoked the anxieties that fed into the EU referendum in 2016. The provincial sensibility was always clear that its chief antagonist was London, whether as a condescending cultural arbiter or as an unsympathetic state, but it was also clear on its own distinctiveness, which meant it could be equally as dismissive of other provincial claims. Though distrust of the capital has not declined, and there is no shortage of petty chauvinists on Tyneside or Merseyside, the provincial has been fractured between the urban and the suburban. Now as resentful of cities like Manchester and Bristol as it was of London, suburban England has become increasingly homogenised around a bland culture dominated by national shopping chains, franchise TV and international celebrity. In that sense, Greggs is now part of the problem, making its fetishisation as a provincial champion all the more ironic.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

The Progressive Vote

Though it took two goes, Labour's right and centre eventually learnt the lesson of their defeat to Jeremy Corbyn in the battle for the party leadership: they need a mass movement of energised members if they are to marginalise the left. The expulsion of a handful of members on the grounds of antisemitism or bullying isn't going to tip the balance, and a gradual process of disillusionment, reducing the membership to the size it was in the later Blair years, will take as much as a decade to accomplish and presupposes a continual period in frustrated opposition. It is now clear that some on the right and centre of the party see opposition to Brexit, and specifically the call for a second referendum, as a short-cut to their goal of defeating the left, essentially by co-opting the new membership to a "sensible" platform that combines staying in the EU with a programme of redistributive justice and public sector investment (the more fundamental issues of economic power raised by John McDonnell will inevitably be quietly sidelined under this new dispensation). After the failure of Blair 2.0, it's full steam ahead for Kinnock 2.0.

This partly explains the vituperation over Corbyn's relatively anodyne comments on state aid, not to mention the now well-established propaganda that he is really a hardcore Brexiteer, that he is an authoritarian hypocrite ignoring the wishes of party members, and that he is increasingly alienating progressives. The power of this strategy can be seen in the fact that left-leaning remainers are beginning to make arguments that echo these dubious claims, in particular that Labour will lose the votes of the bien pensants and thereby fail to win office. Simon Wren-Lewis sees a warning from 2003: "there have been two major grassroots movements in the last 20 years in the UK that managed to put more than half a million people on the streets of London, and there is a distinct danger that Labour will be on the wrong side of both of them". The purpose of the parallel is to emphasise the strength of feeling rather than the likely outcome (in case you'd forgotten, while Labour lost seats in the 2005 general election, it still won a majority despite the negative impact of its prosecution of the invasion of Iraq).

Wren-Lewis is much taken with this strength of feeling, to the point where he seeks to explain the remainer cause in terms of its righteous fury: "Where does this passion and energy come from? It is obviously a big issue, but would the kind of Brexit favoured by Corbyn and some Labour and Tory MPs (close to BINO) really be such a big deal compared to staying in the EU? On an emotional level I think there are three reasons why it would be. First and foremost is the question of identity. Many people in the UK regard themselves as also European, and any form of Brexit is clearly a way of cutting the UK off from the rest of Europe. Second, I think there is a strong feeling that leaving the EU represents the triumph of ideological over rational argument. Once you let a campaign of the right won by illegal means triumph, you open the doors to more of the same. A third factor is empathy for the position of European migrants in the UK, who are often friends, neighbours or colleagues".

The "question of identity" isn't really a question but a presumption, and one that trivialises actual conflicts of identity in places such Northern Ireland. For all the talk of a divided nation and ruined Christmas dinners, Britons are not being obliged to choose an identity in an environment where the consequences can be fatal. Yes, an MP was assassinated in 2016, but the idea that people are taking their lives in their hands when they mention Brexit in an unfamiliar pub is ridiculous. Regarding yourself as European is an affinity, like being a liberal, rather than a socially-imposed identity, like being brought up as a Catholic or as a native German-speaker. Citizens of the UK will be no less European outside the EU than the citizens of Norway or Switzerland. While the institutions of the EU may be central to the self-image of a fraction of the upper middle class, they play a purely pragmatic role for most people. I appreciate the convenience of using a fast-track passport queue and knowing I have an EHIC card when I go on holiday, but my heart doesn't swell with pride when I see the EU flag, or any flag for that matter. Ironically, Wren-Lewis's claim presupposes what in any other context we would identify as "patriotism", but which for obvious reasons cannot be named as such.

The idea that the EU is non-ideological, that it embodies "rational argument" and implicitly the Enlightenment, is itself pure ideology. It is a particularly odd claim to make when Wren-Lewis has been highly critical of the irrationalism that underlay both the design of the euro and the EU's wider turn to austerity after 2008, the one creating the conditions for a banking crisis and the other recasting that crisis as a problem of unsustainable public debt. While the 2016 EU referendum was hardly an advertisement for rationality in political debate, it clearly wasn't "won" by illegal means, unless you genuinely believe that breaches of spending rules swung the votes of a million people. The greater contribution to the prejudice and ignorance that influenced the outcome must surely be attributed to the decades-long bias against understanding of the media, including the failure of the BBC's ridiculous attempts at "balance", a topic on which Wren-Lewis has again been trenchant in the past. Given the long history of the media's automatic support for the right, it is hyperbole to suggest that Brexit will inevitably lead to more "illegal triumphs", as if the 2016 vote were a watershed of the order of the Reichstag Fire Decree.

Wren-Lewis's last point - empathy for EU migrants - probably counts a lot for a small number of people with direct personal involvement or a strong sense of ethical obligation, but it isn't a priority for most voters for whom empathy with Latvians is no more salient than empathy with Laotians. This doesn't make them xenophobic or callous, it merely reflects their personal circumstances and their mental ranking of the factors that will determine their vote. Many people are unhappy with the anticipated future treatment of EU migrants, just as they are unhappy with the proliferation of foodbanks, but it doesn't follow that either would cause them to ignore all other issues when it comes to a general election. To claim that empathy with migrants is a major motive is to make the classic error of assuming that what matters to activists is necessarily representative of broader social movements, ironically a criticism routinely levelled at the left. Together with the emphasis on EU patriotism, it also suggests that remainers are driven more by emotion than rational calculation, which makes Wren-Lewis's case self-contradictory.

While Simon has a starry-eyed view of what motivates remainers, elevating attractive principle over pragmatism, Chris Bertram has a more cynical view both of the Labour leadership's calculations and the likely response of remain voters. In his reading, Corbyn & co imagine they can triangulate to secure the votes of both the pro-social, leave-supporting working class and the pro-redistribution, remain-supporting middle class. But Bertram fears that the bad feeling of Brexit will lead those middle class voters to desert Corbyn's Labour, fatally undermining its purpose. As he puts it: "A redistributionist politics needs the support of millions of middle-class 'liberal' Remain voters to succeed". This is a powerful argument because that statement is objectively true - Labour can't win without middle-class votes - but also because it reflects a persistent antipathy within Labour's electoral coalition. As Bertram says of his own feelings: "I confess that I myself have had some ugly thoughts as a result of the Brexit experience: why should I pay taxes to bail out a bunch of racist idiots in Sunderland or Stoke? What do I care if some elderly xenophobe can’t find a nurse or a doctor because too few EU nationals have stayed to look after the people who voted to take their rights away?"

But where Bertram goes wrong is first in assuming that the progressive middle class is composed of remain die-hards, and second in assuming that its contempt for the working class is a novelty spawned by Brexit. That first assumption ignores that many progressive middle class voters will have been luke-warm remainers, while the second leads him to attribute class contempt to the malign work of the Blue Labour/ethnic self-interest crowd: "A staple of Blue Labour/Goodhartian thought is that immigration and increasing ethnic diversity has made it hard to sustain social trust and that this risks undermining support for welfare-state institutions. ... But by fighting a culture-war against immigration and the 'liberal elite' in order to secure Brexit, those Blue Labour types have succeeded in destroying the illusion of an inclusive national community. They have produced two hostile camps, ranged against one another, who will be unwilling to make the payments those very leftists think are necessary". This interpretation generously credits the likes of Maurice Glasman and David Goodhart with greater influence over the decay of social capital than forty years of neoliberalism. It also misunderstands the self-interest of fiscal policy. I don't pay tax to bail out racist idiots, nor do I support the NHS because I love elderly xenophobes. I do it because a society dedicated to everyman-for-himself would be harsher for me as much as for others.

The shared premise of Wren-Lewis and Bertram is that support for remaining in the EU is so fundamental to the identity of progressive middle class voters that a large number of them will withdraw their support from Labour unless it commits (at a minimum) to a second referendum with remain on the ballot. Wren-Lewis's argument is essentially emotional and thus a public shaming: being pro-remain is a litmus test for how progressive you are. Bertram's argument is essentially transactional and thus a threat: if you don't support remain you can forget about any kind of redistributive justice. Both are manipulative, both assume that there is nothing creditable in Labour's attempts to bridge the Brexit divide, and both rest on the presumption that the party leadership is guilty of bad faith. More fundamentally, both assume a largely homogenous progressive middle class straight out of a Private Eye parody. The reality is that pro-European rationalists, and even soi-disant "progressives", are as likely to vote Conservative as Labour. It's also likely that the number of progressives who will boycott Labour in the next election over Brexit is going to be no greater than the number who always manage to find a good reason to vote Liberal Democrat or Green.

One interesting dimension of this argument is the idea that Brexit might prove an existential crisis for the Labour Party, which ironically echoes those Blue Labour types that Bertram is rightly dismissive of. Implicit in Wren-Lewis's argument is the spectre of middle class voter disillusion keeping Labour out of power for many years, perhaps for good. In contrast, Bertram is bluntly explicit: "I think the Tories (or maybe right-wing anti-redistributionist politics more generally) will do rather well out of Brexit – if it goes ahead – and it will be the end of Labour". I think both claims are dubious: cutting off your nose to spite your face on the one hand, and imagining that the Tories will escape unscathed on the other. What neither seem willing to entertain are the twin thoughts that Brexit is already a marginal issue for many voters and that it is being used to pursue an anti-left strategy by centrists within the Labour Party. In other words, the usual politics continues beyond the Brexit bubble. In denying this reality, left-leaning remainers are as guilty of delusion as any Brexiteer burbling about Singapore or advantageous trade deals with the USA.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Endless Infowar

At a time when US politics is generally believed to be highly partisan, it might come as a surprise that the Senate Intelligence Committee has managed to reach apparent unanimity on the issue of Russian online disinformation. The conclusion of the independent reports it issued this week is that there was a lot of it, both during and after the 2016 Presidential election, and that it benefited the Republicans. That one of the reports, from Oxford University, emphasised that the chief goal was to foment polarisation makes this bipartisanship all the more ironic. The headline claim is that Russia targeted African-Americans in 2016 with a view to encouraging abstention. One reason why the Republicans are happy to subscribe to this is that it shifts the focus away from their efforts at systematic voter suppression. The impact of social media disinformation is unpredictable and probably trivial: there's no shortage of evidence that African-Americans were disenchanted with the Democrats after the failures of the Obama years and many hadn't forgiven Hillary Clinton for her "super predators" remark. On the other hand, the impact of voter suppression through gerrymandering and impediments to registration and the ballot box is proven, both in terms of its effectiveness and its increased scale in recent years.

Another reason for the bipartisan consensus is that the American national security establishment, which encompasses both parties, wants to see an increase in funding for counter-measures and "proactive engagement" - i.e. US online disinformation. Just as we once had a "missile gap" (which turned out to be fake news, incidentally) so now it is variously suggested that the West is playing catch-up in respect of disinformation, that it is at a disadvantage to Russia in "asymmetric warfare", and that it is particularly vulnerable to new technology like AI-enabled deep-fake video. All three are specious claims. The US has been a pioneer in disinformation and covert propaganda since the 1940s and it has been leveraging its home advantage in the Internet since the 1970s, something that was made all too clear by Edward Snowden's revelations. The idea that disinformation is a "weapon of the weak", and that the US has paradoxically suffered due to its conventional military strength, is a recycling of excuses first minted in Vietnam. The claim that deep fake videos will lead to "a world in which there is no truth and no trust" is the most ideologically telling, combining as it does a suspicion of technology with a contempt for the gullibility of the masses, both of which are traditional features of conservative thought.

The emerging panic over "deep fakes" ignores that the technology to produce convincing moving images has been around for over a century and has taught us two things. First, that truth doesn't collapse, largely because most people understand the nature of illusion and quickly adjust to new forms of it on exposure (the tale of viewers terrified by the Lumiere brothers' oncoming train is likely an urban myth). Second, that the technology to identify fake imagery has advanced in lock-step since the move from video to digital CGI, essentially because it is the same technology reverse-engineered. For many doom-mongers, AI is the magic new ingredient because it suggests not so much an artificial intelligence as an independent one that escapes this constraint: "Because the algorithms that generate the fakes continuously learn how to more effectively replicate the appearance of reality, deep fakes cannot easily be detected by other algorithms — indeed, in the case of generative adversarial networks, the algorithm works by getting really good at fooling itself". This mistakes the brute force trial-and-error of a GAN for the subtlety of a con-man. The personalisation ("itself") is doing a lot of work here.

The US is at the forefront of AI research but this is seen as problematic because it is driven by the private sector (the traditional conservative suspicion of the market is still to be found in the arena of national security). The fear is that an irresponsible search for profit will allow foreign powers to exploit commercially-available AI tools to spread disinformation, just as it allowed them to leverage the automated advertising systems of social media platforms in recent years. What the state wants is greater control. As the Republican chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee said "one of the most important things we can do is increase information sharing between the social media companies who can identify disinformation campaigns and the third-party experts who can analyze them." Given that those third-party experts will be government-funded, this looks like a push to institutionalise a nexus between technology platforms and the state. That's not unusual - the same nexus has long existed between the state and the media - but it's worth noting that new media doesn't temper this cosy relationship with an invigilatory role over government in the way that old media does. The "platform not publisher" argument is presented as irresponsible in the current struggle, but what it really boils down to is an unwillingness to antagonise the government, indeed any government. As old and new media inevitably converge, that conservative tenor will become dominant.

With the global war on terror now winding down, there is obviously a need for a new enemy to justify the national security state. John Naughton, who as an Oxford academic contributes to the research on the Internet and conspiracy theories, characterised the implications of the two US Senate reports as "endless infowar", though he seemed to be thinking primarily in terms of the persistence of the Russian threat. He also quoted Kevin Roose of the New York Times who revealingly talked of social media in language that echoed the neoconservative framing of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early years of this century: "It’s the terrain on which our entire political culture rests, whose peaks and valleys shape our everyday discourse, and whose possibilities for exploitation are nearly endless. And until we either secure that ground or replace it entirely, we should expect many more attacks, each one in a slightly different form". Of course, that sort of language was not restricted to neoconservatives. Plenty of liberals drank the Kool-Aid and whooped and hollered from the sidelines. What's different today is that liberals are leading the campaign while the neocons (many of whom remain "never-Trumps") politely applaud.

Russia cannot credibly play more than a walk-on part in this drama. Inflating its impact by talk of asymmetric warfare and the strength of the weak is unconvincing. Outside of political groups looking for excuses, and newspapers with a vested interest in the restraint of social media, few people think that Russia swung either the US Presidential election or the UK's EU referendum. This is not to say that both weren't subject to disinformation and outright lying, but the more impactful sources were probably domestic, notably partisan TV and newspapers that had been pursuing a systematic campaign of disinformation for decades. A feature of the case against social media is the belief that it is much more effective than traditional media in influencing voters, even if there is scant evidence for this and the claim requires careful framing. For example, the New York Times conclusion that "In an election decided by a rounding error — fewer than 80,000 voters spread over three states — Russian trolling easily could have made the difference", becomes "Yes, Russian Trolls Helped Elect Trump" in the headline. This is no more justifiable than that infamous 1992 headline, "It's the Sun wot won it".

Given that Russia hasn't let up on its disinformation campaigns in the US, you would have expected the 2018 mid-term elections to have further entrenched the Republicans, but the reverse happened. Indeed, where the Democrats fell short, old fashioned voter suppression by administrative means was the more obvious explanation. Likewise, the investigations into "dirty money" and disinformation around Brexit have not notably influenced public opinion on the issue. Insofar as the polls have moved (slightly), this probably owes more to fears of a damaging no-deal outcome. Naughton is probably right that we face the prospect of a seemingly endless infowar, but the reason for that has less to do with Russian malevolence than the congruence of interest between an increasingly conservative media establishment and an increasingly liberal national security establishment. The former's defence of a supposedly beleaguered liberal order has seen it adopt not just reactionary manners - its obsession with civility and norms - but the paranoid style of anticommunism. The latter's shift away from the raw imperialism of the neocon years has seen it embrace the idea of a market-led projection of soft power, which is really just a revival of Cold War thinking. The response to social media has been nothing if not nostalgic.

Thursday, 13 December 2018


Theresa May's victory in the Conservative Party leadership confidence vote yesterday was typical of the history of Brexit: apparently decisive, but not really. It doesn't change the parliamentary arithmetic for her deal (if anything it makes the scale of opposition to it look more daunting), but it does potentially change her future options, not least because she is now insulated from a leadership challenge until December 2019. That's small comfort but it might have a marginal effect.

One implication is that a no-deal Brexit is now less likely. Various centrist commentators and lawyers (often the same person) have noted that we will automatically exit the EU on the 29th of March unless a Withdrawal Agreement is enacted before that date. Others on the centre-right have taken the pessimistic view that even if May eventually wins the "meaningful vote" with the support of Labour rebels, the actual withdrawal legislation (a set of enabling bills) might still founder due to the flakiness of that support, leading to the same no-deal outcome. Both of these "accidental Brexit" scenarios assume that May wouldn't pull the emergency cord by requesting an extension to the Article 50 notice period. That calculation was based less on her assurances, which have repeatedly been shown to be worthless, than on the premise that to do so would result in a leadership challenge with a high chance of success: she would have failed in her brief to deliver Brexit on schedule and she would have created the opportunity for a new leader to revisit the negotiations, so uniting all Tory factions against her. Getting that challenge out of the way this week means she is now in a better position to pull the cord, though it's by no means certain she could survive the consequences.

Some of the 200 who voted for her last night, and most of the 117 who voted against, are deal sceptics (there can't be many who don't want her as leader but like her plan). Adding in the DUP, this means she is around 140 votes short. Even if she improbably got most of the Tories on side, she would still need to persuade a large chunk of opposition MPs to support the government. While some Labour right-wingers facing disgruntled constituency parties might rebel and burn their boats, there is nowhere near the number she needs. Given the government has announced that the 21st of January is a deadline for the rescheduled meaningful vote, I also suspect that May believes she cannot string this charade out for much longer. She might do determined but she doesn't do collegiate: trying to form a government of national unity with Chuka Umunna is no more her style than being nice to George Osborne. Now she is nominally secure in her party leadership, she has every reason to ask the EU27 for more time, and while they will grumble, they will also want to avoid a damaging no-deal default, so it's hard to imagine them refusing. Ultimately, the EU27 will make the same calculation as British politicians: if Parliament cannot agree a way forward, there will have to be either a general election or a second referendum, and that means more time.

The one thing that hasn't become more likely this week is that second referendum, at least not in the short-term. There isn't a majority in the Commons for one because there isn't a consensus on what the choices would be, and there is little reason to believe that a consensus will emerge before March. If May's deal is finally rejected by the House, then that clarifies matters by removing one option, however it is doubtful that there would then be a majority for a binary choice between remain and no-deal. There are many, both remainers and soft-Brexiteers, reluctant to risk a vote for no-deal while supporters of it are against the need for another referendum. Theresa May herself is unlikely to support such a vote because either outcome would heap odium on her: for having betrayed Brexit or for having driven the country into a ditch. A three-option vote is possible, but Norway+ couldn't be offered unless both EFTA and the EU agreed its terms in advance, while Labour's 6 tests are the opening position for a negotiation rather than a final deal. Realistically, an extension would be required to develop a third option, after which a consensus on a referendum might then emerge.

The likelihood of a snap general election being called by the government before March has increased, despite May's carefully-worded promises this week that she has no "intention" of calling one and won't lead the Tories into the next scheduled election in 2022. This wasn't really a concession. After the trauma of 2017, it was generally accepted that the Conservative Party wouldn't allow her to stay as leader beyond 2020. From May's perspective a snap election is a forbidding prospect, but it also looks like it may be the final throw of the dice for her deal, assuming the EU confirms there will be no real change to the terms of the backstop and there remains no chance of getting it through this parliament. She is obviously not an instinctive gambler, but she may feel that she has no other option, particularly if her own core supporters on the remain wing of the party start to inch towards the humiliation (in her eyes) of Norway+. It would allow her to take her deal to the country as the only outcome that both secures a meaningful Brexit and avoids no-deal. While Labour could counter that pitch by offering to reset the clock and secure a better deal, that would obviously be a more nebulous proposition. May would emphasise the certainty of her deal (that it is anything but certain in its detailed application will largely be lost in the noise).

It would be a high-risk strategy. She couldn't force Tory candidates to campaign in support of her deal, and constituency parties aren't going to deselect no-deal rebels who reflect their members' own views. However, she may calculate that an absolute majority in the Commons would allow her enough room to dump the DUP, though I doubt she'd have either the imagination or inclination to agree an Irish Sea border, thereby removing Great Britain from the constraints of the backstop. With a defeated Labour in the throes of a new leadership contest of its own, she might hope to pick up enough votes from across the aisle to carry the day, but that seems unlikely without a large Tory majority to begin with. Alternatively, Labour might win. Her deal isn't popular and despite the sympathy for her position there are few who consider her to be a good premier. With Labour expanding the campaign to austerity and other issues, she will be at a disadvantage defending her unimpressive record, and attacking Labour on traditional issues such as national security and economic competence might well backfire in the context of a deal considered by many to be either a national betrayal or an embarrassment.

The bottom line is, to coin a phrase: nothing (much) has changed. The threat of a no-deal outcome has always been overblown, as you would expect, both by the EU27 in its negotiations with the UK and in May's negotiations with Parliament. May's deal is almost certain to be rejected by the Commons and a referendum before March remains highly unlikely, whatever the People's Vote campaign claims. Though the odds on a snap general election have shortened a bit, they remain odds-against. What has become more likely is that May will seek an extension to the Article 50 notice period, though ironically it would probably be her last substantive act as Prime Minister. Labour would have grounds to hope that a subsequent motion of no confidence in the government would be supported by enough of the Tory ultras to unseat her, thereby indirectly achieving what the ERG failed to do this week. Per the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the Tories would then have to form a new administration, but by then the momentum for a general election might be unstoppable. Whatever happens, the one thing this week has confirmed is that Theresa May's premiership is on its last legs, though I think we already knew that.