The Conservative government recently published proposals for new legislation to regulate spying in the UK. The draft Investigatory Powers Bill seeks to do many things, particularly gathering up powers already contained in a lot of different existing laws and subjecting them all to a coherent oversight procedure. Most of the discussion generated by these proposals has been about the implications for liberty. But there is another and related dimension that should be considered, and that is the potential for the Bill to harm the economy.
Sometimes it seems as if Britain is surrounded by existential threat. Armed extremism, financial upheaval, cultural confusion – all can feel like they could break a brittle, uncertain society. But these are only the headline concerns of the day. Deep beneath the headlines there is another country where real change happens, sometimes slowly, and sometimes not. At this level Britain really is in a state of transformation. It is nothing to do with terrorism, or politics, or religion. It is a lot to do with new machines, new materials, new algorithms, and new patterns of behaviour. These are things that are changing the shape of minds as well as environment, and what is really striking is just how relaxed Britain is about it. To find a historical parallel for this era of peaceful redrafting of the fundamentals one has to go back at least two and a half centuries. It is Georgian Britain that offers the best guide to what is happening today, and some clues to what might happen next.
In late January 1941 a party of soldiers and civilians crossed the border from Sudan into Italian-occupied Ethiopia. The men in uniform included British political advisors, some peculiar soldiers of fortune, and the shambling, eccentric and driven figure of Major Orde Wingate. There were priests of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in their robes, and a group of aloof Ethiopians who looked very far from home as they assembled for a ceremony in the dried-up riverbed. Among them there was a very small, black-bearded man of bearing, a man who the British had been referring to as ‘Mr Smith.’ This was Haile Selassie the First, The King of Kings, Emperor of Ethiopia. A few months earlier he had been living in straitened circumstances in a cold villa just outside Bath. Now, thanks to the machinations of war, he was on his way to Addis Ababa to reclaim the throne of the 225th monarch in the House of David, in one of the greatest comebacks of all time.
Africa has had a good press this last few years. It deserves it. In most countries life is getting better, and people have more power to work, to spend, to choose. But not everywhere. And particularly not in one country that few know, that fewer have visited, and that today is on fire.
You approach a new James Bond film with finely blended expectations of excitement and concern and dread. Excitement at the prospect of the second most expensive action film ever produced, concern at the health of a venerated British institution, and dread at the prospect of yet another prime turkey in the turkey-infested realm of the Bond franchise. So before we go any further let us address the turkey in the room: Spectre, the twenty-fourth film in the sequence, is a turkey. It is not an enormous great clucking monster turkey. It is just an ordinary medium turkey, the kind of turkey a middle-aged couple might order for a quiet Christmas at home without the children. How it managed to cost $300 million is anyone’s guess, but at that price it is certainly the most disappointing dinner for two in history.
In the English language the words ‘spy’ and ‘Russia’ are fellow travellers. The Russian state is secretive by nature and the methods of the secret state are the methods of the spy services: surveillance, interception, and information control. All of these techniques are part of the political management system of Putin’s Russia, and they have all been greatly enhanced in the last fifteen years. Thanks to two outstanding Russian journalists, Irina Borogan and Andrei Soldatov, we now know much more about how Russia uses and co-opts the worlds of digital communication and information flow to monitor its citizens at home, and shape their world view. On a recent visit to London, Borogan and Soldatov joined CapX for a conversation about their recent book The Red Web on Russia’s domestic programme of surveillance and censorship.
Edmund de Waal, a celebrated potter and ceramicist who had one of the literary hits of 2010 with his biographical memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes has now written a study of the remarkable history and nature of porcelain. De Waal has devoted much of his working life to porcelain, and this is not a mere history of the white ceramic that helped shape the wealth of nations from its discovery in China more than two thousand years ago. It is an attempt to capture the inner nature of porcelain, its power to mesmerise and to bankrupt its addicts.
Capitalism: Money, Morals & Markets by John Plender
John Plender, a journalist on the Financial Times, has written a book about capitalism and whether it is a good thing – and that is taking ‘good’ in its broadest sense, to include ‘moral’ as well as ‘useful’. Now, there are those who would object that a journalist on the famously pink paper is the last person who would know anything about capitalism. But let’s not cavil and trade insults like economists: Plender’s book, Capitalism: Money, Morals and Markets is a good thing, on balance, all things considered. And that is pretty much Plender’s verdict on capitalism.
People say a lot of things about Calcutta, but one thing they never say is that Calcutta is a pleasant place. Intense, chaotic, corrupt, and confusing, yes. Unremitting discomfort and infinite inconvenience, yes. Pleasant, no. Calcutta (or Kolkata if you insist on following the endless name-changes inflicted by the government of West Bengal) is never going to be your ideal destination for a quiet relaxing break. But it is unforgettable: addictive, insistent, and amazingly friendly (for a place that is so violent). Calcutta is India in highly concentrated form. Use with caution.
Keeping secrets, sending secrets, stealing secrets: it’s a very ancient trade. The business of intercepting and deciphering communications has been going on for as long as people have had brains enough to profit from knowing more than their enemies. And today, as this bleakly entertaining new book from Gordon Corera reminds us, the branch of intelligence known as signals intelligence is now conducted on an industrial scale. The dream of the East German Stasi – that everyone should be spied on, all of the time – is close to becoming a nightmarish and universal reality.
On the Sunday of the ninth of September 2007 a meeting was called in the Treasury. It was, as they say, fateful – although none of the participants realised it at the time. That afternoon the course of the UK economy and political life was altered for years to come. If things had been decided differently there might have been no collapse of Northern Rock, no bank bailout, the Labour government might have emerged from the financial crisis with its reputation enhanced instead of ruined, and Gordon Brown might still be Prime Minister.
Last week a suicide bomber killed himself in a failed attack at the Temple of Karnak in the Egyptian city of Luxor. A day later the attack was claimed by a group claiming to be part of the Islamic State movement, the same group that claimed responsibility for a rocket attack the previous week in Egyptian-controlled North Sinai. In the same week there was a gun attack at the Pyramids of Giza to the south of Cairo.Is Egypt slipping back to the dark days of the Islamist insurgency of the 1990s?
Africa is the fastest-growing continental economy in the world today, thanks in large part to the fact that its population is so young. But one consequence of having a lot of young people is that Africa faces a massive practical problem, the problem of how to educate its millions of poor young people in the knowledge and skills that can make them prosperous. As it happens, a very large number of poor Africans have already found a solution to that problem. But some of the best known aid agencies and international organizations don’t like this solution at all, and indeed some are campaigning hard to put a stop to it.
Book Review: The Mysteries of the Marco Polo Maps by Benjamin B. Olshin, published by the University of Chicago Press
From The Spectator
AS a boy I spent quite a lot of my free time trying to fake up ancient-looking documents. This hopeless enterprise involved things like staining paper with tea or vinegar, together with plenty of burning, and creasing, and copying of random texts with a scratchy old inkwell pen. Typical silly small boy stuff. Reading this book on a collection of maps supposedly derived from Marco Polo suddenly brought it all back – especially the silliness.
IT’S SUMMER, and the northern Italian skies have turned that perfect baby blue. Yes, this is the very worst time of the year to go to Venice. It’s hot, it’s teeming with tourists, it’s fantastically expensive, and the manners of the Venetians are even worse than the rest of the year. But this is exactly the time to plan to go to Venice, when there is still time to book your rooms and do cost-effective battle with the monster that is Ryanair, all ready for your trip at the only time of year when Venice reverts to its true and untrustworthy self, which is November.
ELIZABETH JANE HOWARD who died on January 2—‘Jane’ to all who knew her—was an English writer of great originality and honesty. Only at the end of her long life did she receive the recognition she deserved. “I feel like I’ve been playing second fiddle my whole life,” she told me a few weeks before her death. “Now I’m playing first violin and I quite like it.”
Book Review: Treasure Neverlandby Neil Rennie, Oxford University Press
HEAR the word ‘pirate’ and what picture springs into your mind? I see a richly-bearded geezer in a tricorne hat and a frock coat, with a notched cutlass and bandolier stuffed with pistols. Never mind the real-life pirates of our day, the maritime robbery-and-kidnap specialists of Somalia and West Africa – they are all too recent to have generated sufficient fiction for us to draw on. Our common pirate is like the zombie, the vampire, the robot – a creature of the imagination, coming to us via Robert Louis Stevenson, J M Barrie and Johnny Depp. But where did he come from, really?
ON THE HARBOUR wall in the port of Funchal, Madeira, there is a remarkable collection of paintings. Nobody commissioned these works, the artists are anonymous, and the medium is industrial primary colour on cement. The subject is the Atlantic Ocean. With photographer Nick Sinclair, I recently published a short photo essay celebrating these unofficial, unbidden images.
Book Review: George Orwell: English Rebel by Robert Colls
IN EARLY 1928 a former colonial policeman called Eric Blair decided that he wanted to become a writer. He moved to Paris, took a cheap room at number 6, rue du Pot de Fer in the Fifth Arrondissement, and worked at odd jobs in hotels and bars. His attempts to write fiction were failures, but he did manage to get a few essays published in literary journals. The first was A Day in the Life of a Tramp. It begins like this …