Sometimes some new scrap of information strings a link between two previously disconnected neurons, your cortex reconfigures, and a whole constellation of thoughts snap together in a new way. That’s happened to me recently, I’ve realised something that other people have a lot quicker than me – Facebook is eating the web. The original John Perry Barlow / Tim Berners Lee / Jimmy Wales vision of a digital space everyone owned is dying. It’s sometimes easy to forget how recently we had lofty visions, and how extensively the web has reoriented towards advertising.

But it’s more than that. The normal checks and balances for dominant corporations – competition laws – don’t apply here. You don’t pay for social networking, so it isn’t a market, so there is no competition law. I’ll come back to this later.

I’m doing a PhD looking at how the public sector can benefit from social media data.  Corporations own datasets of unimaginable social value, and the only thing they want to do with them is sell them to advertisers. All their other potentially beneficial social roles, tracking diseases, policy consultation and strengthening communities, to mention just three, are getting harder to realise.

That’s not to say there aren’t amazing civic technology projects still happening, but they all happen under the looming shadow of Facebookification.

In denial, I clung to the belief that Facebook’s unbelievably massive user numbers were just not true. Looking for research on this I discovered a paper which contained startling statistic – there are more Facebook users in Africa than there are people on the Internet. Exactly as I thought – Facebook are massively inflating their numbers. Except…  further investigation showed that many survey respondents were unaware that they were on the Internet when they used Facebook. They didn’t know about the web, they only knew about Facebook. Research that I thought was going to confirm my world view did the exact opposite: mind… flipped. That was the first inflection point, when I started to feel that everything had gone wrong.

The second was trying to use the Instagram API for some research. For a long time I’ve been aware that the Facebook API is so hostile that I wouldn’t be able to use it. Facebook is such a complicated product, with such complex privacy settings, that perhaps it’s inevitable that API is basically unusable. But Instagram is incredibly simple, and many people choose to make their photos public. To me, it’s absolutely natural that they would make public photos available via an API. But, since November 2015, Instagram’s API has been radically curtailed. All the apps that use it have to be reviewed, and there is an onerous list of conditions to comply with. To a first approximation, Instagram turned off their API.

Again, mind flipped. Facebook have purchased Instagram, and now they’ve strangled it as a source of data. They are a commercial company, and they can do what they like, but my mind boggles at the mean spiritedness of shutting the API. The photos belong to the users, and the users have asked for them to be published. Third parties might well do amazing things with the photos – to the benefit of everyone including their creators. Instagram can do that at very close to no cost to themselves. The traffic to the API is peanuts in server costs, and it’s simple to rate limit it. Similarly, rate limiting it means you wouldn’t be giving away the large scale analytics data you might sell. You can ban people from duplicating the Instagram app and depriving you of advertising revenue, just as Twitter have. The downsides to Instagram are tiny.

Not so long ago, the wisdom was that an API with a rich third party ecosystem was the key to success. Twitter was the model, and it’s still wonderfully open (fingers crossed). Yahoo really got it – remember Yahoo Pipes? A graphical interface for playing with all the open APIs that used to exist, infrastructure for a gentler time.

The new players don’t care. Facebook has very successfully pioneered the opposite approach, where you put up barriers anywhere you can.

Neither of these two things is big news, not the biggest stories on this topic by a long shot, but for whatever reason, they were an epiphany for me. They made me realise that Facebook is a unique position to take control of the web and drain it of its democratic potential.

I’m not in love with everything Google does, but, as a search engine, it’s interests could be seen as aligned with an open web. I don’t love Amazon’s dominance, but at least its marketplace makes a pretty transparent offer to users, just as Apple’s hardware business does. Facebook, which obviously competes in the advertising market with Google, has a strong interest in curtailing the open web. Facebook, as Mark Zuckerberg has explicitly said, would like to become the main place people go to read news, using Instant Articles rather than web pages, hidden away in Facebook’s walled garden. Increasingly, as the earlier evidence indicated, Facebook is the web.

But Facebook is different from the other big tech companies in another, much more important way. It is almost invulnerable to antitrust and competition regulations.  In the 1990s, Microsoft was in a massively dominant position in tech. In both Europe and the US, governments brought cases against MS, saying that they were exploiting their position to the detriment of consumers. The cases did serious damage to MS, and their dominant position slipped. Right now, the same thing is happening to Google’s dominance – the EU is bringing cases against them for their behaviour in relation to Android.

One reason that Apple always positions itself at the premium end of the market may be exactly to avoid gaining enough market share to qualify as a monopoly – instead it satisfies itself with high margins in a smaller segment.

But Facebook don’t actually sell anything to consumers, so they aren’t in a market, so no case can be bought against them. Sure, they are in the advertising market, and they are a big player, but only alongside Google and all the others.

Combined with Instagram and Whatsapp, Facebook is massively dominant in social networking. But social networking isn’t a market, because it’s free. Nor is Facebook a common carrier, nor are they a newspaper or a TV station, all of which have laws formulated specifically for them. For Facebook, there is no law.

I’d guess this one of the reasons that Facebook is so clear it will never charge users – to do so would expose them to competition law.

Maybe it’s OK, because some guy in a dorm room or garage is right now working on a Facebook killer. Except they aren’t, because, as with Instagram and Whatsapp, Facebook will just buy any thing that threatens it – and lock new purchases it into it’s own closed infrastructure. Nothing is more lucrative than a monopoly, so the stock market will write a blank cheque for Facebook to reinforce its position.

The board of Facebook must spend a great deal of time thinking about what could go wrong. A massive data leak? Accidentally deleting everyone’s photos? Cyberbullying suicides becoming common place?

Surely competition laws aimed at the company are near the top of risk register. What are they likely to be doing about that? They can do the normal revolving-door, expensive dinner lobbying shenanigans, and I’m sure they are. But Facebook has a whole other level of leverage. The platform itself is profoundly political. They have detailed data about people’s voting intentions, highly politically desirable advertising space, the ability to influence people’s propensity to vote, and can use the massively influential Facebook trending to promote whatever view they like. What politician wants to tangle with that kind of organisation?

If I was being cynical, I’d start to think about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Facebook surely already has unimaginable access, but this organisation (not technically a charity) adds a halo of beneficence, a vehicle for the Zuckerberg point of view to embed itself even more deeply.

Why haven’t I mentioned It’s too depressing. I’ll write about that another day.

Not only is there no law for Facebook, but the democratic system for creating laws has incentives that mostly point in the wrong direction. You can construct all kinds of scenarios if you try hard enough. For me, the prospect of the mainstream web being controlled by a single corporate has moved from being distant possibility to being a likely future. Let’s just hope things turn out more complicated, they usually do…


In JG Ballard’s novel Cocaine Nights, residents of a utopian Spanish retirement resort commit terrible crimes against one another. They are driven to crime because they need more discomfort. Ballard’s message is that humans will become pathological in utopia. We need a problem, because if there are no problems, how will tomorrow be better than today?

David Graeber, in his book Fragments of Anarchist Anthropology, says “There would appear to be no society which does not see human life as fundamentally a problem”. He might not be quite right, as former missionary Daniel Everett discovered when he went to the Amazon and met a strange tribe. The Piraha people, who believe themselves to be the happiest in the world (that’s what the name Piraha means in the the Piraha language), have no past or future tense in their language. They are the happiest people in the world because they cannot ask, how will tomorrow be better than today?

The quest for a better tomorrow is a much studied phenomena. John Gray concludes that we are doomed to repeat the utopian fantasies of the past, constantly seeking for a better tomorrow without realising that we simply recapitulate the same old problems in new ways. As he points out, utopian regimes of the 20th century, Marxist, Leninist, etc, only succeeded in making tomorrow worse than today.

Gray contends that the reason Western governments ban drugs is because they offer the wrong way of making tomorrow better than today, a way that doesn’t involve ever increasing material consumption. Governments require money-based redemption to keep the economy growing: more GDP to make tomorrow better than today.

I bring up the war on drugs because it seemed like a immovable feature of the landscape when Gray wrote about it in 2003. Now the war on drugs seems to be abating,  many states in the US are moving to legalise cannabis and countries across Europe are moving in the same direction. Does that hint at a shift in the collective consciousness, a mutation in the imagined better-tomorrow?  Economic thought feels like it’s turning a corner away from money redemption. Millennials are primarily civically minded, apparently. Philosophy offers career advice for ‘doing good better‘. Even a conservative government is partial to the rhetoric of “measuring what matters“.

There is another kind of redemption, which the USA is pioneering; a global militarism where a spectral adversary has to be defeated, a la George Orwell. That’s why the US can’t countenance gun control. As Obama said in an accidental moment of candour, in small town America, where money-redemption seems impossible, they instead “cling to guns and religion”. A watered-down version of nation-state kill-or-be-killed can be seen in the Tories “global race” election rhetoric.  We can only hope that this kind of zero-sum better-tomorrow goes away.

Robin Archer of the LSE gave a nice quote at a recent talk: “what a dismal time it has been for those of us on the left… because the unusual plastic state of the public mind which followed the global financial crisis feels like it’s starting to congeal and harden into something quite unsympathetic”. But perhaps a Tory victory is ripple on the surface of a Kondratiev-wave scale reorientation of the global outlook. Political radicalism consequent to the financial crisis didn’t really touch Britain, where the average voter has remained relatively unaffected compared to the devastation in peripheral eurozone countries.

But there is a global, almost post national chattering class, bound together by the web, which could emerge as a new force in politics. Evgeny Morozov thinks they too will be beholden to neoliberal money-redemption, while Cory Doctorow is more of an optimist.

Meanwhile, the diminishing marginal utility of wealth means that increasing GDP might not satisfy us forever, and in any case perhaps economic growth has gone for the foreseeable. Economics professor Ed Glaeser says “the introduction of happiness into economics by Richard Layard and others stops the economists primal sin, which is acting as if money is the be all and end all, which is equivalently foolish as the view that any one thing is the be all and end all.”

Time for a new multidimensional answer to how tomorrow will be better than today? I hope so.





I don’t think myself party political, not really, so I’m surprised to discover that I’m feeling quite desolate about the election, frankly a bit shaken.

Many wouldn’t agree, but actually the Tories won’t destroy the NHS, they’ve made reasonable commitments which I think they’ll stick to. The aggression with which they will tackle the deficit is sub-optimal, but not that different to Labour’s plans. The human rights situation is admittedly disappointing, but you never get everything you wanted.

So why does it seem so grim to me? Because, I think, it’s so contradictory to my natural optimism about politics, and the way it makes me feel uncomfortable about my own country. I don’t how this compares with what others have said; I can’t bear to read the analysis yet.

First of all, I don’t think politicians are the sociopaths of the popular imagination. Watching Jim Murphy’s emotional concession speech ought to convince anyone that they do have a soul. We hear that Nick Clegg wept copiously when speaking to his team – and with good reason, his world, and that of his colleagues and friends had just been destroyed.

Politicians know it’s a cruel job when they stand, but it’s hard not to feel that the Lib Dems especially suffered an injustice, punished by a public who can’t or won’t understand how coalition works, determined to construe the Clegg as a cynical promise breaker, which of course the Labour supporters revelled in. I think it’s a terrible loss, in general they bring a philosophical bent to politics — not many join the Lib Dems out of power lust. Contrast Clegg’s resignation speech about the tradition of Liberalism across Europe with other leaders, who simply rallied their parties around the idea that they would do better next time.

So, sensitive soul that I am, just watching tired politicians give the speeches that must have run through many times in their nightmares makes me sad. And we only see the big names, when back benchers loose their seats they might not be offered their pick of cushy non-executive directorships. I imagine it’s a fairly brutal transition to anomie.

But they did volunteer for it. The real, grinding, gloom-laden realisation was about the nation, not a handful of individuals: things are not even going in the right direction. We’re going backwards. Not in the nitty-gritty of policy, that comes and goes, but in terms of the social settlement between the powerful and the vulnerable.

You might find it a shock that I didn’t realise this before, but I make a point of avoiding the lazy generalisation that everything’s going to the dogs. It wasn’t as good as it used to be. It’s cheap, and boring, to make yourself look wise through omni-pessimism. The world is getting richer, the gap between developed and developing countries is shrinking. Healthcare for the poorest improves constantly, several major disease are on the brink of oblivion.

I misconstrued this super-macro view of progress and just assumed that the UK was generally going with the flow, and with some reason. After all, the right didn’t win a decisive victory in 2010, when it seemed like it should have stormed into power. Brown was terrible and the economy was in tatters – they still failed.

Party politics seemed to be shifting to a more pluralistic modus operandi. I felt so optimistic when the News of the World shut, and I rejoiced when Miliband told Murdoch to shove it, and won praise for it too. The rampant anti-democratic force that is the Murdoch press seemed to be in a box, the tools that the powerful use to tilt the playing field in their favour seemed blunted.

We saw through the neo-liberal subterfuge after the crash. Fending off regulation by pretending you would move your bank’s head office to Hong Kong suddenly didn’t wash. We started to get angry with corporations doing the accountancy equivalent of a three cup shuffle, making their profits disappear while HMRC pretended to be a clueless punter. I started to imagine a country genuinely run in the interest of the many.

Then, suddenly, it’s full-strength Tory expropriation for the next 5 years, at least. I already have premonitions of a Johnson led Tory party riding the wave of full-fledged economic recovery into another term. Everyone voted exactly the way Murdoch told them to. Most of all, Cameron and Osborne are wielding a majority, and they are the very avatars of the old-school-Eton-Oxbridge-private-income-elite, protecting their own without a coalition to keep them in check.

I don’t think Murdoch and Cameron will meet Saudi oil Shakes and Monstanto execs in smoke filled rooms, transform in to lizards and hatch plots against the international proletariat.

I don’t think they coordinate at all, but the mood, the intellectual climate, starts to justify things that tend to make wealth flow up the food chain, apparently by coincidence. Regulate banker’s pay? Can’t do that, it’ll ruin international competitiveness. Reform Non Dom legislation? Ditto.

How long can we maintain the political will to regulate the insane financial products that caused the crash when the PM comes from a long line of bankers and the Tories are bankrolled by hedge funds?

News Corp want to buy Sky? Well, if they promise it will create jobs perhaps then democracy can go hang. We are in a GLOBAL RACE after all.

The “global race”, I now think, was Lynton Crosby’s master stroke. It’s the crux of both the conservative victory and a rationalisation of injustice.

Sure, some people voted Tory for selfish economic reasons, but so many people voted for them, and their policies really only benefited home-owning pensioners.

To account for the voters who seemed to vote against their own interests we have to think of voters as trying maximise the country’s collective prestige and power, not concerning themselves with their personal welfare. Doesn’t matter if you are on a minimum-wage zero-hour contract, if the country is overall getting richer then we (you) are winning the global race.

In Miliband’s interview with Paxman, Paxman claimed someone came up to him on the tube and told him that Miliband couldn’t govern because he wasn’t tough enough to deal with Putin. Paxman retells the anecdote because it captures something about Miliband, and the conservative strategy that triumphed over him. The questions the Conservatives wanted everyone to ask themselves was “who will make Britain feel virile again?”.

Voters look to rich, old-school, confident born-to-rule Cameron and see the very thing that they want the nation to be perceived as internationally: a natural winner in the fictive global race.

If the global race gets you to power, it also explains all the cruel policies your going to implement. We must compete!

And of course, a strong, powerful Britain will include Scotland. Loosing it would be sign of weakness, and voters were erroneously convinced that Conservatives will use their muscular pragmatism to weld the countries together. Never mind that Scotland and England are now completely at political odds and the breakup seems inevitable. Labour could hardly campaign by saying they should win so England didn’t upset the SNP too much – but that was the recipe to preserve the union.

I fervently hope the decimation of the left and the destruction of the Lib Dems will lead to some kind of breaking point which galvanises a genuinely progressive and effective political momentum.  Especially since there is no other escape valve: no government with a majority is going to consider electoral reform, which I think is the only thing that could make me even a tiny but optimistic.

A place where we can take national pride from something other than how many percentage points we eke GDP up by in some ludicrous, meaningless race. Perhaps there’s a place for organisations other than parties trying to drive a shift in thinking of this kind; it doesn’t seem to be the kind of thing that they’ve been very successful in doing.

I see Dougald Hine has many sensible reflections on how this can work, and perhaps the grass roots movements that have sprung up across Europe can teach us something. Here is the only positive note I can find: many Tory voters are ashamed of what they did, that’s why they can’t tell pollsters their intentions. That is not the basis of a durable political settlement. Meanwhile, I think there are large and growing number of people who want to use their skills not to earn more money but to do what they feel to be morally right, which could be incredibly powerful.

If I’m really honest though, the deepest wound is to my identity. I try to make the most positive contribution I can to society, and when I say society I’ve always thought of it as the nation. But then I discover that most people in my country, especially outside the cities, don’t share my values at all, or perhaps simply don’t have any firm political commitments. Lots of people live lives at odds with the prevailing political mood in their country, but it never occurred to me that I did.

Even though I don’t especially like the Labour party, if the country had voted for them in reasonable numbers I could understand where they were coming from. But when so many people willingly steer the country towards plutocracy against their own personal interests I wonder who they really are. I feel dislocated like some colonial explorer who spends decades abroad as an emblem of Britishness only to come home and discover he no longer recognises the country.

Only instead of the African interior, I’ve been in East London, or perhaps in the Twitter bubble. I know that in time I’ll get used to it, perhaps if I make an effort even reintegrate into my native country, but at the moment I think I prefer the leeches and hashtags and malaria and cold-brew coffee of equatorial Hackney.



After an election with a weak showing from Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, the Tories form a minority government with support from, among others, 9 UKIP MPs.

At this point, David Cameron feels like he’s got away with it. Over the next few weeks he will make several serious misjudgements – Russell Brand’s potency being the biggest.

On the Friday after the election an arrangement is reached where UKIP will support important government bills such as the budget and prevent a vote of no confidence. Further details are to be announced later, but Cameron recommits to an EU referendum before the next election, and to continued austerity, while Farage,  standing on the bar of a Wetherspoons, gives breathless speech about how close the UK is to escaping the yoke of the EU.   

Russell Brand, in a NewsNight interview that same evening, calls the government illegitimate: with a turnout of 55%, the lowest ever, the minority government has the support of less than 20% of voters. Even lower youth turnout means that the government has almost no supporters under the age of 50. Brand called the government a gerriocracy (‘you’ll like that Jeremy, it’s that latin, did it just for you!’), and says today is the day the revolution starts, pumping his fist in the air. Jeremy Paxman looks on with barely concealed excitement.

Videos of his performance go viral, everyone has seen them. All the usual suspects on Twitter – Ricky Gervais, Frankie Boyle, Graham Linehan – circulate the video and add their support, but critically so do footballers and other sports stars, propelling the video to an audience that barely ever comes into contact with politics.

Brand has a point, academics, politicians, celebrity talking heads all agree: how has such a tiny fraction of the vote allowed the Conservatives to form a government? On Saturday protest groups demonstrate all over London, including an unplanned attempt occupy Trafalgar Square.

Many of Trafalgar Square’ special bye-laws – design to limit protest – are violated, and the police move in. In ensuing scuffles six people are hospitalised by the police, including two teenage girls, who give defiant interviews from hospital; the police are left looking heavy handed.

Throughout the week after the election protest spreads across Northern cities and Wales, which have almost uniformly voted against the Conservatives. In Scotland, the SNP mobilises the machinery of the independence referendum. Nationalist sentiment surges, as Scotland contemplates not only another 5 years of (foreign) Tory rule, but also the possibility of being forced out Europe by UKIP’s little Englander mentality.

By the Thursday, exactly one week after the election, it’s clear that the energy in the protest movement isn’t dying away. Further details of the new government are announced. In a crucial slip up, questions about funding of the NHS a left open, and the press and opposition parties begin to whip up fears that the it will be defunded or privatised.

Cameron makes a speech about the need for stability, maturity, fiscal restraint and the rule of law, casting himself in the same mold as Thatcher – on the side of vibrant, pragmatic, capitalism and against rabble-rousing populists who would subvert democracy and destabilise the country, leaving everyone impoverished.

But Lefty newspapers talk of shady backroom deals and a widespread impression begins to form that the Tory government has been deceitful in its UKIP pact – despite the fact that they have behaved exactly in line with constitutional precedent.

Right-wing papers buy into the Cameron rhetoric and point at Greece as an illustration of civil unrest resulting economic ruin.

All the papers carry opinion polls confirming that the UKIP-Tory government is massively unpopular, not to be trusted with the NHS, and perceived as certain to lower living standards with it’s plans for continued austerity. Many Conservative voters have changed their minds.

Friday, in Brixton. Marchers attempt to occupy the town square, while the police attempt to prevent the occupation. As the marchers and the police clash, there is a small scale repeat of the 2011 riots, far away from the main protest in the back streets, a car is set on fire, two shops are looted and gangs of youths give the impression of lawlessness. Cameron takes to the TV, attempting to connect all protests with the ‘rioting’ thereby undermining them.

The real impact of his intervention is to draw disproportionate attention to an almost trivial number of incidents. In contrast to the 2011 riots, many people see the looting as a sign of despair and a symptom of a failing country, and blame the government.

On the Saturday night, the media waits to see if the rioting will spiral out of control as it did in 2011, building the tension as high as it can for dramatic effect. Inevitably, rioting explodes across many cities. But this time, the police are already committed to monitoring Occupy camps in most major cities, as well as marshalling multiple marches during the day. As night draws in, the police are simply unable to cope with rolling acts of looting, vandalism and arson. While they maintain a presence in key locations, they cannot deploy enough officers to police large areas of the capital.

Privately, senior police officers send David Cameron a warning. Having already been committed across the country for over a week, and with all leave cancelled indefinitely, the police are stretched to the limit.  Unlike the 2011 riots, where police could be redeployed into London from other locations, this time there is no spare capacity. And legitimate, legal protests and marches are also adding to the police’s workload. The message is blunt: the police will not be able to hold the line if anything like the 2011 riots occur.

The media speculate along similar lines. They notice that in the last riots police made pledges to subsequently prosecute using CCTV, even if they could not control the rioting as it happened. This time there is no such threat. Low police moral is a mainstay of 24 hours news (which has suddenly has enough material). Talk turns to the deployment of the army.

Cameron says that all options are on the table to maintain law and order. However, senior army officials give briefings: having been deployed on ‘training’ missions in Libya since January, with the cuts, Afghanistan and Iraq, the army simply could not be deployed in large numbers.

Cameron realises that if he is forced into another election in the short term the Tories will be destroyed. Opinion polls show they are suffering badly from a perception of backroom dealing with UKIP,  and bringing the country to a point where the riots could happen. Suddenly, the economic recovery looks less and less convincing, the country seems ever more like Spain, Portugal or Greece.

The party as a whole is terrified, fearing actual extinction if they are forced to go to the polls again. A labour victory is inevitable. The Conservatives would not have won an election outright in 18 years, and UKIP are breathing down their necks. Cameron sees his only way out is to stick to his guns as a symbol of continuity and stability, as well as reinforcing the democratic legitimacy of his government.  

Meanwhile Ed Miliband has resigned, Chuka Umunna is the new Labour leader. He looks unstoppable, dismembering Tory policy with relish.

Next weekend if forecast to be hot and dry, and it’s a bank holiday. Papers scream that future of country hangs in the balance. Russell Brand, Chuka Umunna and Stephen Fry will speak in Hyde Park.

On Thursday and Friday, having satisfied the legal requirements, a number of Trade Unions go on strike, causing massive public transport disruption. Without tube and bus, and with continued low-level rioting, there is a knife-edge atmosphere in London. Parliament Square has been successfully occupied, a symbol of defiance against the police, and the TV news is filled with pictures of makeshift camps in city centres.

On the Saturday of the bank holiday, the day of Russell Brand’s rally, Cameron has a plan to start making the weather himself. In the morning he has a call with Barack Obama about the ongoing deployment of American and British troops to Libya, and he will then go to the BBC to appear on a special lunchtime version of the Andrew Marr show.

Fate is against him and Obama cancels the call so he can go to a basketball game. The Cameron team literally beg, describing refusal to speak with the Prime Minister as ‘regime change’. Obama gives in, but will only speak with Cameron later than planned. The new timings mean he will have to appear on the Marr show via a video link from Number 10.

Andrew Marr’s first question to the Prime Minister is about the protests, Cameron replies that he’ll be happy to talk about the protests later, but that other important issues are his primary concern. He goes on to recount his call with Obama, praising the bravery of the troops in Libya and commending them for recent victories – carefully playing the statesman.

The interview is PR disaster, making Cameron look out of touch, almost deluded, about what’s going on around him. News of Obama’s snub swirls around Twitter, undermining him further.

At exactly the same time, Stephen Fry is addressing the crowd in Hyde Park, telling an anecdote about how nice the Queen is. He’s walking a careful line, inciting the crowd to be open to radical political change, but also imploring them to see the value of being British and not to do anything rash – British people, Fry says, are never rash.

Russell Brand comes onto the stage, and asks Fry about the possibility of a backdoor knighthood (“You should never take it via the backdoor!” quips Fry). Brand has almost no idea of what he will say. Impromptu, he turns over the sheet of notes he his carrying, and says “I’ve got a message for the Prime Minister, it’s time to go!” He writes something on the paper, folds it up, places it the top pocket of the frayed jerkin he’s wearing, tapping it twice. Then he shouts “Hand deliver me to Number 10! Follow me!” and launches himself into the throng, who crowd surf him to the back.

Chuka Umunna watches the crowd disappear. He will not get to speak.  

Cameron is in talks with his advisors, who are advising him that the interview was a disaster, with the news on in the background. Sky News’s Skycopter shows a stream of people marching towards Hyde Park Corner. “What’s going on?” asks Lynton Crosby. Someone who’s been watching explains. The room realises that in approximately 30 minutes the crowd of 200,000 will arrive at Downing Street.

“Is it secure? Crosby asks a Diplomatic Protection Officer. “It’s secure, but if the PM doesn’t leave soon it may become very hard for him to leave without using the helicopter.”  They all realise that the image of Cameron helicoptered from the rooftops of Whitehall is not a good one.

After 10 minutes agreement is reached: there is now no choice but to make major concessions, and limit the current government to a year, leaving the Europe referendum to the next government. The announcement will be made from Cameron’s Oxfordshire home. It’s not possible to get press into Number 10, and background protest noise may be audible if he stands outside the front door as he normally does for announcements.

A single, unmarked car containing the PM leaves Downing Street, turns up Whitehall towards Trafalgar square. A suit hangs in the nearside rear window to conceal the passengers. Progress is slow, news of the Brand march has spread and most people in the Occupy camps in both Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square are trying to see what’s happening.

By the time they get to Admiralty Arch, the protection officers in the car with the Prime Minister make the call that the journey is not safe, and tell the Cameron they can no longer guarantee his security unless he returns to Downing Street. Cameron confers with Crosby who confirms they can make the announcement from the press room in Number 10, they turn left, under the arch and slowly across Horse Guards Parade and back to the other end of Downing Street.

What they don’t realise is that they are actually moving through the crowd which has Brand at it’s centre, waving his letter. The protection officers in Downing Street do, and send out armed police to meet the vehicle, fearing that the protesters may realise that the Prime Minister is in the car.

The car speeds up, nudging people out of the way, and causing a huge commotion. The crowd responds becoming increasingly interested, drawing Brand and the center of the procession towards it. At this point, the two armed protection officers bundle Cameron out of the car and run him towards the safety of the officers coming out to meet them.

Brand and the rest realise, and give chase, although Cameron is well clear of the protest and back inside Downing street’s gates in plenty of time.

Then Cameron realises, the whole thing will have caught by the Skycopter, and is probably live on TV. Him, being dragged behind armed officers while chased by a comedian. Worse, he’s back in Downing Street, without an easy means of getting away, with the world camped outside waiting for him to come outside and receive the letter.

Before he gets back to the door of Number 10, he makes a bold decision. He turns round, and walks calmly back towards the crowd. He waves for the police on the gate to let him though and waves for Brand to come to him. The cameras that have been following Brand form an arc, providing space for Brand to hand the letter to Cameron with a theatrical flourish.

Cameron waves the folded letter, and starts “In a democracy…“, only to be shouted down almost immediately. “In a democracy… “ he begins again, and this time someone squirts him with water from a bottle of Evian. Brand says “Sorry Dave, I don’t think they like you very much”, brand winks a the cameras to a huge cheer. The gates open a crack and Cameron slides back in to Downing Street.

Inside Number 10, he slaps that note down on the table, and asks that arrangements be made for him to phone the queen and tender his resignation. Lynton picks up the note, and reads allowed:

“I’ve shagged Samantha.”  

Google Now predicts where you want to go next, big data knows what you’re going to buy next. Neuroscience knows what you are going to do before you do (A horribly scripted clip, but it gets the idea across).  Whatever the details of the philosophical wrangling, free will as we naively like to imagine it is under attack.

It’s interesting to contrast this with the political rhetoric that is dominant in UK and US currently. Freedom and ch ch change are the clear themes. You might not have free will, but at least the leader has their own agency, the Prime Mover. Perhaps these messages soothes the collective unconscious’s anxiety about free will.

We like the idea of personal agency, and if our leaders can embody the concept we reward them with votes.

Whatever we may like to think, world leaders probably can’t claim any more free will than anyone else.  Fashionable theories or development economics prefer to emphasize the importance of institutions over individuals. Probably what politicians will do is even more predictable than what the private individual will do, we have the framework of Public Choice Theory to understand political behavior.


Having heard Toby Young defending Julie Burchill yesterday, I have to say that I agree with him that she has the right to say what she wants. I also think it raises some interesting questions about the way Twitter influences the national debate.

First of all, it’s only fair to point out that Julie Burchill’s attention-grabbing post is a masterpiece of wind-up. Even setting her views aside there’s the lobster and champagne lifestyle – presumably calculated to jar with the later passages about poverty – and the many ways she uses sycophantic praise of Suzanne Moore as a thinly-veiled homage to herself.

The substantive point she makes about transsexuals is worse than just an attack on a tiny, vulnerable minority designed to evoke all the most loaded and offensive cultural tropes. It’s also just not clear what she is trying to say. Is she saying transsexuals cannot be offended by what women say because women are themselves victims of men? I’m not sure.

My view is that if she wants write this kind of stuff then she’s entitled to. It’s not actually inciting hatred. Equally, if the Observer wants to remove something that’s going to be offensive to their reader that’s up to them. At least until a minister tells them to take it down – then perhaps there is an obligation to keep it up to make a point.

Interesting though how one-sided the Twitter debate in the UK seems to be. I would guess that a clear majority of the country would either be amused by the article or at least not find it offensive. Yet it’s exactly the kind of thing that UK Twitter hates, and as well as apparently driving Suzanne Moore to delete her account, it was the ructions on Twitter that got the article pulled.

Twitter is a political monoculture in the UK, and airing a prejudice is the thing that sets it on fire.  I’m pretty certain that this isn’t the case in the US, with all sides using it to harass each other, no doubt in equally unpleasant ways.

Either way, it’s worth noting that complaints to the PCC against Jan Moir for her hate-filled article were never upheld, nor was the article judged to break the law. A decade ago that article would probably have gone by relatively unremarked.

When Conservatives were perceived to be attacking the NHS (even though funding has remained at exactly pre-Tory levels, as promised in the manifesto) everyone suddenly had a “Twibbon” in support of it. On Twitter we’re all bien pensant lefties.

Journalists may be an unrepresentative elite, who, as evidenced by this episode, all know each other and are likely to have certain vested interests. But they do at least have to serve a genuinely diverse audience. Twitter excludes the majority by its very nature. To participate you have to be the kind of person who is interested in sharing 140 letter updates on your thoughts. It would be difficult – and criminally negligent – for, say, a forklift truck driver to participate in the latest Twitter storm while at work. Yet it’s easy for  metropolitan office workers to tweet.

The public nature of updates and its status as the de facto platform for politics mean Twitter is rapidly becoming the national town square, but it’s only notionally open to everyone.

It’s a strange topic to broach, because I almost always completely agree with the what the Twitter mob espouses, but you have to acknowledge that it’s not democratic for any group to have a disproportionate impact on the way opinions are formed and disseminated.