The Paranoid Style Of Resentful Remainers

I have just read Carole Cadwalladr’s strange fever dream of an article, published in the Observer today. Britain’s vote to leave the EU was not a legitimate expression of the popular will—a culmination of years of condescension and neglect from an increasingly discredited political class—it was instead the result of a right-wing plot peopled by billionaires and “data scientists” (“You’re a wizard, Harry”) who used “sophisticated algorithms” (not spells?, ed.) to target and subtly coerce a small but significant number of credulous Facebook users to shuffle to the voting booths on June 23rd and mark the box labelled “Leave the European Union” with an “X”.

That may sound like the backstory for one of the lesser Bond films (maybe something from the Pierce Brosnan era), but Cadwalladr would have us believe (I’m sure that she believes) that “it were the big data wot won it”.

The story she tells is not wholly inaccurate. Cambridge Analytica is a real firm. The company may have done work (in some capacity) for Leave.EU and (probably in a much more significant capacity) for Donald Trump. But “big data” (or “data”, as it was known before the marketing bods got to work) is not magic. Nor are the techniques that campaign groups employ anything particularly new, as Conservative Councillor, Simon Cooke, explains here.

However, a simple narrative and a journalist who wants to believe are not easily parted. Ironically, another true believer (at least that’s how it appears to me) is the former Campaign Director for Vote Leave Ltd., Dominic Cummings.

Cummings has made several big boasts about his campaign “do[ing] things in the field of data that have never been done before”. That includes the Voter Intention Collection System, or VICs, about which Cummings wrote a long blog post. This is why I can only assume that Cummings is as ignorant as Cadwalladr. If he knew what he was talking about—unless he is playing an extraordinarily elaborate joke of Andy Kaufman-esque proportions—he would be embarrassed to share such shoddy work.

If the appalling campaign were not evidence enough, the VICs project ought to disabuse anybody of the idea that Vote Leave was the product of a strategic mastermind, using the remarkable power of big data analytics to get one over on “the establishment”.

Not only did Cummings write a self-aggrandising blog post about the system, he also published the VICs source code on GitHub, prompting no less a figure than the BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, to write a laughable puff piece, repeating several of Cummings’ claims.

As an aside, given the very high regard the BBC has for itself, Kuenessberg should know better than to take Cummings’ assessment of his own work as gospel. The BBC must have people on its staff who could have looked over the code and provided an expert opinion, if requested. Failing that, the BBC political editor could have called any university computer science department in the country and asked any one of several hundred (thousand?) professors to give their opinion of what was published.

For what it’s worth, I did have a look at the source code, and to say that what I saw was unimpressive is an understatement. The parts of the VICs system that can be viewed on GitHub amount to little more than a half-finished web app. The idea that this was the “data analytics” tool that gave Vote Leave an edge in the campaign is ridiculous.

How ridiculous is summarised in this piece by Joshua Carrington, who went to the trouble of building the various dependencies and compiling the source.

If Stronger In did not have an equivalent, or even a superior system, I would be surprised.

As far as I was concerned, Cummings’ blog post read like a pitch for work. But the journos bought it, so I guess it did its job.

Similarly, this line from an anonymous source, referred to only as David in the Cadwalladr piece, made me laugh out loud:

Robert Mercer did not invest in [Cambridge Analytica] until it ran a bunch of pilots – controlled trials. This is one of the smartest computer scientists in the world. He is not going to splash $15m on bullshit.

Have these people never heard of the dot-com bubble?

In closing, this is yet another article aiming to identify a “prime mover” responsible for a result that caught the legacy press and the political parties off guard and which many among that demographic have not yet come to terms with. The fact of the matter is that the EU is not very popular in the UK and it never was. The lie that says the EU is primarily an economic rather than a political project is increasingly difficult to maintain. The British electorate never felt that they had given their consent for their nation to be merged with other European states and subordinated to a supranational executive called the Commission. The ongoing disaster in the eurozone and the fact that the Armageddon we were promised if Britain did not join the single currency never arrived also emboldened people. I could go on.

Success may have many fathers while failure is an orphan, but it does not seem that any paternity test will soothe the paranoids who write this drivel for the Guardian and the Observer.

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No Maps For These Territories

During the referendum campaign, Stronger In said that seeking to rejoin EFTA in order to participate in the EEA agreement would leave the UK, like Norway, with “no say” over “EU rules”.

Post-referendum, that mantra was taken up by the “hard Brexit” crowd. Am I the only person who finds that strange?

The pretexts that are offered for opposing an EFTA/EEA transition now are practically identical to those that were offered during the campaign: money, regulation and immigration.

The “hard Brexiteers” say that participating in the EEA means paying into the EU budget, which it does not. Called on that one, they shift to saying that the EEA costs too much and that the UK would be better off without the “burdensome” regulation they associate with the Single Market. Presumably, these people are proposing a cost-free alternative? It is impossible to know; the “hard Brexit” crowd are long on criticism and short on ideas.

Free trade agreements, especially those of the “deep and comprehensive” variety apparently favoured by the May government involve shared bureaucracy, for which somebody has to pay. Furthermore, Britain’s domestic regulatory and administrative agencies will almost certainly have to expand as policy-making powers are brought back under the UK umbrella. Those also cost money.

In short, any cost-savings that accrue from not having to pay directly into the EU budget will not be saved or made available for spending on the NHS. They will have to be reinvested in many of the same activities that are currently outsourced to the EU. Indeed, many of those activities would be even better handled at a local level. What and how powers should be dispersed is the kind of question Brexit demands that we discuss.

The sterile non-debate, hosted in the legacy press, in which the usual eurowhingers drone on and on about their opposition to any remotely realistic proposals, while offering no alternatives of their own, is of no use to anybody.

International co-operation costs money. That’s a fact. But, supranational EU institutions are far from the only, let alone the best or even most appropriate means to facilitate cross-border collaboration.

Technical standards for trade are another area where the conversation has been allowed to become much too narrow. Leaving the EU demands (that word again) that the British electorate think about and discuss what an independent trade policy can deliver. The UK market is not big enough to create an alternative centre of gravity and compete head-on with the so-called “Brussels effect” (formerly the California effect), and nor do we need to. Greater agility and enhanced accountability will enable us to build new alliances, work to embrace and extend the multilateral trading system, and also encourage new voices to have their say.

Accepting an EFTA/EEA interim would near-enough guarantee that the UK is in a position to leave the EU once the scheduled Article 50 timeline expires. The UK could immediately jettison two-thirds of the EU acquis and start to look to the future, working to rebuild our long-neglected national and local governance. An imaginative approach to areas such as agriculture, fisheries, environmental and energy policy has the potential to yield significant gains.

Contrary to establishment myth-making, neither does the EFTA/EEA route involve accepting the continued jurisdiction of the ECJ. The EFTA Court is an existing entity with an independent track record which, crucially, unlike May’s promised “deep and special partnership”, actually exists. Who knows what the Tory Party will assent to given the option to present us with their version of “Brexit”?

Finally, the EEA agreement also includes safeguard measures—a standard feature of almost every international treaty (the supranational EU is very much the exception in that regard)—which Lietchtenstein was able to leverage to negotiate a permanent opt-out from freedom of movement while also retaining participation in the Single Market.

In brief, an EEA type deal offers a stable path out of the EU, would not involve paying into the EU budget, would not involve accepting the continued jurisdiction of the ECJ, and need not necessarily involve full freedom of movement. None of the three pretexts offered by the politicians and the legacy press are true. Yet, the UK government has already said that the rate of immigration may increase after Brexit and that they would be willing to accept the continuing jurisdiction of the EJC for the duration of an (as yet unspecified) “implementation phase”. Perversely, the people who attack the EEA agreement do not attack the government for making proposals which are ostensibly much worse and a lot less “hard” than the “hard Brexiteers” present themselves as being.

For the time being, however, the legacy debate is mired in a tussle over who is more obnoxious, Theresa May or Jean-Claude Junker…