A few words from one of Thatcher’s children….

I was 14 when Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979: to say that she cast a shadow over my youth is to vastly underestimate her impact on my life then, and my life now. When I heard about her death I didn’t really know what to say or to think. Mostly I felt numb – and lots of memories came flooding back. Lots of feelings, lots of emotions. Not exactly anger, just a kind of empty sadness. It’s hard even to write about it now. It’s not sadness about me, or about her, but more about humanity in general – because what I learned as one of ‘Thatcher’s children’ more than anything else was that all too often, the ‘bad guys’ win.

I was a politically active teenager, full of hope and optimism – Thatcher’s victory in 1979, and then even more so her landslide in 1983 did their very best to destroy that hope and optimism. It felt as though everything that I thought was good about people – fellow-feeling, community, caring about each other, even love – was being subsumed beneath things I thought were bad about people – selfishness, greed, hatred, divisiveness, aggression. Pretty much all the things that I liked about the way our country worked – the NHS, the comprehensive education system, the transport system – were being systematically degraded, insulted and taken apart. I remember when the buses were privatised where I lived, and suddenly the last bus home in the ‘evening’ was at 5.20pm. I remember the glorification of war-mongering in the way the Falklands War was celebrated….

I was hugely insulated from the real damage, and only saw it peripherally. I lived in leafy Cambridge as a teen, then went to work in London in 1986, when the greed-riven culture was at its peak. I was an accountant in the City when Thatcher won again in 1987 – I campaigned fruitlessly for Labour, and wore a lapel badge on my suit, to the huge laughter of my colleagues. The seeds were sown then for the disasters that we’re all feeling now – the deregulation that Thatcher began bore its real, poisoned fruit in 2008. Then, though, I was told, again and again – and almost came to believe – that I was wrong about everything. Greed really WAS good. Selfishness really WAS the root to success. There really was no such thing as society.

There was a good side to it too – a side that still gives me pleasure when I remember it. All those protest marches – some great times. Singing ‘Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, OUT, OUT, OUT!’ Picketing Barclays Bank for their involvement with Thatcher’s beloved Apartheid South Africa – and getting a result, much to her disgust. All that brilliant anti-Thatcher music – from the Beat’s sublime Stand Down Margaret to UB40’s Madam Medusa, from the Specials’ classic Ghost Town to Elvis Costello’s excoriating Tramp the Dirt Down – and later that whole genre of anti-Thatcher films. Pete Postlethwaite’s speech in Brassed Off still brings tears to my eyes.

The main lesson that I learned from Thatcher, as I said at the start of this, was that the bad guys do win. Often. And in ways that seem to suggest something about human nature that is, to me at least, hugely unpleasant. And yet even that can be a good lesson – not to let yourself be too beaten down. No matter how badly they hit you, no matter how much of a minority you feel, no matter how much you feel that you’re losing, never give up. I have to remind my self of that now, as the same thing seems to be happening again in so many ways. The echoes of the 80s are all too clear, and not just in the Conservative Party. That’s the saddest thing – but the thing that makes me clearer than ever that I’m not going to give up. Even if everyone else thinks I’m wrong, I’m still going to fight for what I think is right.

Thatcher taught me that – I don’t think it’s what she wanted to teach me, but that’s what I learned. I don’t feel emotional about her as a person – her death leaves me curiously numb – but I care deeply and passionately about her legacy. It’s probably pointless, but I’m not going to give up. I don’t want a society where greed, individualism and selfishness dominate – and I don’t believe that’s the only way. Maybe it’s pointless, maybe we’re bound to lose… but even if it is, I’m not going to give up.

A privacy friendly future?

UPDATE: The slides for this presentation are now online here.

Later this week I shall be attending BILETA – the British and Irish Law, Education and Technology Association conference – at Liverpool Law School. In technology terms it’s a venerable institution and a long standing event: this will be the 28th annual conference. I’ve attended the last four, and talked about privacy-related subjects in all of them. Looking back at them, what surprises me is that, despite some of the doom-laden stuff that I write and talk about, I seem to be getting more rather than less optimistic.

The very fact that the subject I’m presenting on this week is ‘A Privacy-Friendly Future?’, albeit with a crucial question mark, gives a hint as to my overall view. The future of privacy on the internet is very much in the balance, in my opinion – but a few years ago I would have said that the balance was tilted hugely in one direction – against privacy – and now I’m not quite so sure.

My talk will explain why I think this is so. There are a number of key reasons to feel less than completely depressed about privacy. There have been ‘victories’ of a sort over the last few years, from the defeat of that most intrusive of behavioural advertisers, Phorm, to the (at least short term) rebuffing of the Communications Data Bill. The well-orchestrated defeats of SOPA, PIPA and ACTA even had their privacy elements. What’s more, even businesses seem to be getting the privacy bug. That old dinosaur Microsoft’s bold stance that Do Not Track should be ‘on’ by default on Internet Explorer, and Mozilla’s decision to block third party cookies by default on the latest version of Firefox are both signals. They may not work – indeed, Microsoft’s decision may be counterproductive in the short term, as advertisers choose to simply ignore the Do Not Track setting – but they are still significant. Significant in that they show that privacy has become a selling point – that doing things that are ‘privacy-friendly’ and being seen to do things that are privacy-friendly are viewed as being good for business.

Other privacy-friendly technology, is developing apace, and getting more user-friendly all the time – track-blockers like Ghostery and DoNotTrackMe, VPN and proxy services like hidemyass.com, TOR etc, privacy-friendly search engines like duckduckgo.com and startpage are simple, functional and attractive – and in their basic forms free.

Of course these are in many ways little things, and at the same time we have such privacy nightmares as Facebook’s new ‘Home’ and technology like Google Glass pushing the privacy-invasive envelope in previously unimaginable ways, and governments pushing for more and more surveillance all the time.

Will the privacy-invaders win? Or do we have a chance to create a privacy-friendly future? Ultimately, I think we still do. The bottom line of my hopeful outlook is that surveys seem to suggest that this, in the end, is what people want. One of the most recent such surveys, by Ovum, suggest ‘that 68 percent of the Internet population across 11 countries would select a “do-not-track” (DNT) feature if it was easily available‘ – and that this figure is pretty consistent around the world. In particular, the people of the US are just as keen not to be tracked as those in Europe. What’s more, the more people learn about what’s happening, the more they seem to care. And they will learn – privacy is much bigger news than it was when I first started working in this field. It’s no longer just a subject for geeks and tin-foil hat-wearers.

Ultimately, what the people want, they will get. Businesses will respond – and they’re beginning to. Governments will respond – in the UK, the way that the Communications Data Bill was given a thorough bashing will have raised a few eyebrows, and may have started a few people thinking differently. I hope so.

It’s still very much in the balance – but right now, it feels possible, where a few years ago it felt all-but impossible. I hope I’m right….

A challenge to Labour

Earlier today, Sunny Hundal tweeted this:

“What does it say when Michael Portillo does a better job than Labour in attacking Cameron over Trident remarks?”

A long and interesting twitter conversation followed, involving a large number of people, including @StarSparkle_UK  @Peter_Kirkham  @wlate17  @psimonk  @seth2342  @dbudlov  @marxuquera amongst others.

The gist of the conversation (as I saw it) was a general dissatisfaction with the kind of ‘opposition’ that Labour was providing, and whether that reflected a failure of party politics as a whole, or just of Labour in particular. Some of the people thought it meant that we should give up on party politics altogether – others that party politics was the only way to do things.

I’m not sure what I feel about that – but I am sure that I’m highly dissatisfied with the Labour Party, as I recently ranted… see here….

There are many things I’m dissatisfied about – not least the abysmal behaviour over workfare. To me, Labours policies and pronouncements over education, immigration, welfare, defence (see Sunny Hundal’s comments over Trident), civil liberties, transport and many other things are deeply disappointing. I struggle to find anything that I think Labour are doing right – with the honourable exception of Andy Burnham’s suggestions for the NHS.

So, my challenge to Labour is – convince me that I’m wrong! Tell me why people like me should support Labour. Tell me why I should join the Labour Party!

I don’t want to hear ‘Oh, because the Coalition are doing such terrible things.’ Yes, they are. But at the moment you’re effectively supporting them in doing them – and looking as though if you were in power you’d do pretty much the same, just with slightly softer words. I don’t know exactly what I DO want to hear – but something that offers me some hope.

Sunny, perhaps you could convince someone to write something for Liberal Conspiracy that would give me an answer. Something to convince me that I shouldn’t give up on Labour completely. I’d love to hear it….

Ignorance, wisdom, politicians and poverty…

socrates1I don’t expect much from politicians – but I would have hoped, particularly given the number of them who were educated at public schools and Oxbridge, that they have a little knowledge of Ancient Greece. Indeed, I’d expect Michael Gove to insist upon it. They should at least know a little of the ancient philosophers – and in particular the most famous of them all, Socrates.

Perhaps the most important idea to come from Socrates is also the simplest. Here’s a quote that expresses it directly:

“Well, I gave a thorough examination to this person – I need not mention his name, but it was one of our politicians … – and I formed the impression that although in many people’s opinion, and especially in his own, he appeared to be wise, in fact he was not. However, when I began to show him that he only thought he was wise and was really not so, my efforts were resented both by him and by many of the other people present. I reflected as I walked away: ‘Well, I am certainly wiser than this man. It is only too likely that neither of us has any knowledge to boast of; but he thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent – that I do not think that I know what I do not know.”

That’s it in a nutshell. I do not think that I know what I do not know. Socrates was wise because he knew that he was ignorant. He knew his limitations. He knew what he understood, and what he knew – and knew what he didn’t understand, and what he didn’t know.

When I read or hear politicians – particularly politicians in this government, but all too often politicians of all parties – talk about poverty, this always comes to mind. They’re talking about things they don’t understand at all – and they don’t seem to even know that they don’t understand. I’m a privileged person myself, with huge numbers of advantages. I’m male, white, middle class (even according to the new BBC class calculator), went to Cambridge, have a job and a home and a family – and though I’ve been through relatively hard times, to claim that I understand poverty and what it’s really like would be absurd. I’ve studied the subject, under one of the best teachers there’s ever been in this country, the late Peter Townsend, and I’ve travelled around the world and seen many different kinds of poverty. I’ve worked (briefly) with some very poor people indeed, both here and abroad. But to claim that I understand poverty? I don’t. I really don’t. But at least I know I don’t.

Perhaps the politicians know they don’t know, and just bluster about it because they really don’t care. Actually I doubt it. I suspect they really believe that they do know. They really believe the stuff they spout, at least about poverty. They really believe that people are only poor because of their own stupidity or profligacy. They haven’t even understood their own education – which should have taught them to know and accept when they don’t know or understand something.

If they did understand that they didn’t understand, then surely they’d do something to deal with their ignorance. Ask the people who really do know. Talk to them. Listen to them. Accept what they say. Sadly, I suspect it will never happen. Even to acknowledge their own ignorance is beyond their wisdom. Socrates was talking about a politician in Ancient Athens. Politicians today seem little different…


The quote from Socrates is from the Apology, written by Plato about his teacher

Demonisation by stages… a very short poem…

First they demonised the immigrants, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t an immigrant

Then they demonised disabled people, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t disabled

Then they demonised the unemployed, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t unemployed

Then they demonised people on benefits, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t on benefits

Then they went for people on minimum wage, but I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t on the minimum wage

When they went for me, everyone else was too tired and desperate to speak out at all


Apologies to Martin Niemöller, and for the Godwin, but this does seem really apt in the current climate. Stage by stage this government is systematically demonising and hurting people. I haven’t even mentioned things like the demonisation of the teaching profession, of those working in the NHS, of academics – but it all seems to be part of the same game. Divide and rule is only part of it. The demonisation is on each occasion a prelude to something direct and painful, not just ‘name-calling’, and if we are to have any chance of stopping it we need to challenge it at every level – including the rhetoric. The ‘strivers vs scroungers’ rhetoric, the ‘hard-working-families’ rhetoric, the ‘there’s no money left’ rhetoric, the ‘oh, they can downsize’ rhetoric.

There’s not much sign of this challenge from the opposition – as I’ve ranted before – so we are going have to do it ourselves. I hope we’re not too late.