Now for some action.
On the use of London property for money-laundering.
It is a deep-rooted problem and action will have a damaging impact. The spate of high-profile developments in London, particularly but not exclusively on Battersea Reach – either side of Nine Elms Lane, where the new American Embassy is being built and by Battersea Power Station – depends on this foreign investment to be economic. Even with it, it would seem that there’s building up for an over-supply at the high end, where one-beds are up to a million. But if you take the 30,000 units used to launder money out of the equation: price crash inevitable. Lots of Cameron’s mates will be hurt.
The issue is relatively easily solved, if Mr Cameron is willing. First, insist that all UK property be owned by individuals or by EU-incorporated companies subject to full disclosure of beneficial ownership. Transparency, as ever, is key.
Secondly, stop these properties being left empty. Keeping property empty in London, with its housing shortage, is nothing short of criminal. Properties left empty should be subject to punitive taxation, ideally through a reformed council tax, although if that can’t be done, they should be subject to business rates.
I make no bones about being a leftie, but leftism isn’t why I decided to join the Green Party. Climate change matters. Even if the GP never get to win power, their popularity influences policy in the parties that do. Whatever I think about the rest of the GP’s policies, they get my vote because climate change.
Roughly speaking, I’m with Corbyn 80% of the way. He’s right about railways and Trident and austerity, but wrong about renationalising electricity generation (we do it in our back yards now). And I’m deeply suspicious of arguments to preserve or rebuild union structures that gave corrupting levels of power to barely-accountable General Secretaries.
I’m about 55% with Burnham and Cooper, and about 35% with Kendall.
And maybe 5%, being generous, with Cameron or Osborne/Bojo/TessaMay
But I’m also 90% against Tories, 5% meh.
45% against Kendall, 20% meh
30% against Burnham and Cooper, and 15% meh.
10% against Corbyn and 15% meh.
So – if I paid my £3, which I won’t – who should I vote for?
It all depends on what is the probability of their beating the Tories. As it happens, I don’t agree with the Blairist analysis that Labour can only win from the centre-right. The difference between 1997 and 2020 is generation rent, and if they bother to vote the left can win. But the Tory press have a lot of power and will stir up the immigration question, about the only rightwing issue that will motivate generation rent outside the capital.
Corbyn doesn’t pander to it, the others do.
Now, could I really bring myself to vote for centrist Labour candidates who would pander to the implications of the immigration question, and go soft on media ownership, to avoid a skewering?
If the Blairist view is right, then – holding my nose – it might be the only way to prevent five more years of rampant Tory rule.
This is a long post in response to David Cameron’s speech, delivered yesterday at the Ninestiles school in Birmingham, about dealing with and countering extremism; and also to his support for further air strikes against Daesh in Syria.
David Cameron’s speech is one of the best he has ever given – which is not a particularly high accolade. On much of the diagnosis I agree with him wholeheartedly. Where I disagree is on the prescription. Much of his plan will make things worse.
I argue the case that the struggle against Daesh will be won or lost in cyberspace, and not on the battlefields of the Middle East. A military solution there will only entail more loss of life and more suffering. It is in cyberspace that the critical battles will be fought: on two grounds: the battle for ideas, and the battle for the command and control infrastructure. The battle for ideas is the one that must be won; but the battle for the command and control infrastructure is the most exciting. On both of these grounds, the West’s defences are lacking, its thinking constrained by the very military metaphor I am employing. Cameron, and the West – like Daesh – fall into the trap of believing that battles of ideas can be won by military means – whether in cyberspace or on the ground. They cannot: they win or lose purely on the merits of the ideas themselves.
The war against Daesh is part of a larger struggle that is already defining the first half of this century as the two world wars defined the first half of the last. Then it was empires against ideals, kings against republics, Germany against France, might against modernity. Now it is East against West, Islamism against what? against Christianity? against capitalism? against liberalism? against secularism? Against us, against our wooly universal values of freedom, secularism and democracy. Our enemy is what the fanatics at the heart of the movement see as Islam, not the Islam practised by most Muslims. It is what David Cameron describes as Islamic Extremism, and while we are the enemy of its practitioners, its enemy is our liberty.
In 1992, Francis Fukuyama announced The End of History, the triumph of liberal democracy over socialism. Fukuyama was describing the events that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. It was an important victory in the battle for free expression – but it was not the end of history, nor the inevitable success of capitalism over socialism. The Soviet Union was a regime so afraid of ideas that every typewriter and photocopier had to be registered with the authorities: but it was videotapes rather than the samizdat press that undermined it . Throughout the final quarter of the twentieth century, authoritarianism was in retreat: the military dictators of Latin America as much as the communist ones of Eastern Europe being replaced by relatively liberal democracies. Both communism and anti-communist militarism have been discredited as justifications for repression, but in the first half of the twenty-first century, Islam is being repurposed for the task.
It is not Islam’s fault that some people are hijacking it for the purposes of implementing repression. Nor is this hijacking purely the work of the daeshbags and others who believe what they are doing is somehow Islamic – the Taleban, what remains of al Quaeda, Boko Haram. It is just as beneficial to the West’s military-industrial complex to have an enemy to replace socialism. On both sides there are groups that benefit from conflict and who are using an ancient religious divide to foster it. That is to say, the frontline of the struggle that matters does not run between Islam and the West, but between those who would resolve matters with violence and repression, and those who choose the resolution of ideas on their merits, in a world where ideas and people are free.
Ideas are discredited, never destroyed.
The existence of the class of idea that Cameron calls “non-violent extremism” is an inevitable consequence of free expression. Some truly terrible ideas get out and about and are expressed. Most of them involve some censorship of countervailing ideas. The only effective way of dealing with them is to make our own countervailing ideas better – to win the argument on the merits, by letting all ideas compete for what global marketers like to call mindshare so the bad ones are discredited. This is an old argument and it needs to be made again and again, because there are always people who will try to censor ideas they do not like. Censorship strengthens a bad idea.
Non-violent extremism is best addressed by allowing it to be freely and openly expressed, so that it is discredited by its own contradictions. Cameron’s attack on the expression of non-violent extremism is the second biggest mistake we can make in dealing with it.
Military intervention will fail
The biggest mistake is to address it with military force. This is also what Cameron is proposing to do, in extending air strikes to Daesh bases in territory to the northwest of the Sykes-Picot line (that is, in the part of the world we decided in 1915 should be called Syria). Even the armchair generals agree that it is not likely to be particularly effective: they are calling for tanks on the ground. A sufficiently large tank force might be able to inflict military defeats on Daesh in the Levant, but it will be a very costly skirmish that could yet lose us the greater struggle.
The recent history of military intervention by the west is not even chequered: it is almost all failure. Two modest successes – Sierra Leone and Kosovo – stand against a depressing catalogue of failure. Of the others, the best result has been the long stalemate in Afghanistan. Libya, Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia were failures; the latter two’s emergence into relative liberty only occurring long after the military withdrew to lick their wounds. In Vietnam, a generation earlier, vastly superior American military expenditure and hardware failed to defeat the Vietcong and the brutality of the war strengthened the very bad idea that was Soviet communism.
Choosing favourite proxies on the ground to support with weapons and training is equally dangerous. It has certainly helped the emergence of Daesh in Syria, as the west assumed that any enemy of Assad must be a friend of ours. By focusing our diplomatic efforts on regime change rather than on conflict resolution we have helped to solidify Assad’s grip on power and hardened the divides in that country which was once a beacon of interfaith tolerance in the region. The inspiring Boys’ Own stories of the courage of the women and men of the Kurdish YPG in the battle for Kobane are a distraction, misleading us down the route of a military solution. This is a battle of ideas; there is no military solution.
Islam isn’t a bad idea
At the heart of Islam is a really rather beautiful idea. It’s the idea that there’s One God, for the whole world, not lots of different Gods for different communities. One God, One Love, One World. You don’t have to believe in the idea to appreciate its power and its beauty. It’s the idea that made Islam traditionally so tolerant of others – particularly other “people of the book”. The bundle of bad ideas we do have to discredit and defeat includes the murderous doctrines that drive Daesh, which are absolutely antithetical to the universal inclusiveness of Islam.
Cameron is, however, right to say that we need to build strong, tolerant multifaith communities at home as well as abroad. Such communities are witnesses for universal peace. It is, therefore, regrettable that much of what he prescribes – both within his Birmingham speech and as wider Conservative policy, is calculated to undermine them. Cuts in welfare aimed at larger families will disproportionately affect Muslim families and leave young men to grow up in the very conditions of deprivation that lead to alienation. The obligations and encouragement to report extremism are more likely to provoke a defensive closing-in of communities. Grassing-up your family or neighbour has never been a core British value.
So if not Cameron’s prescription – a revamped Prevent as a Tory Stasi operating in Muslim communities – what then? What can the Government do, what can we as citizens do, and what – in particular – can good Muslims do?
Support interfaith work.
As it happens, the Muslim community in Britain is already doing a lot. Interfaith work between many of our faith communities is growing. During this year’s challenging Ramadan fast, a group called The Big Iftar invited people to share with Muslims the iftar night-time meal at their local mosque. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t manage to go to one at mine. The heartwarming story of the Bradford reform synagogue, saved by its local Muslim community is another great example. These things are happening all over the country, quietly and prayerfully as communities understand that their common humanity is reflected in their common God. The secular community tends to be rather dismissive of faith, but it too needs to join the interfaith movement with love and respect: respect for humanity is the common feature of all the world’s great religions, and it’s shared by secular humanists.
Deal with racism , doh!
In his speech, Mr Cameron said,
"Over generations, we have built something extraordinary in Britain – a successful multi-racial, multi-faith democracy. It’s open, diverse, welcoming – these characteristics are as British as queuing and talking about the weather".
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The project to build the utopia Mr Cameron describes is far from complete. We are building such a thing. We are leading the world and doing it more successfully than most, but there is still a very long way to go. We won’t succeed unless we neutralise the toxic racism that still permeates British society. Countless academic studies show that, despite legislation, racism, sexism and classism still influence housing, education and employment. The evidence is clear that the colour of your skin (as well as the shape of your genitals and the sound of your voice ) has a disproportionate effect on your life-chances.
Populist anti-migrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, which does win votes, is highly destructive of the sort of equal society we need. It undermines everything done to tackle racism by providing a subconscious justification for the natural prejudices that need anti-racist effort to challenge. It helps to alienate many people with a Muslim, migrant heritage and undermines anti-racism work.
It is not for nothing that I used the word “struggle” in the title to this piece. It is as direct a translation as possible of the Arabic jihad; far better than “holy war”. Muslims identify the greater jihad as the perpetual struggle between good and evil, between Allah and Satan, in which Muslims engage in their daily lives as they try to live in virtue. Daesh would like to see the great jihad as being the battle they are fighting, but it isn’t. However, the struggle to resolve conflict wherever it occurs is part of the great jihad.
Create attractive youth opportunities
There have always been, and there will always be, disaffected youth. There will be fewer of them if there are more opportunities for all young people – and that does not mean opportunities to become a corporate drone, a wage-slave in major organisation. It is simplistic, to imply that all extremists come from the alienated fringes of society, but the fact that many of the most notorious terrorists have had prosperous backgrounds does not discredit the notion that repression and alienation contributes to the pursuit of extremism.
Replace “moderate Muslim” with “good ” or “devout Muslim”.
A good Muslim is one who serves Allah and the ummah without violence. A good Muslim will never engage in forced marriage, fgm or other unIslamic practices; a good Muslim will also pray five times a day and observe the fast in Ramadan. Britain welcomes good Muslims and should make life easy for them to pursue the dictates of their faith. “Moderate Muslim” implies something half-hearted. What else makes a good Muslim is a matter for debate in the community – we kuffars can’t get involved, but we can be quite clear that good Muslims are also good Britons.
But most of all: engage the battle of ideas in cyberspace.
Cameron made much of conspiracy theories in his speech. The weakness of all conspiracy theories is that they assume the existence of a much cleverer cadre of privileged conspiracists. Those familiar with real life know that anything that can be explained by a conspiracy can be much more convincingly explained by a cockup. Nevertheless, conspiracies have mileage. Were Daesh a Zionist conspiracy to discredit Islam, it would be working very well. Every beheading video the daeshbags release discredits Islam a little more. Either it is a Zionist conspiracy, and the Zionists are very clever – or it isn’t, and the daeshbags are really stupid. Likewise the use of Anjem Choudhury as a regular Muslim TV talking head looks to many Muslims to be a similarly dastardly Zionist plot: he is a terrible advertisement for the faith. But there are more mundane explanations both for Daesh and for Mr Choudhury’s frequent television appearances.
At the start of this post, I suggested that the struggle in cyberspace will be engaged on two grounds: the battle for ideas, and the technical battle for command and control. Daesh would love to be able to hack into the West’s drone control networks; the West feels it needs to be able to intercept and read Daesh’s internal communications. Probably, neither will happen: strong cryptography will protect both. But Daesh, unlike its extremist predecessor al Quaeda, seems to be far more capable of exploiting technology. It’s important that we in the west both maintain superior cryptanalytic skills and do not delude ourselves that we can use legislation to insert back doors or otherwise cripple crypto technology that is already out there. If we ban Whatsapp and Snapchat, the daeshbags will use them anyway.
Not that we cannot, but that we must.
As you can imagine, the summer budget was not entirely to my liking. I’m not sure what my reaction would have been had it been.
But it’s not quite as bad as I expected, and contains some interesting and good surprises.
If I were Chancellor, I’d cut inheritance tax allowances, not extend them. But I’m relieved that his latest extension (“for the family home”) is going to be transferable when home is downsized. The biggest weakness with the proposal as leaked is that it would lock old people into unsuitable family homes when they should be downsizing to some form of sheltered housing. In the announcement, he’s recognised that problem and said he will allow for it.
The Northern Powerhouse is another good thing. I think these things should be done by a more deliberative constitutional process, rather than by the Chancellor freelancing. But however it’s done, it’s a good thing; and the announcement that there’ll also be a midlands powerhouse is very welcome. What we now need is proper devolution to these powerhouses – and devolution to London. Osborne’s politics has always been better than his his economics.
His attack on working credits however is a disgrace. What it does is increase the marginal effective tax rate for those moving off benefits and into work. The corresponding change to the minimum wage – the introduction of a new higher minimum wage, which he has disingenuously called the National Living Wage – will not be sufficient compensation.
This shows that resolving the problem of the poverty trap is expensive – we always knew it would be, and Working tax credit didn’t finish the job. But while its there, we will get both the social and the economic fallout of this glaring discrepancy in the marginal tax curve.
As George Osborne wallows smugly in the better economic figures – which are, in my opinion, as misleading as ever and reflect mainly the return to the bubble conditions of before 2008 – he faces one undeniable problem, the productivity stats. The fact is that productivity growth is lower in Britain than in most of our competitors.
It is a conundrum that has puzzled the sharpest minds in economics, or something like that.
But at least they are agreed that unless we get productivity up, growth will be unsustainable.
I think the explanation for the productivity gap is simpler than has been said. And, guess what, George Osborne’s policies are going to do precisely the opposite of what is needed to redress the problem.
Consider these two facts:
(1) Productivity often rises towards the end of a recession, but it did not do so this time; and
(2) Unemployment usually falls during a recession, but it did so far less this time.
Productivity is output per worker-hour. It rises towards the end of a recession when employers delay taking on new staff by making existing ones work harder. But that didn’t happen this time because they hadn’t laid them off in the first place. I think this effect explains most of the productivity conundrum. Working tax credits and a relatively low minimum wage make it possible to keep staff on during a downturn.
Productivity is boosted by capital investment. If you buy a machine to help your staff work better, productivity will increase. In other words, it is closely related to capital investment. But investment in productive capital does not produce the kind of returns that investment in property (which is static capital) does. That’s why we’re not getting the productivity growth we should be getting. This is the key to the problem at a national level.
Trading hours and retail productivity.
Mr Osborne has announced that he intends to reform the Sunday trading laws so that local authorities can decide trading hours based on local needs. On the whole, I think this is a good idea; but it’s important to consider how extended trading affects retail productivity. The retail sector is an important part of our economy, accounting for about 11% of output. Extending opening hours will tend to reduce retail productivity – unless, which is most unlikely, the volume of trade goes up proportionally. What actually happens is that at best a marginal increase in volume is spread over a significantly longer trading time. The result is a fall in retail productivity.
Alongside the Euro, and with no paper counterpart.
Cut out the Greek banks. They’re part of the problem.
To be used in its own online-mobile payment system.
Instead of paying pensions and other social obligations in Euros (which the authorities and the markets are not lending it any more), Greece pays them to its citizens in eDrachma. Better some money that not everyone takes than no money at all.
Greece accepts tax payments from Greek residents in eDrachma.
The eDrachma is nominally at parity with the Euro. eDrachma can be bought from the Greek authorities at par.
The eDrachma system collects its own taxes.
I listened to this File on 4 programme about the aid business last night.
Quite extraordinary. It was almost enough to make me vote UKIP.
No one who has travelled or worked in any developing country will be surprised at the stories of corruption. It’s how things get done. Yes, we all know that we shouldn’t. You get pulled over for a traffic offence you didn’t commit because you’re a white guy in a car. You can pay the bribe to the traffic policeman, or you can protest your innocence while your car is impounded and your day is ruined and you face paying ever higher bribes to end the whole nightmare. And that little bribe to the traffic policeman, well, it’s a tip really. In Nigerian English, it’s the same word: dash. You dash the waiter and you dash the traffic cop.
But everyone knows that corruption is the single factor, above all else, that prevents these nations realising their potential. Reducing it is essential if the aid budget is to have any effect. We know why it’s there – complex reasons of different loyalties to family and tribe, inadequate official salaries – but we wring our hands and continue our complicity.
The one thing that makes corruption easy is the proliferation of secret deals. We should not be complicit in any secret deals.
Solutions are complex, but they start at home and all involve transparency. Let me get this clear: transparency means publishing loads of stuff. In particular, contracts and accounts. Publish exactly who gets the money and exactly what it is spend on. Publish all the project details, the project assessment criteria and the project assessment results.
Transparency isn’t what someone who had worked for the body that regulates DfIDs projects said. He used the word in relation to them being transparent to the aid providers (but not the rest of the world) about the criteria on which projects are assessed. That’s weaselly dilution of an important concept.
Publish, publish, publish. No secret deals, particularly in the aid sector.
There’s a cool IndieGogo campaign to raise £1.6bn for Greece. After a flurry of Twitter activity it’s raised about €113k in less than a day, which is pretty good going for any crowdfunding but a long way short of what’s needed.
Crowdfunding the money for one instalment of its debt – €3 for every European – isn’t going to save Greece’s bacon. There are many smarter ways for geeks and Greece to stick one to the bankers.
Maybe Greece could shift to Bitcoin instead of the Euro?
How quickly could the world come up with an online, open, digital solution to Greece’s problems? Make the new drachma an ecurrency, with mobile payments?
The IndieGogo site is offering rewards and such in return for donations, with all rewards sourced from Greece. This will get money into the hands of actual Greek people and is a far smarter way of helping them than paying of bankers who really don’t need the money any more.
The collapse of Greece’s Euro institutions provides an ideal ground in which innovative finance and settlement solutions can thrive, disintermediating banks, bankers and even governments.
We should not be scared of the Greek situation, but excited. Yes, it is unfortunate and it would be better otherwise, but there is no doubt that this is a pivotal moment for the Eurozone and for the politics of austerity.
First, read this: Stiglitz explains why Greeks should vote “no” on Sunday.
He’s right. If there’s a “Yes” vote, anti-austerity worldwide is set back by years. Tsipras resigns, to be replaced by a puppet for the Troika, and Greeks lose control of their own destiny. Vote “No”, and they retain it. The Troika are mad because Tsipras has played the joker they always knew he had: democracy, and exposed the gap in their hand.
Then, listen to this: Giles Fraser – no stranger, you will remember, to controversy when forced to resign as Dean of St Pauls for sympathising with the Occupy demonstrators – giving a most scholarly and eloquent explanation of Helleno-germanic differences on Thought for the Day today,
Dr Fraser leaves it to us to consider the the third apex of the triangle: capitalist greed. It is the financial sector’s avarice (compounded with the other six) on which we should focus our concern, not Lutheran redemption or Orthodox forgiveness.
There’s an intriguing tree of possible outcomes after a No vote, some disastrous, some not so disastrous. The Troika back down slightly, and Greece accepts? Can they contain the consequences so that Podemos and the others aren’t too encouraged to follow suit?
Much more exciting: Greece defaults. Issues its own virtual digital-only currency using mobile payments, as in Kenya. Opens up and radically deregulates its enterprise sector. Processes citizenship for the migrants on its doorstep to liberate their economic potential at home and abroad. Exploits solidarity networks so supporters can buy goods directly from Greek producers, paying online in eDrachma bought online with Euros from the Greek government – which it then uses to pay for further green infrastructure investment.
Banks entirely disintermediated.
It is getting more interesting.
It is alleged – in the Sunday Times yesterday – that Russian and Chinese intelligence agents have cracked encrypted data in the Snowden files, thus compromising the cover of British and American agents who have had to be moved to ensure continuing operational security. No one has been harmed.
Glenn Greenwald, the journalist who co-ordinated the release of the Snowden files, has written an article here claiming that the Sunday Times piece is wrong. I haven’t read the Sunday Times story. It is behind a paywall and I have vowed for many years that the Murdoch family will never get another brass farthing of my money.
No independent person can have any way of knowing which side to believe. So, for the sake of argument, I will assume that the Sunday Times is right – that it’s not just acting as a mouthpiece for ASS propaganda. (ASS abbreviates for Allied Security Services, meaning essentially the UK and US intelligence services – CIA, NSA, GCHQ, MI6 and MI5 – and their champions and apologists in government and media.)
I assume that The Snowden Files, the data dump taken by Snowden consisted of:
- A lot of cleartext procedural information about the extent and nature of data surveillance by the ASS (this is mostly what has already been revealed); and
- Some cyphertext files containing ASS operational information (this is what is alleged to have been compromised, and which Snowden promised would not be revealed).
Procedural information describes how the ASS operate. It is information which might understandably have been available to a security contractor such as Snowden and would generally be accessible to everyone in the organisation. This is why it was held in cleartext on ASS internal servers and Snowden could download it all.
Operational information would include things such as agents’ identities, their location, their cover, and reports they may have submitted. It is highly sensitive and even within any branch of the ASS would be available only on a need-to-know basis. It should be encrypted with a long symmetric key, which itself would be encrypted using an asymmetric algorithm to the key pairs assigned only to those need-to-knows.
- This encryption should be secure enough to allow the cyphertext to be transmitted over public networks.
- If any of the key material to access this data had been available to Snowden, it represents a scandalous lapse in ASS internal security.
If the Sunday Times story is true, then either:
- Russian and Chinese intelligence have broken ASS cryptography; or
- ASS internal security was already compromised.
ASS cryptography is broken?
Modern cyphers are vulnerable to various attacks. The simplest is a brute-force attack, and it has been demonstrated to work for short key-lengths around 128 bits using a network of computers running in parallel over several hours. Increasing the key length by one bit doubles the effort for a brute-force attack. It is a trivial problem for a large enough quantum computer but no one is known to have built one sufficiently capable yet. ASS should have been using long keys – at least 256 bits. A network of computers that could crack 128-bit encryption in a second would take about ten followed by twenty zeroes times the age of the universe to crack 256-bit encryption. So a brute force attack is unlikely.
More complex attacks use weaknesses in the encryption algorithm or software. Usually this involves a lack of randomness. Symmetric keys are long random numbers; if they are not truly random, they are much easier to break.
Most successful attacks use the human vector: procedural errors, or getting someone who does know a key to disclose it. (Despite Alan Turing’s genius and the new computers, it was Nazi procedural errors that let Bletchley Park into Enigma).
Most likely explanation
The Sunday Times story is partially true. ASS have assumed that the operational information has been compromised, because the Russians and Chinese have had access to the cyphertext, and they have made the necessary operational adjustments to protect their agents. Which they would do anyway, because you should always assume that your enemy can access your cyphertext.
ASS are very keen that the mass surveillance revealed by Snowden should continue and they want the legislative framework right. In both countries – the US and the UK – they are fighting political battles to give them the legal and political powers to do so. They want to discredit Snowden and show him as a traitor rather than a patriot, and the planted story is intended to achieve this.
However, if it shows anything, it shows first that ASS internal security procedures are not as good as they should be. And for lots of reasons, that should worry us, regardless of our position on Snowden.