Brit living in Belgium and earning an income from building interfaces. Interestes include science, science fiction, technology, and European news and politics
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Twitter’s rightwing takeover is complete. Why are liberals still on it?

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Elon Musk’s acquisition of the company has transformed it into the center of the conservative media ecosystem

It looks like they’ve finally done it. For years, the far right has repeatedly tried and failed to set up a social network of their own – one where they can spread conspiracy theories and sow hate without any of the pesky content moderation that happens on the big tech platforms.

Numerous sites including MeWe, Parler, Gab, Gettr and Trump’s own Truth Social have popped up but none of them have really gained any traction. Indeed Parler, the self-described “uncancelable free-speech social platform” Kanye West tried to buy last year, shut down in April. “No reasonable person believes that a Twitter clone just for conservatives is a viable business any more,” Parler’s parent company said in a statement.

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Writing when tech has broken the web's social contract

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I continue to work through my worries about where whe are. I’m still thinking about where I stand in an industry that no longer seems to care about what it makes. It’s become obvious that the software industry doesn’t care about software.

It’s only getting worse

Is anyone else noticing that software just… doesn’t work right anymore? Every single booking system I’ve tried to use in the last week has had a serious revenue-affecting bug (airline, cab reservation, temporary rental, doctor appointment). Two of them were time zone bugs, one was a form field validation bug on a required field, the last was “you can’t get an assigned seat unless you call us”.

Valerie Aurora

Of course, I’m biased since I both wrote a long essay on this a couple of years ago and an entire book last year.

My theory, which I outlined in the book, is that software quality and business success, especially for individual managers, have been completely decoupled. Insisting on software development methods that are known to reduce defects and improve User Experience is more likely to harm your career than help. High-level managers and executives get rewarded for project size, not long term success. The software industry has never been particularly good at what it does, but it’s been getting worse.

Just look at all the lay-offs.

Any executive that has led their company to a situation where they have to lay off 10–20% of their workforce is by definition incompetent.

They’ve led their company into a horrifying financial and organisational disaster with detrimental consequences that will echo on for an entire decade. Their management put the company in dire straights. In a rational market, they would have been forced to resign, if not outright fired.

Instead, they became a role model. Just as with all the other incredibly poor software development decisions these companies have made, the rest of the industry decided to follow and copy them.

And, their executives get rewarded as well.

Basically, that our software is deteriorating should not be a surprise to anyone. It’s an irrational market, governed by people who don’t know what they’re doing.

The AI frustration

Nowhere is that more evident than with AI. A few weeks ago Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, went on “60 Minutes” and made a number of glaringly false statements that either belies a complete lack of understanding of the technology he was promoting, or complete dishonesty.

I prefer to think he was just being ignorant, but that just emphasises my point that these people should all have been fired.

I’m getting a bit off track here, but the software industry is going down a path that is just so very disappointing.

Watching executives making promises based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the tech they’re hyping, while every single one of their actions seems tailor-made to increase defects, bugs, and degrade user experience is…

Frustrating is what it is. Frustrating.

The one consistent aspect about this deterioration of the industry is their inability to think about the larger context, specifically about the various social contracts that govern tech’s position in society.

With AI, tech has broken the web’s social contract

The problem is that quite a few people in tech don’t believe in any social contract. Their conceptualisation of society is that it’s an equilibrium of dominant wills motivated by mimetic desire. That the rich are on top; that the rest of us aspire to be like them; and that any and all criticism towards them is born from jealousy. The world can only be improved by those with power over others. Any form of pro-social reasoning, consensus-building, or genuine negotiations seems to be alien to them.

These people are reactionary libertarian assholes, and they are tech’s ruling class. They might see themselves as benevolent shepherds of humanity’s future, esp. the creepy longtermist types, but by and large, they are power-hungry libertarian assholes.

This is why they leave scorched earth behind.

It’s not a secret that much of what the tech industry has done has what economists would euphemistically call “negative externalities”.

Microsoft’s inability to manage software defects meant that, for close to two decades, society had to bear the cost of dealing the fundamentally broken security of most versions of Windows. Their incompetence created a $4 billion USD market for antivirus software at the “peak” of Windows’s insecurity in 2004 and nobody knows how many billions of actual costs to society from software virus infections and hacks.

(In a former life I worked for an antivirus software vendor. If anything, we’re vastly underestimating the destructive cost Microsoft inflicted on our economies with their security incompetence during these years.)

It just keeps going on.

Android is a mess of malware and unpatched phones.

AirBnB seems specifically designed to increase property prices beyond what locals can afford.

The ‘gig’ economy is designed to completely undermine general pay and job security.

Their advertising-oriented universal surveillance is the authoritarian government’s wet dream. There are too many examples to fully list out.

But AI is the latest.

The old social contract

Now, the deal with the web has generally been rather simple:

  • We and media companies put stuff up on the web for free. Some of us do it for business reasons. Some of it is personal. Much of it is just culture. People being people.
  • Tech companies use this stuff, but mosty in an economically complementary way. Search engines use it to help you find what you’re looking for. Social media sites show you ads. Some of it is processed in order to improve the services they provide, such as spellcheck or autocomplete.

This has been breaking down for a while. Translators got hit hard by translation software, and that was only possible by processing texts made by human translators.

Google has steadily been manoeuvring their search engine results to more and more replace the pages in the results. Some of this has resulted in lawsuits or outright legislation. Many of Google’s legal issues in the EU stem from this shift.

Tech’s universal surveillance has also pushed the boundaries of what many found acceptable. Even my parents use ad blockers now.

But, language and diffusion models go further. The deal tech is offering us there is also simple:

  • We and media companies put stuff up on the web for free. Some of us do it for business reasons. Some of it is personal.
  • Tech companies use this stuff to create systems that can make shoddy, degraded versions of our work, deepfake us, and make convincing fake only personas for astroturfing, destroying our work, businesses, and social interactions.

This is a bad deal.

This is not a remotely fair deal for those of us on the “putting stuff up on the web for free” side of the equation. It doesn’t matter whether it’s illegal or not—though legislation is probably the only way to get the tech industry to stop it—because the social contract is broken.

Our incentive recedes in lockstep with the increasing dominance of generative AI content. As it recedes, fewer and fewer people and organisations will contribute to the digital commons. More and more stuff will be locked behind a paywall.

This has already affected my relationship with the web.

In terms of percentages, I posted fewer extracts from The Intelligence Illusion online than I did Out of the Software Crisis. I’ve also all but stopped posting photographs like I used to. I may be blogging more, but I’m also worrying more whether I should.

I’m at the point in time when, under normal circumstances, the strategic thing to do would be to push on with writing more online. It would normally be the most effective way to improve my career under the circumstances.

But now there’s a question mark against all public writing.

Do I gamble that the flood of language model texts will put a premium on thoughtful writing? That I’m not just improving the models by putting more writing out in the world?

Do I figure out ways of putting more of my writing behind some sort of pay- or login wall, even though that would be counterproductive for my career? Wouldn’t that also just disconnect me from my friends and the online community in general?

Do I just ignore the fact that I’m helping train the generative pap that tech hopes will replace us all?

I don’t know.

I know I’ll keep writing about it. Just writing this post helped clarify my thoughts and put order to my emotions.

Will I continue to post my writing online?

I hope so. I hope online writing survives this.

But I’m no longer certain it will.

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17 days ago
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The proto-fascism of Elon Musk

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This post is free to read, and I hope you enjoy it. But please consider purchasing a paid membership at a cost of just £1.15 a week if you can. That money allows me to carry on writing. To become a paid subscriber or sign-up as a free subscriber just press below. Thank you for reading and for your support, Nick

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Jean-Paul Sartre anticipated Elon Musk just after the defeat of Nazi Germany. In his 1946 essay The Anti Semite and Jew, Sartre captured the perky malice, proud ignorance, and worship of brute power that so characterises Musk’s version of a Silicon Valley libertarianism turned sour.

"Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies,” Sartre wrote. “They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past."

Musk has “the right to play” with the minds of millions because he is the world’s second richest man. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s insight that the rich “are different from you and me” is always worth quoting, and that difference does not only lie in the fact that they “have more money,” as Ernest Hemingway retorted. The rich have always thought that wealth should bring them influence far beyond their businesses. Success in one area – the ability to manufacture and market electric cars in Musk’s case – makes the narcissistic among them believe that they can successfully remold the whole of society.

In the early 20th century, they bought newspapers – the most effective propaganda tool of the age. In any discussion of Musk, it is worth dragging up the memory of Lord Beaverbrook, the Canadian-British tycoon, who used the Daily Express to batter the politicians of his day into pandering to his prejudices. Beaverbrook disarmingly told the 1948 Royal Commission on the Press that he ran his papers “purely for propaganda” .

As the left-wing editor Hugh Cudplipp commented on one of Beaverbrook’s madder campaigns to save the British Empire, he “merited no more attention than a bearded nut in Trafalgar Square carrying a placard proclaiming that ‘Judgement is Nigh’; but he owned newspapers”.

The same applies to Musk. If were a poor man, he would just be another troll on Twitter.

But Musk isn’t on Twitter: he owns it. He paid vastly over the odds for the site so he would not be the equivalent of a nut shouting into a void, but a dominant voice able to reach tens of millions.

His pronouncements reveal that Twitter is under the control of a typical figure from the radical right in its pre-fascist stage.

All the classic signs are there. In the past two weeks, Musk has made his love of strongmen clear. On the eve of the Turkish election, Twitter accepted a demand from Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to censor the accounts of opposition figures in the run-up to the first round of the Turkish presidential election. When the US writer Matt Yglesias protested, Musk responded in the jeering intimidatory style Jean-Paul Sartre described.

“Did your brain fall out of your head, Yglesias? The choice is have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets. Which one do you want?”


It’s hardly a novel phenomenon for Western corporations to guarantee their access to markets by bending the knee to autocrats. And it was thus no surprise to learn that, since 2017, Musk has held  meetings with Erdoğan to discuss possible collaboration between his Tesla and SpaceX ventures and Turkish firms. From a business perspective, the billionaire’s jeers that journalists should forget about freedom of speech make a brutish sense. But remember that Musk took over Twitter as a “free-speech absolutist.” He argued, with justice, that liberal culture was too keen on silencing and censorship, and promised to put an end to thought policing.

Read his statement again and notice, too, how Musk displays the true arrogance of the powerful. Nowhere in his self-justificatory bombast is there the smallest concern for Turkish Twitter users, whose right to read what they pleased he was arbitrarily restricting. He was the boss. He took the decisions, and they had to suck them up.

The indulgence of Erdoğan was not a one off. A few days ago, Donald Moynihan of the Bulwark website detailed how Musk has not just allowed far-right figures back on to Twitter but applauded and amplified their views to his 140 million followers. He engaged with and appeared to believe a self-confessed white supremacist with the resonant name of Laura Loomer, who said she had proof that Mark Zuckerberg and George Soros (of whom more later) were conspiring to steal elections  Loomer is a self-confessed white supremacist. She celebrated the deaths of migrants, and is an activist so extreme she was not only banned by Facebook, Venmo, PayPal, GoFundMe, and Instagram, but also by Uber and Lyft (How can you be banned by ride-hailing apps, I hear you ask. Well, they blacklisted Loomer for a hate-filled Twitter rant about “never want[ing] to support another Islamic immigrant driver.”)

Musk welcomed Loomer and many more like her back to Twitter on free-speech grounds. But, as Moynihan says, he “didn’t just let them back into the room so they could hang out in their own dark corner; he pulled them into the very centre of the action by regularly interacting with them” and passed their ideas on to a global audience.

You do not need to go too far down this road before you fall in with the George Soros conspiracy crowd. Viktor Orban uses  the Soros conspiracy theory to maintain his autocratic rule in Hungary. Across the world the notion that the progressive Jewish financier has the supernatural power to eradicate the white race by importing Muslim immigrants is the far-right equivalent of the far-left’s belief that the “Israeli lobby” controls the West.

With the predictability off darkness falling, Musk said of George Soros on 16 May, “He wants to erode the very fabric of civilization. Soros hates humanity.”

For me, the most telling indication of the direction of travel of Musk and an entire right-wing culture came after 6 May when Mauricio Garcia opened fire in the Allen Premium Outlets mall in Dallas, Texas, and killed eight people.

Investigators at the Bellingcat open-source intelligence site showed that, unsurprisingly, Garcia gave every appearance of being a neo-Nazi – a suspicion the local police confirmed.  Bellingcat (the name comes from the medieval fable of the mice who put a bell round a cat’s neck to warn of its approach) and the New York Times found what appeared to be his account on Odnoklassniki, a social media site for Russian speakers. The account praised Hitler. Meanwhile, Garcia carried evidence of his sympathies on his dead body, which was adorned with tattoos of swastikas and other Nazi symbols. For good measure, after the police shot him, they found Garcia had a patch on his chest that read “RWDS,” an acronym for the phrase “Right Wing Death Squad.” In other words, the investigating officers were not short of clues.

Musk would not have it. He impugned Bellingcat’s integrity saying it was running a “psyop”. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, he continued to deny the link between the extreme right and mass murder. The story was “bullshit,” he said on 17 May, more than a week after the event. The murderer wasn’t necessarily a white supremacist, he continued to maintain, and Bellingcat was still, somehow, pulling a con.

Musk had no evidence beyond his nutty prejudices. But then he did not need evidence. As Sartre understood, all Musk needs is the means to satisfy his “delight in acting in bad faith” – and Twitter gives him that.

His misinformation serves a dual purpose. Musk is not only rejecting prima facie evidence of far-right terrorism but serving the interests of Vladimir Putin. Bellingcat is hated by the far left and far right. It exposed Assad’s war crimes with cluster munitions and chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war, and helped show how Russian-backed forces were responsible for shooting down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17. The pro-Putin faction wants to smear Bellingcat’s meticulous accounts of crimes by Russia and its allies as lies. It is this faction Musk was boosting when he talked of Bellingcat running “psyops”, His attack on one of Russia’s leading critics complements his desire to appease Putin by allowing him to keep the Ukrainian territory he has illegally occupied.

Musk’s libertarianism is morphing from an ideology that insisted you should not censor people because they are far right, to an ideology that denies the existence of the far right. Where once men like Musk mocked leftwingers who said, in effect, that “everything I don’t like is fascist” now Musk says that actual fascists, white supremacists and authoritarian nationalists aren’t fascists, white supremacists and authoritarian nationalists.  To those who are “obliged to use words responsibly” the performance is absurd. But as Musk knows better than anyone, responsibility on the radical right is for losers.

Looking at Musk, Donald Trump and the wider US right, makes me believe that we need to revise our language. Instead of talking about “fascism” we should think instead about the histories of proto-fascist or pre-fascist movements. Let us not fall into liberal hysteria. America is not about to become a fascist society, whoever wins the next election. Donald Trump did not establish death camps when he was president and will not do so if he becomes president again.


Rather the US is closer to Europe in the late 19th century when the forerunners of what was to become fascism established themselves. Karl Lueger was the Donald Trump of Austro-Hungarian politics. He served as mayor of Vienna from 1897 to 1910, and used antisemitism to secure the support of the “left-behind” working and lower middle-class by telling them that Jews were "specialists in vile profits", determined to secure the "expropriation of the indigenous population". (As you can see, the Soros conspiracy theory has deep roots.) Lueger didn’t order the killing of Jews, anymore than Trump ordered the killing of Muslims, but his racist conspiracies inspired the young Adolf Hitler, who spoke of his admiration for Lueger in Mein Kampf. (Lueger also denounced the Austrian liberal press in true Trumpian fashion.)

The Dreyfus affair from 1894 to 1906 saw Catholic and conservative France embrace the lie that a Jewish army officer was a German spy, with the same grim enthusiasm that Elon Musk embraces far-right and Putinist propaganda today. A large portion of French conservatism went off on a flight into reactionary politics that was to end with the Vichy collaboration with the Nazi invaders.

Pre-fascism can best be understood as a breaking down of the border posts that separate mainstream conservatism from the far right. Anti-democratic ideas are no longer taboo. Conspiracy theories, conservatives once dismissed as mad, become respectable.

The case of Elon Musk shows that a large section of American conservatism is in the pre-fascist stage. It refuses to accept the results of legitimate elections. It prefers pandering to the dictator in the Kremlin to defending democracy in Ukraine – or, indeed, defending it in the United States. Rather than distancing itself from extremist movements and murderers, it denies their very existence.

If America were just another country, Musk and the millions who listen to him would matter less. But it remains the essential democracy, and if it falls, so does the rest of the West.

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19 days ago
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Damage limitation

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It has been a quiet week for Brexit news, but a revealing one too. The main story, if it is a story, is the latest though still not absolutely definitive report (£) that the government will pull back on the scope of scrapping Retained EU Law (REUL), so that it will ‘only’ remove 800 rather than all of the estimated 4000 pieces of legislation. That is still quite a lot of law that is going, and, crucially, there doesn’t as yet seem to be any confirmation of what these 800 laws are. Nor is it even clear whether the new plan is actually to ‘scrap’ all 800 or, as was originally proposed for the whole body of law, for this to be the default outcome but with provision to retain or amend in particular cases. So whilst this would be a sensible scaling back of the original plans, the damaging uncertainty about which parts of REUL will disappear, and when, remains.

As with all Brexit stories, this one has multiple dimensions and reveals much about the incoherence and inconsistency of the entire project.

A new pragmatism?

At one level, it is the latest sign, of which the Windsor Framework was the first, that Rishi Sunak’s government is more ‘pragmatic’ about Brexit than its predecessors. Notably, this decision seems to emanate from Kemi Badenoch, an enthusiastic Brexiter, in her newly expanded brief as Trade and Business Secretary which might suggest either that Sunak hopes that this will blunt the opposition of her fellow Brexiters or that, having to face the realities that they prefer to ignore, she, herself, has become a pragmatist.

Not that Sunak’s hands are clean. The Retained EU Law Bill started life under Boris Johnson as what was going to be the ‘Brexit Freedoms Bill’, and its legislative passage began, under the baleful stewardship of Jacob Rees-Mogg, during Liz Truss’s brief and disastrous premiership. But Sunak, in his ill-fated first bid to become Tory leader, was its enthusiastic champion, saying he would review or replace all REUL within the first 100 days of being Prime Minister. Then, as Prime Minister, he insisted it would go ahead in its original form as recently as this January even as a ‘senior government source’ was leaking that this was “impossible” (£).  

It may well be that in the first case this was purely to appeal to the Conservative membership voting in that leadership election, and in the second case was from fear of the ERG’s anger, something that their failure to derail the Windsor Framework now emboldens him to defy. If so, it serves to illustrate the wretched deformity that a relatively small number of Brexiter ideologues in the Tory Party have inflicted on politics. For without them, even given Brexit had happened, this self-evidently unworkable piece of legislation, which had even been ‘red-rated’ by the government’s independent Regulatory Policy Committee because of the inadequacy of its Impact Assessment process, would never have gone as far as it has. Nor would the retreat from it have had to be made inch-by-inch so as to avoid their tantrums, leaving things in this still indeterminate position.

The Brexiter reaction

Naturally it is all but impossible for Brexiters to recognize that what they had wanted was as impractical as it was undesirable. Ever the blameless victims, it had to be someone else’s fault. Thus, for some, Badenoch joined the list of those who, like Steve Baker, are deemed to have ‘sold out’ the true faith of Brexit purity. More commonly, in line with last week’s post, it was the lazy, incompetent and anti-Brexit civil service that got the blame.

Inevitably it was Rees-Mogg, in full spiteful schoolboy mode, who used his GB News bully pulpit to lead that line of attack, although it could be found across the Brexit bubble. Within that critique, the usual Brexiter simplism was also on display, with one pro-Brexit barrister claiming he could undertake all the work needed to scrap the full 4000 laws on his own in a year, or that a law firm could do so in a month.

Yet it's not entirely clear why this issue has become so totemic for Brexiters. Even in their own terms, to the extent that all these laws were carried over on to the UK statute book by vote of parliament, in the 2018 EU Withdrawal Act, they do not violate the principle of sovereignty. Indeed, if anything, it is the power the REUL Bill’s provisions give the Executive which does so (£).

In any case, when the 2018 legislation, described as the ‘Great Repeal Act’, was passed, let alone before the 2016 referendum, few if any Brexiters said, as Rees-Mogg does now, that passing the REUL Bill is “fundamental to the completion of Brexit”. So it seems to be yet another example of Brexiters making ever-harder demands for ‘true Brexit’ and, in the process, creating new tests to enable themselves to proclaim a “betrayal of Brexit”, in ways which even some Brexit supporters are beginning to see is ridiculous.

If there is no good Brexiter argument for the principle of the Bill, and especially for its original scope and speed, what is their case for its substance? Here, there is a remarkable coyness. There must be more than a suspicion that their desire is significant reduction in, in particular, employment rights, including the provisions of the EU Working Time Directive, although even Truss ruled out Rees-Mogg’s proposals for this as “half-baked”.

Certainly, now, Brexiters, including Rees-Mogg, are insistent that no diminution of employment rights or environmental protections is envisaged, instead talking airily of “pettifogging” product standards which supposedly make the UK less competitive and are “just annoying to people”, giving the example of vacuum cleaner power, apparently a reference to the EU rules introduced in 2017.

REUL and product standards

Reportedly (£), when Badenoch asked ERG members to identify examples of retained EU laws they wanted repealed, it was product standards that they, too, came up with. Although it’s not clear which product standards they were referring to, she rejected this suggestion “as Business Secretary and as a mother”.

That rather curious formulation doesn’t reveal what her specifically maternal concerns are, but perhaps she knows her Brexiter colleagues well enough to suspect they might not baulk at a good pinch of arsenic in baby food, just as they would perhaps regard sending small children up chimneys as a good way of boosting competitiveness, with the added benefit of giving woke and snowflake youths a short, sharp lesson in traditional British values.

However, the significance of Badenoch’s business brief is clear enough. Right across the business world there is substantial concern about the REUL Bill, with Roger Barker of the Institute of Directors criticising its entire approach and saying “ideally, we would like to see this Bill dropped”. Bluntly, those who know anything about product standards are quite happy to see the relevant retained EU law stay retained.

Of course, in the strange new world of Brexiter Conservatism, business and its representative bodies are seen as part of the whole ‘remainer Establishment blob’ but, that aside, this pre-occupation with diverging from EU product standards reveals one of the key ways that Brexiters don’t understand the single market, or the role of regulation in modern trade generally. Nor do they understand why, for both consumers and businesses, harmonized product standards are highly desirable.

For consumers, they offer a reliable guarantee without the need to delve into the technical minutiae of comparing UK and EU standards or worrying about compatibility issues. That guarantee may extend, as in the vacuum cleaner example, to the environmental impact of the product. As for people finding EU regulations annoying, in February last year Rees-Mogg, then the Brexit Opportunities Minister, called for the public to identify laws they wanted scrapped but, although the full results have never been reported, it seems to have yielded only trivial results. Certainly nothing has been heard of it since, rather like yet another absurd Rees-Mogg initiative, the government consultation on the supposedly burning public desire to remove the EU prohibition on selling goods using imperial measures only, which closed last August with the results still unpublished and probably quietly filed in the ‘Brexit stupidity archive’.

For businesses, far from divergence making them more competitive it makes them less so to the extent that it forces them to produce to different standards for the UK (or GB) and EU markets. Indeed, that’s well-illustrated by the fact that, to the relief of all British mothers, UK manufacturers will choose to follow the new EU standards on arsenic in baby foods, even if the British government doesn’t adopt them. It’s true that maintaining product standard alignment doesn’t in itself maintain all the benefits of single market membership, but it does reduce the costs of having given up membership. Clearly the same thing applies to conformity assessment marking, and it is to be hoped that the apparent turn to pragmatism over REUL will be followed by the final scrapping of the long-delayed UKCA mark* and that it, too, will be lodged in the Brexit stupidity archive where even Rees-Mogg seems to realise it belongs.

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, this is not to deny that, Brexit having happened, there may be some areas where UK divergence makes sense. But that needs to be decided on a case-by-case basis, involving consultation with those who have relevant expertise or legitimate interests, undertaken in a sensible timescale, and with open public and political debate and parliamentary scrutiny. The REUL Bill process meets none of these criteria, even in its slimmed-down form (though the scale is more realistic). They are even more important if what is envisaged is indeed, despite the denials, the downgrading of employment rights or environmental protections.

The legacy of lies

All this would be true anyway, but it is made more true by the persistent dishonesty and bad faith with which Brexiters sold their project, and their long track-record of careless ignorance about what that project entails. This makes it all too easy to believe that the REUL Bill covers malign intent and/or that it will inadvertently create legislative and regulatory blackholes.

There is no better illustration of that mixture of the dishonesty, bad faith and careless ignorance than Boris Johnson. Whilst not exactly a news story, the full horror of Johnson’s premiership is freshly revealed with the publication yesterday of Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell’s book Johnson at 10. The Inside Story. I haven’t read it yet and I’m not sure I could bear to do so, but the extracts (£) that have already been published, the early reviews, and an interview with Seldon paint an almost unbelievable, but all too easily believable, picture. It’s not just one of incompetence, venality and vanity, but of a person so psychologically and morally empty as to be unfit for even the lowliest position of responsibility, let alone that of Prime Minister.

It's a terrible indictment of the Conservative Party, and perhaps of the whole political system, that he ever came to power. As regards Brexit, specifically, it may be over-reductive to say that it wouldn’t have happened without Johnson, but he must have made a difference and, in such a close vote, even a small difference may have been decisive. It would certainly be untrue to say that he was alone in bringing grotesque dishonesty to the Vote Leave campaign, and for that reason it is hard to feel much sympathy for those ‘principled’ Brexiters who always knew he was ‘not one of them’. For they were happy enough to have him as their front man, just as those ‘liberal Brexiters’ who affect to despise Nigel Farage were happy enough with the votes be brought.

Leaving aside his role in the referendum, Johnson’s impact on how Brexit subsequently played out was utterly malign. Of the many examples that could be given, perhaps the most disgusting was what he did with the Northern Ireland Protocol, about which he lied to the electorate and to his own MPs and as a result of which he deeply damaged the UK’s international reputation and caused long-term harm to UK-EU relations. At the same time, he showed not just carelessness about Northern Ireland and its fragile peace, but reckless contempt.

The politics of damage limitation

Like the Windsor Framework, the tentative retreat from the REUL Bill is an example of repairing the worst of Johnson’s damage, as is the recent news that Sunak is seeking a new deal over passport checks. A report this week from the House of Lords European Affairs Committee points to further ways in which the UK-EU relationship could be improved, and the new EU Envoy to the UK has recognized that, post-Windsor, this is now a possibility.

These are all welcome things, so far as they go, but they amount to no more than damage limitation. And even the damage they are very slowly limiting is that of the way Brexit was done by Johnson and others – amongst whom should certainly be numbered Theresa May, who’s early ‘red lines’ so constrained the parameters of how it was done – rather than the damage inherent in Brexit itself.

It is tempting to demand something better than gradual damage limitation from a future Labour government, but the biggest constraint upon that is the massive row that, under that or any government, Brexiter politicians and journalists kick up even at damage limitation, let alone anything bolder. It is they, as the instigators and defenders of Brexit, who bear primary responsibility not just for it having happened but for the political difficulties of addressing its failure now.

It is too much to expect it of Johnson, but if just one of the high-profile advocates of Brexit in 2016 had the honesty and courage to admit they had made a mistake that would help. To the extent that it might lead to more of them doing so it could make a decisive difference. Not one has done so. Until that happens, we seem set to limp on, a nation that has shot itself in one foot and is now trying to compensate by slowly fashioning a rudimentary crutch, all the time shackled and heckled by those who insist that to do so is a betrayal of hopping.




*As always, it’s more complex than this. One possibility is that the UK government decides to continue to recognize CE marking as valid for goods placed on the UK market as a whole (GB and NI). That wouldn’t mean scrapping UKCA marking but in practice, as with the baby food example, businesses would probably choose to use the CE mark. Another possibility is that UKCA marking will be required, but could be used without additional testing/ certification for goods which have been tested/ certified for CE conformity. There are also issues about what the fate of the planned UKNI mark will be. And there are different issues for, specifically medical devices. For an overview (though note it predates the most recent extension) see the briefing from Lexology. Clearly there is an interaction between decisions about product standards made in relation to REUL, and also those about whether to mirror (i.e. align with) subsequent changes in EU law, and if so in which areas, and those about conformity assessment testing, certification and marking. This whole area is a minefield and goes to the heart of the practical complexity of slogans about ‘taking back control’ and ‘sovereignty’, especially given the extensiveness of UK-EU trade and supply chain integration.

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32 days ago
"we seem set to limp on, a nation that has shot itself in one foot and is now trying to compensate by slowly fashioning a rudimentary crutch, all the time shackled and heckled by those who insist that to do so is a betrayal of hopping."
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After today’s results, Sunak will need to give people reasons to vote Tory again. Does he have any? | Rafael Behr

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There’s still time for spells of competence from No 10 – but the Tory machine could collapse as the party goes into panic mode

Following the Westminster adage that Tory MPs are always cycling between complacency and panic, Rishi Sunak should brace himself for a party conniption in response to English local election results.

The Conservative mood has been optimistic of late, relative to the apocalyptic defeatism that gripped the party in the aftermath of Liz Truss’s auto-combustible misrule.

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32 days ago
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Media freedom in dire state in record number of countries, report finds

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World Press Freedom Index report warns disinformation and AI pose mounting threats to journalism

Media freedom is in dire health in a record number of countries, according to the latest annual snapshot, which warns that disinformation, propaganda and artificial intelligence pose mounting threats to journalism.

The World Press Freedom Index revealed a shocking slide, with an unprecedented 31 countries deemed to be in a “very serious situation”, the lowest ranking in the report, up from 21 just two years ago.

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35 days ago
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