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Saturday, 27 May 2017

Live at the Witch Trials

The Institute for Fiscal Studies' judgement on the Conservative and Labour manifestos could be summed up as "a plague on both your houses", which rather neatly echoed the coincidental news that a GCSE exam paper managed to confuse Montagues and Capulets. There is no mistaking the parties however, with the Tories accused of underfunding public services and Labour accused of over-estimating future tax revenues. This has been the think-tank's stock take over the course of its history, so few will have been surprised by the outcome. The idea of policy-costing, like the IFS itself, is a product of neoliberal hegemony, now institutionalised in the poacher-turned-gamekeeper that is the Office for Budget Responsibility. The ideological thrust is an aversion to higher taxes combined with a demand that social provision should be increasingly met by private insurance markets. Had the IFS been founded a quarter of a century earlier than it was, you can imagine the withering assessment it would have delivered on Labour's 1945 manifesto. Today, the "honesty" they demand of the Tories is an admission that a smaller state means reduced public provision, while the honesty they demand of Labour is an admission that increased public services funded by taxation can only be achieved through a greater burden on median and lower earners.

Unsurprisingly for a body created by City interests, the IFS considers that the Tories' planned reduction in immigration will be economically damaging, while Labour's plans for higher taxes on "faceless corporations and the rich" will curtail private sector investment. Both parties are accused of ignoring the long-term challenges of an ageing population. Given its fiscal focus, the IFS has been at the forefront of the campaign of doom, insisting that we must either cut services or increase taxes to cope with a surfeit of the elderly, with the result that they have underplayed the more fundamental problems of the UK economy: poor productivity, under-investment (even when taxes were cut) and a worsening balance of payments. While demographic change clearly has an impact, this is by its nature transitory and its effect on the economy tends to be primarily a stagnation in expectations and confidence, as seen in Japan since the 1990s, rather than a fiscal crisis. This suggests that Keynesian demand-management might actually be helpful. Shifting to a greater reliance on private pensions and insurance might well help the public exchequer, but it is unlikely to aid British industry if the financial flows are managed by a City of London that has historically been reluctant to invest domestically.

The modern role of the IFS as the UK's fiscal "umpire" highlights the shift from the primacy of macroeconomic to microeconomic concerns that first took hold in public consciousness in the 1980s. House prices replaced the balance of trade as a barometer of broader economic health while the impact on representative households ("winners and losers") crowded out debate about the balance of taxation (and the gains from growth) between capital and labour. Though the IFS has been among those arguing for increased taxes on property and inherited wealth, essentially treating both as VAT-able, it has also argued consistently for lower taxes on corporate capital, a regressive shift of public taxation from income to consumption, and a "simplification" of welfare to encourage low-paid work and restrain any future growth in benefits. While the emergence of a low-wage, high-employment economy since 2008 has seen the future "threat" move from skivers to pensioners, the fundamental premise remains the same: labour (current and historic) is the problem, big capital is the solution.

Given its relative novelty, the tradition of an IFS election judgement highlights the historical amnesia of political coverage. This extends well beyond the fiscal sphere. For example, the Tory condemnation of Corbyn's statement this week that "the war on terror isn't working" is concerned with form (appearing to say the right thing in the right way) rather than content, with the predictable result that Michael Fallon was made to look a chump when Channel 4's Krishnan Guru-Murthy anonymously quoted Boris Johnson's mild 2005 comments acknowledging the reality of blowback from intervention in the Middle East. While this could be dismissed as the result of Fallon's habitual parroting of stock phrases, or as another tiresome gotcha by a journalist trying to be edgy, what it really shows is the vacuous nature of most political debate. Corbyn's real solecism in the eyes of the political class was to venture an opinion (shared by much of the electorate) that diverged from received wisdom. Predictably, this led to pompous criticism not only from unthinking Tories but from fatuous liberals like Jonathan Freedland.


The Tory claim, that terrorist acts committed on British soil are the sole fault of evil individuals who hate us and are in no way connected to our military interventions, is not just implausible but easily disproved by history. After all, the IRA were quite clear that their mainland bombing campaign was undertaken to "bring home" the cost of the UK's presence in Northern Ireland to the British electorate. In this light, the government's current stance is merely a continuation of the strategy of criminalisation fruitlessly pursued during the 70s and 80s, hence the continuing emblematic importance of Corbyn's dealings with Sinn Fein. One obvious byproduct of this approach in the 70s was the misrepresentation of the Irish community in the UK as untrustworthy and inherently malign, leading to the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six miscarriages of justice and a host of petty acts of anti-Irish abuse. The same stance now leads to the charge that there must be something wrong with Islam as a religion, or that Mulsim communities are somehow less law-abiding or humane than the rest of us, which legitimises the programmatic bigotry of UKIP and others.

Clearly foreign policy is consequential. If it wasn't, there'd be no point in having a Foreign Office. But though terrorist activities broadly correlate with the perceived involvement of states, they are also opportunistic, hence the Islamist attacks in recent years in Germany and Sweden, countries with little direct responsibility for state-trashing in the Middle East. Though this truth is used in turn by xenophobes to reject our moral obligations to refugees, what it really highlights is the increasing normality of migration and the way this acts as a vector in spreading conflict, both in actuality and rhetoric. This isn't new, and nor should it be taken as an argument against immigration: consider the IRA's support by sections of expatriate Irish communities in the USA. The globalisation of Middle Eastern conflicts certainly owes much to the push of clumsy foreign intervention, but it also owes much to the pull of economic demand and the way this has created new spaces for those antagonisms to be played out. The 1970s were marked not just by Palestinians applying the old technique of piracy to the new technology of mass air travel, but by simmering tensions between Turkish and Kurdish gastarbeiter that would culminate in violence on German streets during the early-90s.

The superficial sociology of Islamic terrorism notes how volunteers are often religious illiterates, or have a history of indulging in a "Western lifestyle" that has been reduced to little more than drinking and partying, but few suggest that their turn to an implacable and intolerant interpretation of their parents' faith reflects a desire to stop being an "anywhere" and become a "somewhere", to borrow the terminology of David Goodhart. In other words, these are often uprooted or confused individuals seeking the homogeneous and cohesive community that all societies claim to value as they pursue an economic orthodoxy that inevitably undermines it. They are, to employ the language of an earlier conservative ideologue, people who having "got on their bike" have decided to reject modernity for the nostalgia of an Umma no less fantastic than the Middle England conjured up by Paul Dacre. During the era of globalisation, economic imperatives have been far more significant in stimulating movement - and the deracination this gives rise to - than war, famine or failed states, and have thus contributed more to the spread of terrorism than any other single factor.

The historic amnesia of politicians extends well beyond foreign or fiscal policy, but there is little downside to their ignorance. The Fallon gotcha was possible because journalists rarely work forward from a historic base, preferring to work backwards from a contemporary prejudice. After the Paris shootings in November 2015, the Beeb's Laura Kuenssberg wanted Jeremy Corbyn to commit to a shoot-to-kill policy, which was not merely a silly incitement but an example of crass insensitivity for a national broadcaster supposedly serving the whole of Northern Ireland. Likewise, the BBC's coverage of fiscal policy remains hamstrung by a foolish deference to bodies like the IFS that promote a particular agenda. Across the broader media landscape these habits are partly the product of structural change - the need for gotchas to boost ratings and the shallow expertise produced by frenetic competition - but they also reflect the way that neoliberal ideology erases history. Just as mobile labour is meant to slough off its past and absorb a bland reduction of the dominant culture (aka "integration"), so media are encouraged to live in an eternal present in which historic causality is demoted in favour of personal malignancy, which is essentially the dynamic of the witch trial. No wonder the trope of household finances took hold. I'm just surprised that Jeremy Corbyn hasn't been accused of spoiling milk.

Monday, 22 May 2017

The Final Chapter

Though there is an FA Cup Final to come, Arsenal's season is effectively over. Of course, you could have made much the same claim after the successive defeats to Watford at home in late January and Chelsea away in early February, though the rot probably set in with the back-to-back defeats at Everton and Man City in December, but there remained hope of Champions League qualification until the last league match. That we are now headed for the novelty of Thursday night football in the Europa League feels like a watershed moment in the club's modern history, not least because participation in the senior tournament has long been Arsene Wenger's default plea of mitigation when our title challenge has petered out. If the manager doesn't walk away, it will surely herald the final chapter in his tenure at the club, for good or ill. Given that the last five seasons saw us finish on 70, 73, 79, 75 and 71 points, it is perhaps unfortunate (as the manager has been quick to note) that 75 this campaign didn't earn us a top-four finish. This might suggest a more competitive league, but the stretching of points suggests the opposite. The gap from 1st to 17th (i.e. excluding relegated teams) widened from 42 points last season to 53 points this.

My prediction in January was that we'd finish third with a points tally in the low 80s (we got 75) and that Chelsea would win the title with just shy of 90 (they got 93). I optimistically expected Spurs to slump to fourth, but they managed to ignore the weight of history, recovering from defeat to the Hammers to put in a strong run over the final couple of weeks and finish second. As expected, Liverpool did run out of steam towards the end and Man City were inconsistent, but both were able to make it over the line ahead of us. Though there's been plenty of fluctuation among the top six teams over the course of the season (both Liverpool and City hit top spot in the first third and we surged to second on three separate occasions - the last in January), only the top two at season-end could be said to have either met or exceeded expectations. Chelsea were worthy winners, but the pleasure this gave John Terry must have soured it for many neutrals. Overall, it's been a poor league with only 6 points separating 8th position from 17th, while the gap from Arsenal in 5th to Southampton in 8th was a scarcely credible 29 points. In other words, it's turning into two leagues: the top six and the rest.

Broken into thirds (12, 13 and 13 games), we got 25, 25 and 25 points, which highlights that our problem was repeated, short bad patches, rather than a slump. 30 points a third is usually enough to clinch the title, so we essentially came up short by one draw and one defeat every 3 months. February and March certainly had a slumpy feel to it, with the added downer of yet another brace of defeats by Bayern Munich, but that period also saw us progress in the FA Cup, albeit with the good fortune of draws against two non-league teams. Our usual trick of finishing strongly and catching Tottenham was stymied by poor performances at Selhurst Park and White Hart Lane, though I suspect they would still have edged us out even if those results had gone the other way. Spurs have been less brittle and more relentless of late, which makes them oddly reminiscent of early-period George Graham, while our ability to go from the sublime to the ridiculous is like watching a Tottenham side from the 80s. Another eerie parallel has been their use of Wembley for underwhelming European nights, in preparation for their temporary residence next season. The pundits are predicting new home blues, which may extend further when they return to White Hart Lane. It's the unfamiliar stadium, not the location, that seems to matter, as we found with the short stroll to Ashburton Grove.

Much of Arsenal's mercurial nature can be attributed to volatile form among the forwards and moments of madness among the defenders (yesterday was typical, from Welbeck's open goal miss to Koscielny's rush of blood). Ozil suffered a personal slump at the beginning of the year while Giroud, Walcott and Welbeck have all been inconsistent. Sanchez has also been alternately infuriating and decisive, often within a single game. In fact, in most games. At the back, Koscielny remains a mix of the imperious and the impetuous, suggesting that he'll improve as a defender when he loses a yard of pace. Mustafi had a patchy first season, which isn't unusual, so should be better next season, while Holding looks promising and Bellerin has clearly been restricted by injury till recently. Monreal has probably been our best defender, simply through sheer dependability and the unfazed manner in which he has accommodated changes in formation and position. There aren't many players who look at home both as a centre-back and a wing-back. Though Sanchez will probably get the player of the season vote, I'd plump for the adaptable Nacho: a man who doesn't even look like a footballer, if you exclude a compressed Peter Crouch.

It seems odd, given the perennial worry over the balance between attack and defence, that Arsenal's midfield hasn't been the focus of more angst. This isn't because we've settled on a particular shape or roster, though Wenger clearly has hopes for the Xhaka-Ramsey axis in the new 3-4-3 formation, but because of the pressing problems elsewhere on the pitch. Whether that system will survive into next season is not merely dependent on Arsene staying, but on whether he really sees it as preferable to 4-4-2 long-term, and I suspect that will be influenced by the chances of building the team around Cazorla again (or fully converting Wilshere to a deeper role), which would necessitate an extra screening player of the Coquelin variety. Given Santi's age and Wilshere's fragility, I suspect he'll revert to 4-4-2. Personally, I quite like the new formation because it gives us more penetration from the wings and allows a defender to sally forth and attack space between the opposition's lines. While Oxlade-Chamberlain briefly shone in the wing-back role, before the inevitable injury, Holding looks keen on exploring his inner Beckenbauer.

It's not inconceivable that Wenger will keep 3-4-3 but restrict it to the Europa League. I'm assuming that he'll treat the competition as an upgrade on the League Cup rather than a downgrade on the Champions League, which means it could be a chance for the club's younger talent to shine. Prospects like Iwobi and Holding, not to mention a possibly returning Calum Chambers, need more demanding, competitive games if they are to develop. Assuming the board finally insist on a tougher target than a top four finish, Wenger may be reluctant to indulge too many of the younger players in the league, so Thursday may take over from Tuesday/Wednesday as the new development night. If my surmise about the board's intentions is right, it would imply a number of seasoned players coming in rather than a reliance on talent emerging through the ranks. In fairness, that has been Arsene's policy since the capture of Ozil in 2013, though some of the newer players, like Lucas and Elneny, look like they fall into the category of "interesting": a Wenger foible, if ever there was one.

I suspect we'll need some good fortune, not to mention a sparkling performance, to come away with silverware on Saturday. The loss of Koscielny and Gabriel, and the likely absence of Mustafi, suggests that we may struggle at the back whatever formation we choose to play. If Mertesacker is drafted in, I can't see us risking a back three given his limited pace and lack of match fitness. Against Everton we reverted to 4-4-1 once Koscielny was sent off, which proved we can be an excellent (if profligate) counter-attacking team. Though Ozil has rediscovered his waspish form and Sanchez is capable of turning a match, an early slip-up could see us chasing the game on a hot day with Fabregas expertly orchestrating keep-ball. If we get another dumb red card, we'll surely lose, so you can expect Costa to target Monreal or Holding. Our hopes may come down to a moment of Mesut magic, a Sanchez gamble at the right end of the pitch, and for Petr Cech to play a blinder. It's about time he saved a penalty. As to what happens after Saturday, I don't think anybody really knows how this is going to play out. Not even Wenger.


Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Not So Strange Death of Liberal England

Stephen Bush, who is perhaps the only reason to bother reading the New Statesman these days, has written a typically thoughtful piece on the non-appearance of the Liberal Democrat electoral surge. I say thoughtful, but I don't say right, because I think he makes a fundamental error in his analysis, specifically claiming that the fates of Labour and the Lib Dems are intertwined. He sets the scene thus: "On the right, there is a Conservative Party that has abandoned many of the liberal shibboleths it embraced under David Cameron and is fully committed to a hard exit from the European Union. And on the left there is a bitterly divided Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn. Yet the long-awaited 'Lib Dem revival' has stalled". Bush offers two reasons. First, many remainers have become reconciled to leaving the EU (the "re-leavers") and are thus minded to place their faith in Theresa May, perhaps hoping she will push for a softer Brexit post-election. Second, swing voters will only risk a vote for the Lib Dems if they think a possible left-of-centre coalition would be with a moderate Labour Party, so the leftward shift under Corbyn has paradoxically eroded support for Farron & co.

Both explanations strike me as weak. A quarter of Lib Dem voters nationally opted for leave in the EU referendum and this figure is likely to have been proportionately higher in those areas where the party held seats after 2010, which tended to be rural and suburban constituencies with otherwise conservative characteristics. When these seats turned blue in 2015, it was an indication that much of the Lib Dems' core support was made up of small-c conservatives whose historic antipathy to the Tories had weakened. While the media is fascinated by the idea of UKIP as a "gateway drug" for Labour voters migrating to the Tories, little has been made of the way that coalition acted as a vector for Lib Dems moving to the right. The idea that the party's voters are now temporarily on leave until Brexit is accomplished is the hopeful flip-side of this relative silence. Bush's second point requires us to believe that potential Lib Dem voters today think that an anti-Tory coalition is a real possibility, despite the polls strongly suggesting otherwise. It also fails to explain why Lib Dem support fell from 23% in 2010 to 8% in 2015, despite Labour under Ed Milliband taking only the most tentative steps away from Blairite centrism. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Lib Dem vote is primarily determined by the party's relationship with the Conservatives, not with Labour.

Bush's analysis reflects the "triangulation" or centripetal theory of British politics in which the Lib Dems are positioned mid-point on the ideological spectrum between the two main parties. In practice, they are just a species of conservative, with most of their support coming from traditional bourgeois fractions averse to the Tories for essentially historic and cultural reasons: non-conformists, petty-capitalists, urban professionals, civil servants etc. As a minor party, many of its signature policies on the national stage have been emblematic commitments intended to expand support rather than consolidate or reward its actual base (their local council practice being another matter and sometimes even at odds with national policies). For example, their "yoof" policies were directed at catching the middle-class young before voting habits set in (decriminalising cannabis is as much of a class identifier as free tuition), while their fiscal policies (raising the tax-free allowance but adding a penny to income tax for the NHS) were directed at the respectable working class ("hardworking families", in modern parlance). In the language of retail politics, the Lib Dems tried to position themselves as an impulse buy rather than a lifelong subscription.

Though the trope of political neglect has largely been used in reference to Labour, the Liberal Democrats have been just as guilty of taking their electoral base for granted over the years. The sudden realisation on the part of many of their voters in the 2010-15 period that they were actually conservatives all along has been a more profound shock to the established voting paradigm than the inroads of UKIP into Labour's base. In this light, it is worth noting that Theresa May's gestures towards a more pro-social state are as likely to reassure ex-Lib Dem voters as attract wavering Labour supporters. While classical liberalism emphasised free trade and the restraint of the state, hence the contemporary commitment to the EU (despite its hyper-statism) and high-profile civil liberties, the Lib Dem's voting bloc has shown itself to be equally open to the siren calls of patriotic protectionism and the coercive state. With its cultural roots attenuated, the party lacks the resilience of Labour. Though it may continue to pick up seats in low-turnout local elections, the Lib Dems may be facing near wipeout as a Parliamentary party. Having fallen from 57 to 8 seats in 2015, I wouldn't be surprised if they end up with fewer than 5 in June.


In recent years, the citing of George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935) has been almost exclusively used as a warning from history of the sudden evaporation of a party's support and therefore a prediction of the imminent demise of Labour. Less attention has been paid to its actual subject: the disappearance of the Liberal Party as an electoral force. Dangerfield attributed its early twentieth century decline to a combination of the struggle with the Conservatives over the Parliament Act of 1911 (restricting the power of the Lords), the challenge of unionism to Irish Home Rule, and the demands of suffragettes and militant trade unions for accelerated reform. It was a conventional history seen through the prism of a parliamentary politics under pressure from "extremists", and one that gained fame largely because of its striking title rather than its insights or forensic analysis. Its modern resonance owes much to the image of a beleaguered centre and the way that democracy can be hijacked by class-inflected populism (liberals have always been fearful of majoritarianism, hence the preference for proportional representation was about more than addressing their disadvantages under first-past-the-post).

Dangerfield failed to understand the dynamic of politics in an era marked by the novelty of universal suffrage and the persistence of material deprivation. Namely, that once most working people had the vote there would be an inevitable opposition between a collectivist left and a right defending private property and privilege. This division would coalesce around class interests: the bulk of the working class plus progressive fractions of the middle class arrayed against the bourgeoisie and reactionary fractions of the working class. Through the 19th century, liberalism had prospered as both a progressive movement responding to the challenges of industrial society and a gradually-retreating bulwark against democracy. Once the latter was fully conceded, liberalism lost its electoral power as a class compromise: progressives garvitated to the left and the bourgeoisie to the right. However, it did not lose its ideological power. What happened after World War One was that liberalism became hegemonic, colonising both the Tories (consider the trajectory of Churchill) and Labour (consider the Fabians). England (sic) has never stopped being a liberal country.

One of the dimensions of Liberal Party support that Dangerfield downplayed was religious affiliation. As the franchise expanded over the course of the nineteenth century, the Liberal's core electoral support (outside Ireland) was increasingly centred on non-conformist communities, notably in Wales, the South West, the North and Scotland outside the Central Belt, a trend that was accentuated in the early twentieth century as Catholic voters in the cities peeled off to the new Labour Party. This distribution persisted, despite the weakening of religion as the century progressed, and despite it being temporarily obscured by the fresh inroads made into cities like Liverpool and Birmingham in the 1970s through "pavement politics". As the latter dissipated, essentially because the Thatcherite assault on local government created a straight fight in town halls between Labour and the Tories, the old geography was once more revealed and could be seen as recently as the 2015 results. Ironically, Tim Farron's evangelical Christianity is one of the more traditional Liberal features of the contemporary formation. The fact that he is out of step with many Lib Dem supporters on issues such as abortion is another indicator of the weak institutional base of the party. 2017 is likely to see this political geography reduced to a historic curiosity.

The failure of the Liberal Democrats to arise from the ashes of 2015, despite the supposedly propitious division of the country into two tribes following the EU referendum, should come as no surprise. The party lost its raison d'etre a century ago. Its 1970s revival was merely an epiphenomenon of the neoliberal revolution, reflecting a general ideological confusion rather than its own historical salience. Once Thatcherism curtailed the space for its community politics, which it had never managed to translate into a meaningful national programme, and once New Labour seized the neoliberal baton along with the banner of progressive internationalism, the party's retail offer was reduced to being Tony Blair's conscience. It was preserved from electoral decline by a combination of voter habit, the liberal media's guilt over New Labour's illiberalism, and its own nature as an organisation that lives for national elections and pretty much hibernates in between. Given these dynamics, it's success in 2010 was always going to be fragile, requiring the cunning of an Asquith and the ruthlessness of a Lloyd George to preserve. Instead it got the vanity of Nick Clegg and a supporting cast lacking backbone, skill or even simple honesty. The coalition finally broke the spell. This was a death long foretold.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Ooops!

Contrary to the scare stories, we do not face a tidal wave of ransomware hard on the heels of the WannaCrypt attack. As is often the case, the media prominence of this technology is a sign of its maturity and imminent decline, not its sudden arrival. The incidence of ransomware has increased in recent years, but that owes more to the emergence of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin than operating system backdoors cultivated by the NSA (which they've been doing for a long time). Writing code to automatically encrypt a hard disk is not difficult because operating systems are designed to run background processes that manipulate files. The challenge for criminals has been the money-drop. How do you get your hands on the cash without being nabbed by the police? Traditional methods have included wire transfers, payment vouchers (often laundered through online gaming sites) and even premium-rate text messages, but these are unreliable and risky. Cryptocurrencies have proven a boon to all sorts of online extortion.

Though there were earlier examples, ransomware first bloomed in the 1990s client-server ecosystem, which meant PCs with valuable data on local disks (and not backed up) plus Internet access and weak antivirus protection. The number of PCs still running old and vulnerable operating systems such as Windows XP is in steady decline, and most of the installed base is found in advanced economies where desktop machines are gradually being replaced by devices, such as smartphones and tablets, that act as terminals accessing remote data in the "cloud" (if compromised, these can usually be fixed by wiping the local storage, reinstalling the operating system and then synching data over the network - in effect the equivalent of a handset upgrade). The organisations most vulnerable to ransomware (and presumably the handful that have paid the ransom already) will be small businesses or sole traders who have a single PC, ineffective antivirus (a factor of older versions of Windows), no reliable data backup, and have probably mislaid the original media and licence keys for purchased application software.

While some NHS trusts may have been foolhardy enough to allow critical data to be stored locally on PCs, it would be surprising if they didn't have network backups, so they're probably not badly affected. In many cases the issue is simply that the PC has been disabled and can no longer be used to access corporate systems that are otherwise unaffected. It's an inconvenience rather than a data breach. Likewise, I suspect the machines hit in private companies such as Renault, Telefonica and FedEx are just as likely to be single function controllers running old and unpatched versions of Windows - e.g. industrial process monitors or unattended devices like train departure boards - rather than personal desktops. A simple swap-out or rebuild should fix these. What this does highlight, however, is the potential problems that will arise with the spread of the Internet of things (IoT), which is essentially a profusion of many small controllers. Having your fridge demand money with menaces might sound amusing, but it won't be so funny if the home security system has been compromised and you can't get into your house.

The prominence of the NHS in the UK reports of the WannaCrypt attack has inevitably led to much sage commentary on the self-defeating nature of austerity, not infrequently by dimwit journalists who have hitherto written sage pieces on the need for belt-tightening in the public sector. This is all well and good as far as it goes. Many trusts have clearly skimped on IT security to divert limited funds to the famous "frontline", while the NHS high command was foolish in not properly assessing systemic risk and the Department of Health was clearly culpable in deciding to stop paying Microsoft to extend critical patch support for Windows XP in 2015 (did Jeremy Hunt imagine that risk declined over time?) But the NHS's particular vulnerability owes more to decisions taken during the years of (relative) plenty in the late-90s and early-00s than to the lean years post-2008, and this can be seen in the fact that the attack has also affected private businesses that do not appear to be cash-constrained. There are three factors that I think are worth highlighting.


First, long before IT was punted as a service, it was punted as a commodity. The promise of the 1980s was that proprietary mainframe and terminal systems could be replaced by client-server systems using PCs that could also provide business productivity tools to key workers. Instead of maintaining expensive inhouse development teams writing bespoke applications, businesses shifted to the purchase of commercial off-the-shelf software. While this delivered real benefits in reduced development and implementation costs, it meant that organisations were increasingly dependent on third-party products that were familiar to hackers. To add to the problem, the distributed computing power of the PC meant that many critical applications were still developed inhouse, but now by semi-trained users creating Excel spreadsheets and MS-Access databases. Turf wars often meant that these were kept hidden from the IT department, hence they might not even be backed up routinely.

Second, the growing demand that the public sector should adopt private sector "best practice" meant that this model of corporate IT spread to the NHS in the 1990s. Unfortunately, the weaknesses visible in the private sector were magnified in the public sector by political pressures, specifically the compartmentalisation arising from the creation of internal markets and the emphasis on cost-led outsourcing. This produced weak IT strategy at the enterprise level, fragmented operations at the local level, and a deprioritisation of security and housekeeping outside of legally-mandated data protection. Though New Labour significantly increased spending on the NHS, its u-turn on marketisation ultimately undermined its efforts to improve productivity and organisational resilience by exacerbating these trends. Since 2010, the NHS has had to cope with both decreasing real-term budgets and even more fragmentation as a consequence of the Tories' strategy to facilitate private sector cherry-picking.

The third factor is the push for devolved decision-making and the decentralisation of commissioning arising from the Lansley reforms. Regardless of what you think about this either as economic and organisational theory or as a practical policy in the area of clinical management, it has reinforced the balkanisation of the IT landscape and helped depriortise security. Looking back at the use of IT in the health service since 1980, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the NHS might have done better to stick with mainframes and dumb terminals. The minimal vulnerability to malware would have been a plus, but just as importantly, such an architecture would have encouraged data consolidation and consistency, which is probably what the service needs most. Even today, the NHS is still partly dependent on paper records and manual transposition while the quality of its data service to patients is poor. Of course, a centralised IT system would suggest a centralised and uniform health service, which isn't the ruling vision.

What the WannaCrypt impact on the NHS highlights is that the chickens now coming home to roost originated in the political economy and business ideology of the late twentieth century more than the technical flaws of operating systems first released in the early years of the twenty first century. The commodification of IT, the attack vectors introduced by the Internet, and the organisational dysfunction created by maketisation and functional segregation have together produced an environment characterised by under-investment, poor management and systemic vulnerability. The good news is that the NHS should bounce back pretty quickly: crisis-management is its norm. The bad news is that any subsequent inquiry will be of limited value because it will focus on contemporary failings - poor systems control and bad management decisions - rather than root causes: the advocacy of internal markets for complex organisations and processes, and the delusions of devolution and empowerment.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Ebb Tide

A defining characteristic of the right-wing, populist surge in Western democracies in recent years has been its unpreparedness for power and its ineffectiveness when presented with electoral victory, which distinguishes it both from the Fascist wave of the 1930s and the more traditional authoritarian regimes, employing populist rhetoric, that have come to power in Eastern Europe since the millennium. This is specific to the right. The one left-wing success that could be classed as populist, Syriza, was based on an established policy platform (reflate, protect social services, write-off debt), whose very familiarity probably made it easier for the "troika" to counter. Though the media tends to frame populism in terms of personalities and righteous anger, the initial success and then the stalling of the far-right in The Netherlands and France was because of an absence of credible policies: first the failure of centrist parties to offer meaningful change to the neoliberal consensus after 2008, which gave the populists their opening, and then the failure of the far-right to advance from opposition to proposition.

The Dutch decided that Islamophobia was not an adequate basis for government, while Marine Le Pen was obliged to campaign negatively against Emmanuel Macron because quitting the euro and EU are simply not popular in France. Though her vote is a significant advance on her father's performance in 2002, it proves once more that Fascism can only prosper when enabled by the conservative establishment. The rumours that she intends to drop the FN brand and try and reinvent herself as a more conventional conservative (a little less racist, a little more pro-euro) is a sign of the institutional weakness of the far-right as much as the normalisation of previously rebarbative attitudes such as Islamophobia among the centre-right. The result is likely to be further fragmentation on the right, mirroring that on the left. Just as the first-past-the-post system in the UK promotes a duopoly, so the French two-round system encourages party plurality and thus the dominance of the party of state - i.e. the technocratic bureaucracy of which Macron is the representative.


Where the populist right has achieved electoral success the consequence has been either co-option by the conservative establishment or implosion, reflecting its nature as an emotional spasm rather than a programme of action. The farce of Donald Trump's first 100 days is being attributed to his personal shortcomings but the sense of cluelessness is clearly a wider phenomenon, as we've seen in Britain since last June. Trump's lack of a coherent domestic agenda beyond soundbites has allowed established conservative factions to fill the policy vacuum with old and discredited remedies such as pro-rich tax cuts, not to mention the fluff of the Laffer Curve. As a supposed insurgent, he has failed not only to seize the state and appoint his own loyalists but has allowed himself to be absorbed into the Republican Party's dysfunctional structure. The successful fightback by the national security establishment in Washington reflects Trump's vanity and opportunism rather than any intellectual victory by neocons over the "nationalists" gathered around Steve Bannon's busy whiteboard. The emerging dynamic is that of court politics.

As Corey Robin notes, the liberal characterisation of Trump has devolved from a Fascist via an authoritarian to an ineffective despot. This should not come as a surprise. Trump is obviously lazy and his "business experience" has been mostly words rather than deeds for decades, ever since he became a brand-for-hire and TV celebrity. He is the product of ideology, not an ideologue. He remains an uninformed commentator on politics, not a politician, and he was never serious enough to be a real Fascist. The focus on bling (those gold doors) and sensuality (that beautiful chocolate cake) evokes a latter day Sun King, divorced from reality and driven by narcissistic whims. But this framing is clearly self-interested, as it was when GOP grandees levelled the same royalist charge during the primary. It casts the liberal "resistance" as enlightened and progressive and so avoids discussion of the failures of neoliberalism that fuelled the populist surge. This bad faith has extended to anglophone commentary on France, with Melenchon supporters condemned as facilitators of Fascism and Corbyn harangued for not bowing down in awe before Macron.

What the US and UK share is a degraded institutional resilience combined with an electoral system that preserves a duopoly. This allowed one established political party to be hijacked by a joyrider and another to be stampeded into an ill-considered referendum. A key enabler of these developments, and the underlying institutional decay, has been the growing power of autonomously partisan media since the 1980s and the way in which this has been amplified rather than diluted by the Internet. The media have always been partisan, but this meant supporting a particular party or faction and taking an ideological lead from politicians. Since the 80s, and the growing profusion of media driven by privatisation and technology, partisanship has become a commodity in its own right. This has encouraged media owners to become ideological sponsors (e.g. Brexit), or even active players (e.g. Berlusconi), and has made them more promiscuous in their factional support (consider the flip from Johnson to May). It is no coincidence that France lacks a press equivalent to the British tabloids (note the bland coverage of the 11th hour leak of the Macron campaign emails) or that Dutch TV still bears the imprint of the old institutional pluralism known as "pillarisation".

One clear difference between the US and UK on the one hand and France and The Netherlands on the other is that older voters favoured populist arguments in the former countries but not in the latter. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen's support was highest among the 30 to 49 age-group, while it was the over-50s that were decisive for Trump and the leave vote. This isn't because of the memory of Nazi occupation (you'd have to be over 90 for that), nor youth unemployment (higher levels haven't advanced the far-right in Southern Europe), but because of the normative role of a largely centrist and pro-EU media. People don't massively change their opinions with age, but they can be convinced that their values have been affronted, hence the importance of a narrative of loss and restoration - make America great again, take back control - and the salience of immigration as a symbol of social change. Ageing societies and a differential propensity to vote have made the old more electorally significant, but it is the British press and US cable networks that have turned them into shock-troops for populism. On the continent, the far-right has benefited from new media, hence the uptick among younger groups, but nowhere near to the same extent.


While European voters remain sceptical about neoliberalism and globalisation, many have resigned themselves (once more) to the idea that "there is no alternative", suggesting that the long game played by the EU Commission since the start of the Greek fiscal crisis is finally coming good politically (another reason why they won't be inclined to bend over backwards in the Brexit negotiations). This doesn't mean that neoliberalism has regained intellectual credibility but that neoliberal hegemony has proven resilient, just as the institutions of the French Fifth Republic have, which owes much to the embedded nature of globalisation and resulting scepticism about the feasibility of protectionism. The social democratic revival hasn't come to a complete standstill, but it is clearly running out of steam, something that became obvious in the Spanish elections last year. While Labour's likely defeat in June will be blamed on Corbyn, historians will probably note the less than radical nature of the party's manifesto compared to the carte blanche demanded by the Tories.

What this highlights is not the lack of a coherent programme on the left but the lack of policy ambition. There has been a reluctance to tackle the big issue of wealth inequality head-on, which means addressing property as a store of value as well as housing. Too many on the left have succumbed to na├»ve determinism, imagining that the Internet and robots can positively transform society if we just implement a basic income to smooth the transition. You could argue that this is simply the nature of social democracy - capitalism's manager rather than its challenger - but it is notable that even those parts of the left that consider themselves to be in the radical tradition, such as Melenchon in France, have offered up uncontroversial domestic policies, relying on anti-Americanism to provide some edge. If the left is to prosper electorally (and it must, given that the industrial domain has largely been lost and social networks have been commoditised), then it must do so by offering transformative policies rather than just amelioration. Labour will probably commit to building a million new council houses in its manifesto, but it might do better to promise a land-value tax to replace national insurance.