Digital Britain – Liberty in Britain

There’s two massively important movements taking place right now in Britain, here are some important connections between them. I’ve already written a little about the Digital Britain interim report but more importantly Charles Leadbeater has written a lot and put it all together in a handy portable pdf. Download it here.

The original report either isn’t aware of, or Lord Carter, it’s author, didn’t have the balls to ask some big questions. Leadbeater does. There’s far to many to list here, go read the document, however I will highlight one important conclusion.

It strikes me, as it has done Leadbeater, that the government on the one hand is proposing what they think is an ambitious drive to take the UK’s new media industry and infrastruture forward into the next quarter century. Yet they don’t want to involve us, the public. Moreover, they patently don’t trust us.

Reading Digital Britain one cannot help but feel the government finds the opportunities for people to self-organise through the web all too unsettling for its more technocratic, controlling tendencies. Digital Britain conveys none of the excitement that many young people feel about the world of semi-structured free association that mutual media is creating. This interim report, written behind closed doors in an era of open communications, is little more than piece of space filling to persuade us the government has a vision for the future when in reality it seems to have none, at least not yet. (A model of what can be done, even in government, is the parallel The Power of Information report, which is fully of exciting recommendations for how government can open up its information for citizens to use in novel ways. )

The government say that the UK must be allowed compete with the most advanced nations on Earth and to do this we must have an advanced IT infrastructure. But to use an advanced infrastructure, to create an advanced infrastructure, we must have entrepreneurs, thinkers, dreamers and digital literates. And they must be given tools and those tools imparted with trust.

— —

This basic mistrust of us the people is the reason the Convention on Modern Liberty not only happend this weekend, but was much needed. What could have been another umbrella demo by the SWP and their ilk has the potential to be a real political movement. Here’s why.

Henry Porter quotes David Cameron in today’s Observer. Scarily I agree with him:

“When academics look back on Labour’s time in power,” he said, “the erosion of our historic liberties will surely be one of its most defining, and damning, aspects. Things we have long thought were part of the fabric of liberty in this country – such as trial by jury, habeas corpus with strict limits on the time that people can be held without charge, the protection of parliament against intrusion by the executive – have been whittled away.”

And Nick Clegg from the same article is a little less dramatic but a little more on point:

“We are the most spied-upon country in the developed world, with a million innocent people’s DNA on a criminal database, more surveillance cameras than anywhere in the world, parents snooped on by council officials checking up on where children spend the night, and ceaseless attempts by government to limit our freedom of expression. That’s why the work of the Convention on Modern Liberty is so important in highlighting the liberties we have lost and inspiring a new alliance in Britain to take our freedoms back.”

Both of these quotes go back to the trust issue. Nobody highlighted this issue better than Philip Pullman in his address to the convention. If Clegg highlighted the problems above, Pullman took the higher road and asked us what sort of society we WANT to live in. For if we don’t know the answer to that what have we got to complain about and what have we to aim at.
Courage, virtue, intellectual curiousity, modesty and honour are five big optimistic virtues that are pulled out and analyzed. You won’t find me arguing.

Just imagine for a moment a nation with the courage, with the modesty, with a simple wakeful clarity of mind that are so
near at hand, so easy to find, if only we knew. Imagine a government that trusted the people who elected it. Imagine agencies of the state that regarded the people’s privacy as something it was the state’s duty to guard, rather like the value of their money and the historic individuality of their town centres and their freedom to speak and write as they like. Imagine a nation that cherished these things as a kind of natural blessing, something obviously good that needed no justification, something like sunshine or kindness or clean water. Or honour.

Now what have these things to do with freedom and the threats to freedom we have been hearing about today? What has the virtue of delight to do with virtue of liberty. Everything. A nation whose laws express fear and suspicion cannot sustain delight for very long; joy does not flourish in the garden of anxiety. The society these laws seem to be designed to bring about is one of institutionalised paranoia of furtive hatred and low-level panic, every scrap of delight and gladness we can find is a blow against that fear; every instance of civility and kindness we come across is a clean wind dispersing a foul vapour. Every example we cherish of imaginative play, of the energy of creation and of the enchantment of art and the wonder of science is a weapon in the arsenal and I say weapon, advisedly: we have a fight on
our hands. “I will not cease from mental fight”, said William Blake, and this is the fight he meant. The fight to defend, to restore, and to sustain the virtue which is not now but could so easily be, the natural behaviour of the state.

We are a better people than our government believes we are; we are a better nation.

That really is a big concept yet one that you won’t find on the manisfesto for government of any of the major parties. At least not yet you won’t. That could change.

Full Digital Britain Breakfast

I was at the NESTA hosted Digital Britain debate this morning. The format was unimaginative; Jonathan Kestenbaum – NESTA CEO – gave the intros and moderated, Lord Carter – Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting – had the floor to himself for 15 minutes and then Neil Berkett, Virgin Media CEO and Peter Bazalgette, former Endemol big man, joined in and took some audience responses. And a single twitter question.
The full podcast of the event is here so feel free to make up your own mind on proceedings.

Just a couple of thoughts to round out the day.
Carter and Berkett both took a standard government/regulator line and private sector line respectively. Bazelgette took a more thoughtful approach and added some genuine insight, particularly in the area of content. More of this please Peter.

Both Nico MacDonald and Charlie Leadbeater sought to bring from the floor end-users into the debate but didn’t get very far. That was a real shame as it’s a glaring omission from the interim report. Hopefully one that will be rectified by the time the final missive is assembled.

Burkett’s 100Mbps Virgin deal will continue to be nothing but a fat pipe dream to millions, so let’s not get distracted by ISPs’ continued fluffy marketing claims.

The concept of a digital dividend was raised and alluded to at length. This struck me as a dangerous concept. A divided is a payout on shares when times for a company are good. A means by which to reward the shareholders. In this context it sounds like Carter and company are suggesting that by merely building infrastructure and bringing in human capital we’ll reap rewards. This is patently ridiculous. We still need the original content, the services and the entrepreneurial activity to sit on top of the infrastructure to turn investment into reward. A Digital Britain is not an end in itself. There’s no easy dividend coming out of any of these initatives and this language to my mind is going to do nobody any good.

Other interesting bits and bytes: the BBC to become an open platform in ten years, 50Mbps broadband for all within the several and a what-if there was government funding for local public micro-content creators. If that happens we’ll all be reaping the Digital dividend.

Anyway, go watch the video. Or even better, download and read the report. And of course check out the twitter back channel that took place during the discussion.


I’m reminded by this post from @anomymoustom that a robust look at privacy is a huge omission from the interim report. But then it’s been a huge omission from any legislation the the current UK government have been responsible for over the past 12 years. So no surprises there.

Potato Fair Play

As you’ll see if you take a look over on right now I was up early this morning visiting what I believe is London’s only annual Potato Fair. I was with four longtime patrons of the event who provided plenty of advice, but the most important piece was “get there early”. They weren’t wrong, by 10.30am I was in a bustling school féte scene straight out of the Archers.

I could write for hours about the great varieties on display, from the bog standard Golden Wonder to the brilliantly named Skerry Blue and my own personal favourite the Sharpe’s Express, but it was the sheer fact that this was taking place in the middle of London that impressed me most. George Monbiot wrote a lighthearted piece recently about his love forapple varieties. Well and good I thought at the time. But attending something like the Potato Fair and seeing the variety of potatoes alone we have in our soil is simply amazing. And it’s also terribly depressing. 95% of these varieties will never hit the shops. Tesco, Lidl and Aldi have no interest in small lots with smaller margins and the vast majority of the population don’t know what they’re missing. Shame.

Here are some photos from my Flickr account.

Pink Fir Apple

Potato Fair

Potato Fair

Politically motivated change: No hope

[Sweeping away the old (by flashbak)]
Sweeping away the old (by flashbak)

Nine times out of ten if I was asked to pick between an parliamentary and presidential democracy as an ideal way to govern a country I’d chose the former. From what I can see it establishes a closer bond between the electorate/community and the parliamentarian who represents them. It allows for a more representative government and cabinet. And the party in power acts as a natural ego check for the prime minister. In theory.

But yesterday was a great example of how a presidential style system can and should work. Out with the old and in with the new. The breath and breadth of fresh air rolling down the Mall was absolutely tangible. In one fell swoop America gets the clean start it is crying out for. And so does the world.

Looking at the parliamentary systems in the UK and Ireland leaves me with little hope for a clean out or clean up. Labour lose the next election and we get the Tories. Hardly something that will bring the spring clean fresh smell to Westminster and the country. And there’s no hope now I think of reviving New Labour, with or without Brown.

And in Ireland the situation is even more depressing. The Fine Gael as the main opposition offer no alternative vision for the country. Fintan O’Toole in yesterday’s Irish Times suggests they simply merge and get on with it leaving Labour as a proper opposition.

On the anniversary of the first Dáil, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, who share an analysis of the crisis, need to form a unified government, leaving Labour, which does not share that analysis, to lead a coherent opposition.

That’s as sensible a suggestion as any other I suppose but not like likely to happen leaving voters in the British Isles with no hope of Obama-like change being led by our politicians. We’ll just have to implement the change we need without them.