Facebook v. Democracy

Twitter has announced that it will not accept any political advertisement on its platform, worldwide.

This is a shrewd move by Twitter as the loss in revenue terms is slight, and it helps to pile pressure on a competitor – Facebook.

Facebook has responded with conflicting, garbled announcements – but no real substance. Imagine your auntie drunk posting on a Saturday night right after Strictly – that is the level of coherence from Facebook.

Facebook is trying to protect a revenue stream, so it will squirm to protect the cash. However, this does not make much sense, given that the money from election advertising (while growing) is still relatively modest. The projected spend on Facebook for the 2019 UK election is likely to be less £10 million. This is a significant amount, but not compared to what Facebook makes from general (non-political) advertising.

So, the question has to be why would Facebook risk controversy and possible later regulation for relatively little financial gain – after all, Facebook is always about the money, nothing else.

It could be that Facebook is scared of further offending right-wing politicians, both in the UK and the US. President Trump has long whined about bias when he does not get enough likes or follows, pathetic given he is the President, but better than letting him run things.

If Trump wins a second term in 2020, then Facebook will have hedged its bets nicely. But, if Trump loses, Facebook could well be on the receiving end of a Democrat President, possibly President Warren.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has already called for the break-up or regulation, or both, of Facebook.

The very fact that Facebook has put in place some kind of war office for the UK and US elections should be an indication to Facebook itself that their course of action is unsustainable.

Facebook denied and then later admitted foreign actors used their platform for interference in the 2016 US election and the 2016 UK Referendum and the 2017 UK election.

Facebook’s motto is, “move fast and break things” – however when it comes to political advertising; it appears to be, “move slow and deny things”.

Facebook needs to recognise that the tide is turning against it. It does need to take decisive action and ban all political ads – it can then get back to what it does best – sharing pointless, addictive and fun snippets of life, (and putting up with your auntie) – that is why we joined in the first place.

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The DUP and their fair weather friends

So, it did not take long for the government to abandon the Democratic Unionist Party. All it took was the government running for the Brexit line, dumping the DUP baby to shed some weight.

The DUP backed Brexit from the beginning – no one knows why. They seemed to want to be more hard-line and so British than any other party. What the DUP did not realise is that Brexit is (and always was) a right-wing, white, English nationalist movement – a movement that only cares about England and not the Union. In hindsight, they should have opposed Brexit from the beginning.

Now that they have been spectacularly betrayed they find themselves almost friendless. The only friend is in the unlikely shape of the Labour Party. This is the same Labour Party whose leader is a long-term friend of Gerry Adams.

The DUP now have to rescue their pride and position by talking to whoever will save them directly or indirectly from being cast aside, and the inevitable economic shotgun wedding with the Republic.

The stakes are high – quite literally, the DUP could be the political party in Northern Ireland to usher in a united Ireland – when most people expected that to be Sinn Fein.

Stop and mull that one over for a minute.

The DUP will not countenance talking directly to Jeremy Corbyn, but they will (and should) talk to Keir Starmer – who has already extended an invitation.

The UK remaining in the EU Customs Union (the softest Brexit) would deliver the DUP from political oblivion and secure Northern Ireland’s place within the Union – they must now push for this.

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Grandmother mugged on holiday in Scotland

It appears that the nation’s favourite grandmother was mugged while on holiday in the Scottish Highlands. The incident occurred on 28th August at Balmoral Castle, Royal Deeside, Aberdeenshire. The courts are currently looking for the alleged offender who was wearing an ill-fitting double-breasted suit at the time.

Now in all seriousness, the act of prorogation is usually used as a ritualistic and straightforward way to end one Parliamentary session in readiness for a new session shortly after. The new session of Parliament being opened by the Queen with the Queen’s Speech, this sets out the government’s legislative plan for the new session.

The gap between ending a current session of Parliament and beginning a new session is usually between three to seven days – to be clear – five weeks is not a normal gap. Though the government would point out that Parliament goes into recess for three of those weeks for the party conference season. This does provide the government with some cover. However, quite why the political parties need a conference season in the middle of a constitutional crisis is beyond comprehension. Setting out how you plan to modernise the kitchen, while your house is burning down, seems a bit odd.

Prorogation has always been used as an administrative function – which it is. The monarch grants it on the advice of her government and never questions it or withholds it.

However, prorogation is not a political device; it is not usually used to shut Parliament and hinder the democratic process of Parliament holding the government to account – however, this is what has happened here.

The court challenge started in Scotland failed in the first instance, but on appeal, the Scottish courts stated that the government intended to stymie Parliament and prevent it from doing its job.

The same argument failed in the High Court in London.

Now the Supreme Court has ruled against the government on this issue, unanimously.

There remains a clear separation of powers in the UK between government, Parliament and the courts. The courts gave their judgment because they looked at the effect of prorogation. They were right to reach a judgment (whichever way they chose to decide) because they were the only tribunal or body left to make a decision.

However, the possible smoking gun in all this is the alleged message trail left by the government and its advisors in the lead up to the announcement. The government is alleged to have discussed and planned prorogation for two weeks, before the announcement.

Usually, this sort of discussion would be via official channels, using the government and civil service email services, recorded telephone calls, attendance notes and memos. For such a serious matter, the government would want to keep extensive contemporaneous notes – if, for example, they were challenged in court over their decision.

Strangely, this does not appear to have happened.

Before Parliament was prorogued, it sought to obtain details of the communications used by the government to discuss prorogation, both the methods used and the actual communications. The motion named actual officials and advisors – this is a highly unusual step and would only be sought if there were information that the government or its advisors had used non-official means to communicate. These means are alleged to included, secure messaging apps, such as Telegram, personal phones, personal email addresses and so-called “burner phones” – a tactic more in keeping with criminal activity, such as drug deals.

The chances of obtaining such information are slight to non-existent.

The government has already cited data protection and human rights reasons, which is typically hypocritical – right up there with railing against the EU, all the while amassing significant sums from EU agricultural subsidies.

However, if the information can be obtained and it is damning – then everything changes.

The Queen has been put in a difficult situation; her role has been politicised – when it should not be. Furthermore, if the government and the Prime Minister are found to have actively misled the Queen, they should resign, this would happen in normal times, but these are not normal times.

As an endnote, it is depressing that so many people when polled on the issue supported the government’s decision to prorogue Parliament – leaving the EU was dressed-up as returning sovereignty to Parliament.

Parliament was closed, against its will.

The Brexit process appears to be damaging both sovereignty and democracy.

The public should be wary of those that wrap themselves in the flag but ignore the conventions of our country. Those that promise simple solutions to complex problems, and who profit from the chaos, both politically and financially.

The public should be asking themselves, are they benefitting from the current chaos, are they making money from it? Or are they concerned for their jobs, income and futures?

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The Good Friday Agreement

The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) or to give it its proper title – The Belfast Agreement: An Agreement Reached at the Multi-Party Talks on Northern Ireland.

For those too busy to read it or those in government sadly too busy to read or understand it – it is a nothing less than an international peace treaty brokered by the governments of the UK, US and Ireland and the political parties in Northern Ireland. It was negotiated at considerable political risk to both the UK and Irish governments. The Irish government amended the Irish Constitution to give up claim to Northern Ireland and the UK government offered so-called “comfort letters” to known terrorists and agreed to an accelerated program of prisoner release. The US government under the Clinton administration skilfully manoeuvred Sinn Fein into a position whereby official recognition by the US gave them political capital and showed that a political process could result in lasting change – unlike a continuation of the Troubles.

As well as the high-profile political negotiations a small number of unsung and brave people talked to the terrorist organisations directly on behalf of the respective governments – these people cleared the path to talks and the eventual agreement. One person who appears to have been partly forgotten in this is Mo Mowlem, the Labour politician who served as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Her direct and open manner went a long way in securing the trust of the different parties in Northern Ireland.

The GFA has mostly kept the peace in Northern Ireland for the last twenty years, ironically long enough for the current crop of politicians in Westminster to forget how bad things were before peace. However, twenty years is a blink of the eye compared to the political and religious turmoil that the island of Ireland has suffered for hundreds of years. That turmoil could easily and readily resurface.

The risk comes from the Brexit process.

The GFA allowed for the dismantling of the border security apparatus and the three hundred mile north/south border to almost disappear. It is almost as though Ireland become reunited physically while remaining two very distinct systems – both within the EU. It was a classic compromise, but it worked. People, goods & services crossed the border all day, every day and both sides of the border prospered in the peace.

A hard Brexit will inevitably bring back a border, contrary to the commitments in the GFA. Where there are two different trading areas with different tariffs – Ireland within the EU single market and Northern Ireland under WTO terms it is impossible to avoid customs checks.

There are no magic bullet technical fixes for this; if it were possible, a country like Switzerland would have already implemented it.

The other (and possibly) the real reason a border will be reintroduced is that the EU will likely insist that Dublin impose a border. All other parts of Europe with a land border with a third-party country outside the EU have border checks. The EU will not allow an open border in Ireland to be used to avoid tariffs and quotas with goods smuggled from Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic and so into the EU. This is just not going to happen – even if the Irish government wanted to do it. There is a long history of smuggling across the north/south border. With differing tariffs on virtually all goods after a hard Brexit, there would be widespread smuggling and tariff & quota avoidance.

Even if Brexit can be resolved in some way, reintroducing the border makes it much more likely that the border will eventually be permanently removed under a united Ireland.

At the top of the second page of the GFA, it states the parties –

“…recognise the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the Union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland.”

If the current UK government and Westminster abandon the people of Northern Ireland (Protestants and Catholics) those people may seek a closer union with the Republic – it would remove the border and put Northern Ireland back in the EU.

If this were to happen, you would expect the EU to invest heavily in a united Ireland – after all, Germany would have much sympathy with the reunification process.

Brexit was supposed to be all milk and honey; it is now much more complicated and far-reaching than the public have been told. The Union is at stake. Growing nationalism in the form of Brexit has let the genie out of the bottle for the other parts of the UK – Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

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GATT24 Not An Option

The current Hard Brexit debate centres around the use of GATT24 to avoid a Hard Brexit – that is crashing out of the EU and all the trade deals we are a party to as part of the EU.

Article 24 of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) states, “……shall not prevent as between the territories of contracting parties, the formation of a customs union or of a free-trade area or the adoption of an interim agreement necessary for the formation of a customs union or of a free-trade area…”

Under Article 24 parties to an agreement have a “reasonable length of time” to negotiate a deal. Under Article 24, this should only exceed ten years in exceptional circumstances.

If the UK crashes out on 31st October 2019, (or any other date) the UK will default to World Trade Organisation (WTO) trade terms.

Under WTO law, you must treat the goods of all members of the WTO alike – known as the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) obligation. This would mean the UK has to treat EU goods like those from China, for example. This includes imposing the same tariffs.

However, there are exceptions to this obligation – this is where GATT24 comes in. It allows WTO members to conclude Free Trade Agreements (FTA). Under an FTA parties could agree to better trade terms than those between other WTO members – a sort of club-within-a-club arrangement. A good example of this is the EU deal with Norway their FTA is called the European Economic Area (EEA).

However, under GATT24 other WTO members can object to a proposed FTA agreement between the UK and the EU.

Conclusion

1. GATT24 requires both the UK and EU to agree to do a trade deal. Given the current impasse, this seems highly unlikely.

2. The EU will want to avoid offering a generous FTA agreement to the UK that mirrors to the current single market agreement – after all, what would then be the point of the single market if it can be undermined?

3. The current members of the European Economic Area (EEA) seem very reluctant to have the UK join them. They have a deal that works and does not wish to have the UK with its “reluctant European” nature mess things up for them.

4. If the EU even wanted to offer a generous FTA with the UK – if it did other WTO members might be tempted to seek the same from the EU. This is a can of worms the EU will not be opening.

GATT24 is not the magic wand or a silver bullet; some Brexiteers have already admitted this. After much wishful thinking and wilful posturing, time is running out for the UK. Crashing out would likely lead to a recession on the scale of 2008 – or worse.

The alternatives remain – the current negotiated deal or a second referendum.

Whatever route the UK goes down people need to make hard-headed commercial and political decisions – arguing about sovereignty is not one of them. We have a parliament, and we vote for the MPs who sit in it, as we do with the European Parliament. We are a sovereign nation – it’s our democracy that is damaged.

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Danny Baker, Shoots, Misses, Fired

The BBC has just fired Danny Baker for his now deleted tweet – a picture of a couple with a monkey dressed up in a suit with reference to the Royal birth. His explanation rings hollow – as the intent seems clear.

He appears to be relying upon the usual excuse of honest mistake or misinterpretation. We should now expect the usual “counter-argument” about “freedom of speech” being curtailed.

His contract with the BBC would have contained a clause relating to bringing the corporation into disrepute. It would not be enough for him to state or provide a disclaimer that all views are his own, or words to that effect. The BBC is paying his salary, and this is a racist tweet directed at a member of the Royal Family.

Other “talent” and general employees should note that such disclaimers provide little or no protection or cover against being disciplined or dismissed. It is true that a regular employee may well have been disciplined – but a “talent” contract is quite different from a regular employment contract. Danny Baker is likely to have been treated as a third-party contractor, and his contract would have been clear. This is not a gaffe – it is a clear and pretty unpleasant attack on a young mixed-race couple with a mixed-race baby – who also happen to be members of the Royal Family.

The BBC acted swiftly and decisively because they had no other course of action open to them.

People are rightly pointing to double standards at the BBC, given their reluctance to act against other talent, such as Sir Alan Sugar for his dubious tweet on another occasion.

This can be contrasted with calls for Gary Lineker to be dismissed for his vocal support of the Remain campaign. Providing a political opinion or support is not a breach of the law – as long as any tweet does not seek to incite or support a criminal offence and the party is a legally recognised one that does not advocate extreme policies – all is ok.

Danny Baker is an intelligent man – he must have known the connotations and decided to play the race card anyway. The red card was the only option. He may well find himself on the bench for some time.

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Feudalism & Tribes

This is an odd blog post, but something to ponder.

As most of us can feel our society in the UK and most other countries we can think of are divided and disjointed.

We have Brexit, the far-right, the far-left and nothing much in the middle. Growing income inequality is undermining society – as the 1% and in particular the 0.01% is getting richer the economy they rely upon for the continued wealth and stability is coming apart at the seams. Those at the top appear to be happy to point this out, but only offer piecemeal solutions. They conveniently avoid thorny issues such as international tax regimes purpose-built to benefit them, a fundamental refusal to acknowledge income inequality, low wages, long hours and low productivity. The only solution to them appears to be the mantra of “996” – 12 hours days, six days a week. Let us be clear “996” is the very essence of exploitation, particularly as it’s chief proponent (Jack Ma) is now living in semi-retirement at the tender age of 54.

In the short-term the 1% seem to have responded by paying more for security – Facebook spent $20 million last year protecting Mark Zuckerberg from threats, up from $7 million the previous year.

Protection is an immediate, but ultimately, short-term response to threats – both real and perceived. Some of these threats would be made regardless of the state of the economy and society. However, in a fractured society and a weak economy, the threats grow.

At some point, the threats outweigh the benefits.

It is interesting to see Ray Dalio founder of the hedge fund Bridgewater write a blog post about wealth inequality and the threat to the American Dream. As pointed out by others, his company has benefitted from investing in low-pay industries, such as fast-food.

If wealth inequality stayed at its current (unacceptable) levels, it could be tackled. However, as pointed out by Mr Dalio inequality is entrenching itself, exacerbating the problem and increasing year-on-year. Once the 1% own or control 99% of wealth the only market left to them will be their own 1% – no one else will have any money to buy anything. In the end, the system will eat itself.

With all this said we are still waiting for change.

After the 2008 financial crisis, the 1% received their bailout, and the rest of society assumed the debt and will carry on paying off that debt for decades to come.

This debt burden has inevitably caused governments to reduce spending and investment – retreating to cover only the essentials. Governments appear unable or unwilling to increase spending on health and education – both of which are critical areas for future stability and wealth in society.

We are now living in what could be described as a “governmental vacuum”. Governments have become less about governing countries and more about preserving the status quo and protecting the system that has caused inequality. The 1% will almost always have the ear of those in power – partly because they helped them get there.

However, into this vacuum step those promising easy and quick solutions. People, who say they understand and that if people follow them things will get better, people such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. These so-called “men of the people” are anything but – they see an opportunity for power and influence. Their methods and messages owe more to 1930s Germany than the 21st century.

As we become increasingly polarised into tribes, there is the potential for extremism to flourish, organised online and beyond the control of governments and even those that seek to harness and possibly exploit it.

There is a genuine risk that we are heading for a very uncivil society – we will all be losers, but those who lose the most will be the ones who currently enjoy the most.

Reinvesting in our societies is the only sensible long-term strategy open to us – and it must be across all racial lines – starting from the bottom upwards to the middle class.

The kings of capitalism are finally worried about the growing gap between rich and poor

Why and How Capitalism Needs to Be Reformed

Blackstone CEO blames gap between rich and poor on income ‘insufficiency’

Median wealth of black Americans ‘will fall to zero by 2053’ warns new report

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The Brexit Political Vacuum

As Brexit slows and starts to stall the 2016 referendum seems a long way away. Trade deals have proved elusive as other countries wait to see our fate – and then strike a bargain with an increasingly desperate government. Very few of the deals the UK eventually signs will be as good as our current trading arrangements – and none of them will be better.

The fundamental misjudgement made by the government is to think this is all about trade. It is more of a misunderstanding than a misjudgement. The EU is about much more than trade. The EU is about peace, cooperation and security. Trade is one of the key aspects of the European relationship, but it flows from the core principles, the core principles make it possible.

We were told that the German car industry would still want to sell 800,000 cars a year in the UK – and they do. However, Chancellor Merkel informed her car industry to make plans to sell more cars elsewhere. The German car industry responded not by complaining, but by accepting this. Like others in the EU, they understand that much more is at stake than fancy tin boxes with metallic paint. The German national psyche is one built around society and teamwork. This can be contrasted with the individualistic approach in the UK – an approach that allows key Brexiteers to wrap themselves in the Union Jack, but at the same time make quiet fortunes shorting the Pound and betting against British companies, (and in effect their employees). Many leading Brexiteers have made money from the chaos while posing as defenders of the people and parliament. Some in that camp have been less circumspect – having supported Brexit they appear to have had a change of heart, or at least jurisdiction. Some people blow hot air, and they suck – quite a skill.

The government has already been forced to ask the EU for more time. However, instead of using that precious time to build a consensus and deliver the next stage of Brexit, the government has stuck to the same lines – and even blamed MPs for this failure to govern. Now that MPs are attempting to gain some direction and control the government has responded by saying that they are free to ignore parliament and will continue to do so. We have a government that cannot pass legislation and one that sees no need to listen to those that could.

A general election would be a mistake – only adding to the delay and uncertainty. However, the current Prime Minister has deliberately and stubbornly blocked any progress, attempting to keep her party together – regardless of the political and economic cost to the country.

As a change of leadership style is highly unlikely, so a change at the top is required. Her replacement could and should be from the saner spectrum of the party. The alternative to this would be a government of national unity – something reserved for times of war or a severe crisis. We have already reached that point.

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The Bercow Blinder

So the dust is settling (though not the tempers) on John Bercow’s decision to allow an amendment by Tory MP Dominic Grieve. The amendment means that the government now needs to present within three working days a Plan B – should the government’s Plan A be voted down by the House of Commons on January 15th.

It looks almost inevitable that the so-called “meaningful vote” will be defeated. However, it is important to note that we got here because the government pulled the vote before Christmas at the last moment and without any warning. The government wants a winnable vote – not a meaningful one. At the time Speaker Bercow did say that the decision to delay the vote at such short notice was a discourtesy to the House.

It now looks as though Speaker Bercow is on his way out; he knows this already and is prepared to go out defending Parliament.

It is odd though that one of the central planks of Brexit is about “taking back control” and “making Parliament sovereign”. When the Speaker does just that Brexiteers throw tantrums and mutter darkly. It can’t be both ways.

The fact remains that the EU has never been and will never be a threat to UK sovereignty or to the UK Parliament. The current threat remains a minority government using every trick in the book to get its way.

Speaker Bercow intervened when it had become obvious and intolerable that the central government tactic was to run down the clock to 29th March or as close to it as possible – effectively blackmailing Parliament.

These tactics are to be expected – however, the continuing damage caused to the UK economy does not appear to matter to some in Westminster. A look at the news today regarding job losses and poor Christmas trading shows the real issues facing you & I.

The truth is that the government has treated MPs with disdain and the economy as collateral damage. It is right for MPs to take back control – to retake sovereignty.

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The Brexit Political Declaration

The Brexit Political Declaration has turned up just in time for Christmas – it has all the rigour of a Christmas present list written to Santa.

The reality is that all the key points have been booted into the long grass at least a year from now. The only point of actual agreement appears to be is that Christmas is coming and everyone is exhausted by this 2-year and counting divorce. The parties have decided who is going to get the cutlery, but not what will happen to the kids, the house, the mortgage etc. – basically all the important parts.

Goods – it appears the UK will only have access to the EU if it respects EU standards on competition, tax, the environment, and social and employment protection. This is done to prevent the UK from undercutting the EU – which is what the Brexiteers had in mind.

Fishing – there still needs to be an agreement on EU access to UK waters, it could be that British caught fish will be prevented from being sold in the EU without a deal. This is not all bad news; we are just going to have to eat more fish.

Financial Services – passporting is going, it will be replaced with “equivalence”. This is a stricter test, under the agreement it can also be withdrawn with just 30 days notice.

Northern Ireland Border – the addition of a new technological solution paragraph marks the return of “magical thinking” eliminating the need for a physical border and customs – as if Ireland didn’t have enough leprechauns already.

Gibraltar – the Spanish government, has stated they will not agree on any trade deal unless Gibraltar is excluded from it. This appears to be a move to isolate Gibraltar from the UK and make it even more reliant upon Spain.

Breaking up is never easy, but only a sane person would question whether going ahead with this break up is worth it. This is not exactly a quickie divorce, we are not even leaving the house – we are living in a tent in the garden.

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