Cambridge Analytica and the Devil

Yesterday I booked a flight from Manchester to Belfast on the internet. Half an hour later I received on Facebook an advert for a guidebook to Belfast, from another seller entirely and entirely unsolicited. Not very serious, you might think, and indeed possibly helpful. (I won’t however be in Belfast long enough to need a guidebook.) This sort of thing has happened to me before, and also I imagine to everyone else. Once, googling the name ‘Mata Hari’ (the WWI spy – I was writing about the Secret Services at the time) I was led to a Lesbian site – was she a Lesbian? not from what I know about her – which I quickly deleted, but which didn’t stop my being plagued with ‘Graphic Lesbian Sex videos’, from sources unknown to me, for weeks afterwards. Again, merely irritating. But it did set me wondering – rather later, I imagine, than most people – how widely, indiscriminately and possibly misleadingly this sort of information, innocently provided, might be being spread. And how potentially damaging, if it gets out to MI5, for example, or the government, or the police, that I access Lesbian pornography.

It didn’t occur to me then that the technology that allows this could be used not only for marketing products, which is unsettling enough, but also to influence ‘democratic’ elections. That’s what the recent Cambridge Analytica/Facebook revelations in the Observer and on Channel 4 are claiming ( Cambridge’s algorithms were certainly used by Trump’s presidential campaign to corral and influence voters, and very likely played a part in Brexit’s referendum campaign. A Channel 4 TV programme last night even had the CEO of Cambridge Analytica boasting about its more devious weapons: honeytraps (with ‘beautiful Ukrainian girls’), ‘dirty tricks’, and disseminating fake news (‘it doesn’t matter whether or not it’s true, only whether people believe it’). The CEO, incidentally, one Alexander Nix, is an Old Etonian, which, taken in conjunction with David Cameron and that inveterate liar Boris Johnson, also Old Etonians, must make us wonder what kinds of values our most prestigious Public School is instilling in its over-privileged pupils. As well as this, the genius behind the ‘app’ that gathers all this information, the Cambridge academic Aleksandr Kogan, is of Russian origin. Conspiracy theorists could have a ball with this. Historically Cambridge University and the Public Schools, after all, are no strangers to treachery. – But I wouldn’t want to run too far with that.

This clearly has implications for democracy. (You see why I put quotes around that word earlier on?) To work well, a democracy requires the public to have reliable information on which to base its decisions. We already know that our deplorable press in Britain does what it can to muddy and distort this information. (This is just one example: Cambridge Analytica’s diabolically clever algorithms make this easier, and far less detectable. Voters are being presented with and selectively driven to fake news which panders to and confirms their existing prejudices, discovered by mining their Facebook profiles and their presence – even if just as customers – on other internet sites. That’s the original purpose of this technique. (It’s why I never seem to get Right-wing stuff channelled to me.) Of course we can’t measure the effectiveness of any of this precisely; but the fact that Trump’s election campaign engaged Cambridge Analytica at a cost of several million dollars obviously means they thought it was worth it. Which suggests that Cambridge’s subversive impact on American politics, and possibly on our own, if it turns out that the Brexit campaign made similar use of Cambridge Analytica, might have been considerable.

But it’s too late now, if we want to question the results of both of those campaigns. In a social and political environment in both countries in which sporting metaphors seem to have much more traction than any other, it would make us look like ‘bad losers’. ‘You lost. Get over it.’ The other great problem is that it seems to be doubting the intelligence of those who may have been influenced by these techniques. Those of us on the ‘Remain’ side of the argument often charge the Brexiteers with ‘stupidity’, which of course raises the latters’ hackles – and prejudices against ‘elites’ – no end. They insist that they were smart enough to learn the facts, and to distinguish between truth and propaganda. Tell them that much of the propaganda was so subtle as to be undetectable even by the brightest, and they still won’t give in. No-one likes to admit to having been fooled. So – in both America and Britain – we are saddled with disaster. The devil (educated at Eton) has won.

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Lion’s Share Mk VI

A dilemma: Routledge want to publish a sixth (!) edition of the Lion’s Share, but in order to justify calling it an ‘edition’ rather than a ‘reprint’ they want me to revise it and bring it up to date. I’ve already done that for the last four editions, and hated it. For a start, I’ve not really kept up with the new scholarship, having diverted to other things. It would take far too much work to catch up. Secondly, the fifth edition went up to 2012, which seems pretty ‘up to date’ to me. Thirdly, revising is never fun; it strikes me like returning to one’s own vomit. I am (to continue the rather unsavoury simile) heartily sick of all that imperial stuff, now it’s been kicked into the long grass by the post-colonialists, and is still – after all my efforts to discuss the legacy of the British Empire in a nuanced and subtle way – being publicly debated in the most simplistic terms: ‘are you for it or against? Come on. Yes or no?’ I feel I’ve already wasted enough of my time on this. Who listens to us academics?

Routledge suggested that, if I didn’t want to revise it myself, they could get someone else to do it for me. At first I resiled: messing around with my beautiful text? How dare they! So I suggested a compromise: that we keep it as it is, with a new short Introduction by me. But now I’m weakening; perhaps feeling less possessive towards my favourite (literary) child. It has grown up now, after all. It has been a favourite textbook (though I never liked its being described as that: I thought it was more) for universities and schools since 1975. It belongs to the world. It flatters me to think that it can still soldier on in this role for even longer. (Routledge obviously think so.) A properly revised edition could help in this.

So I’ve told them they can go ahead and try to find a collaborator – a young desperate scholar, presumably; older ones wouldn’t want to be bothered – so long as he or she doesn’t get rid of my jokes. And as long as I still get the ‘lion’s share’ (ha-ha) of the royalties. Any readers of this blog like to volunteer?

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Vladimir and Donald

Catching up on BBC2’s latest documentary on Putin, The New Tsar, first shown last Friday, it struck me how alike he and Trump are. Neither has any principles beyond ‘making his country “great” again’, after recent humiliations – often at the hands of one another. Each seems to have an amoral Machiavellian approach to ‘power’, although in Trump’s case this is less cerebral than in Putin’s, and mainly instinctive, probably developed in him by his experience as a capitalist wheeler-dealer. And they both display huge personal vanity and enormous material greed. As well as all this, in both countries one can understand their appeal to ‘ordinary people’, their voters, who in these dangerous times want a ‘strong leader’ to take the burden of democratic responsibility off their shoulders for getting them out of the national mess they feel they are in.

Putin and Trump are made for each other. You can see why the latter fell for Putin. I imagine that Putin is just playing Trump along. For one difference between them is that Putin is immeasurably the cleverer of the two; which means that – if we subscribe to the ‘great man’ theory of history – he will probably win.

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Theresa’s Moment?

Is this Theresa May’s ‘Falklands moment’, several commentators have asked? This refers of course to the way Galtieri’s aggression against the Falklands (Malvinas) Islands in 1982 presented Thatcher with the opportunity to reverse her currently low domestic poll ratings by taking a ‘firm stand’ against him. Many historians attribute both her survival then and her later success to this ‘Iron Lady’ decision. Some of her political opponents suspected that she had deliberately provoked the crisis, or at least avoided settling it more diplomatically, to this end. Unlikely as this is (in my judgment), there can be little doubt that the Falklands War strengthened her immensely, at a time when her domestic political fortunes were wavering. It was a lucky break for her, testing her mettle in a way that – in the eyes of her macho supporters (women as well as men) – made her almost a god. Which is how, of course, she is still regarded in the Conservative Party today, including by the fat red-faced MP who claimed to espy some of her divinity in the face of Theresa May, when she stood up in the House of Commons yesterday to defy Putin , against a deafening background of Tory roars. Some of them looked as if they were wetting themselves; or about to have coronaries. Whether or not they really are as ‘warlike’ as they sounded, they’re certainly enjoying this!

Jeremy Corbyn’s sane and rational response – was it the Russian government? let’s see the evidence first – was predictably howled down by this mob – ‘traitor!’ ‘appeaser!’ ‘communist!’; and has apparently discomfited some of his own party on the backbenches: albeit usually those who have never felt comfortable with him as their leader. Clearly a little thrown by this, Corbyn sought to spell out his position in today’s Guardian:  He has some support, of course, especially among those who recall – as he points out in this piece – how often he has been proved right about these things in the past. The question is, politically speaking, how this Russian bru-ha-ha is going to affect his broader popularity, when it comes to the next General Election – if he is still at Labour’s helm then.

It was popular ‘jingoism’ and her ‘macho’ image that was partly responsible for Thatcher’s success in the election of 1983. What we don’t know yet is whether the jingoism that seemed to be displayed in the House of Commons yesterday, and of course in our tabloid press, is still as widespread as it was then. That may partly depend on whether Corbyn’s doubts (they were no more than that) are proved right, or at least plausible, and the Salisbury poisoner was in fact out of Putin’s and the Russian government’s control (Russian mafia? Ex-KGB?); or whether his perfectly justifiable point about Russian oligarchs’ financial contributions to the Conservative party have any purchase. As for May’s ‘macho’ qualities: it may be difficult to see her in the same league as the blessed Margaret in this regard. I don’t think any of us ever saw Thatcher as pathetic.

But she does have the added advantage of her opponent’s – Corbyn, not Putin – having been consistently characterised in the press as just the kind of lily-livered pacifist the political Right and the tabloids profess to despise; and smeared by them very recently as a communist spy himself. That was comprehensively disproved, under the threat of a libel action (, and indeed appears ridiculous to most thinking people. (A Labour leader on the side of a corrupt capitalist?) But, as we know, mud sticks. That’s why the Right throw it. And it must worry those who are hoping that Corbyn’s more measured and reasonable approach to just about everything, including war scares, might eventually win through.

He was right to question (not deny) Putin’s responsibility for the Salisbury attack, incidentally, even if – as seems more likely than not – it turns out to be true.

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Giving Birth to Books

Finished my latest book – unlucky no. 13. It’s really just a collection of my old essays, reviews and even a blog or two, most of them previously published in other forms, with an attempt to fit them into a logical sequence with an overriding theme – ‘Britain and Europe’ – which may not be thought to be too convincing. My Empire Ways was in the same mould. Some of it, including its ‘Conclusion’ on ‘Brexit and History’, is new. I still have lots of editing to do. The title – Cosmopolis – is provisional.

One very good publisher has promised to take a look at it; but despite its quality – in my eyes, obviously – I’m not altogether confident of its finding a berth. In which case I’ll try self-publication. It will have to be in hard-copy. I don’t trust electronic publication. What if a sun-burst or something wipes out all our web-based stuff?

I don’t want any royalties; just the chance to hold my new baby in my arms, after all that labour. And before I succumb to post-natal depression.

Wasn’t it Beatrice Webb who, after a fling with the bold macho imperialist Joseph Chamberlain, decided instead to marry the weedy socialist Sidney Webb, in order to ‘have books, rather than babies’? (I think it was I who discovered that, in her diaries at the LSE in the sixties; but it may not have been.)

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Salisbury and Russophobia

It looks pretty likely that the Russian government had a hand in the Salisbury atrocity. But why should Corbyn be excoriated for holding back from blaming Putin directly? In Parliament today the Tories seemed to be accusing him of treachery and ‘appeasement’ for this, though his words were surely strong enough about the actual plot, and there’s as yet no smoking gun. Trump – and it distresses me to write this – was wiser not to point the finger, though that may be for other reasons: because of Russian covert help in his election, for example.

I’d be more prepared to believe that, and in Russian interference in our own Brexit referendum, than in this farcical (if also shocking and possibly tragic) plot: poisoning an ex-double agent – and his poor daughter – in a way that so obviously attracts suspicion to them. These Russkies are clever – chess-players, remember? – and getting a moron elected in the USA and dividing Europe makes perfect sense for them. The Salisbury event only makes sense, for Putin or one of his agencies, as an act of revenge, or of warning to other defectors.

Well, that’s quite possible. As it happens it’s the explanation I would go for. But I wouldn’t act on it yet. It hasn’t been proven. There are others (private Russians, for personal motives? Government agents/agencies out of control?) who could have done the deed. So politicians really should hold their fire until the evidence is clearer. The braying in the Commons today was most unbecoming.

But then the Tories love this sort of thing – shouting at their enemies, especially if they can associate their political adversaries with them too, or can put a wedge between – say – the Labour front and back benches. The event was clearly staged to make May look ‘strong and stable’ – a boost she badly needs; one obsequious Tory backbencher even thought he saw ‘a glint of the Iron Lady’ about her. The red haze they profess to see around Corbyn is extraordinary. I think the Tories forget that Russia isn’t communist now, but corruptly capitalist, so that even the most Left-wing Labour MP isn’t likely to have any ideological sympathy with her. If there’s a link with British politics, it involves the millions that expatriate crooked Russian zillionaires have stashed away in Britain, some of which has gone into Conservative Party coffers. But when Corbyn hinted at that, the Tories feigned shock that he should take such a ‘party political’ line.

As a historian I should point out that Russophobia has been a pretty reliable constant in British history for at least 200 years – and going back long before the Soviet Union. Much has been written on it; starting with JH Gleason’s seminal The Genesis of Russophobia in Great Britain: A Study of the Interaction of Policy and Opinion (1950). It’s not new. Which isn’t to say that in this case – after calm consideration – it might not be justifiable.

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I was on the side of the hooligans, I’m afraid, when they invaded the pitch during West Ham’s defeat at home vs Burnley, and chased the owners out of the directors’ box. One of the protesters’ banners says it all:

I’ve warned of this: see, and the other posts referenced there. When you tear the social heart out of a community, and sell it on the capitalist market as if it were a mere commodity, this is what you get. The sad story of the Irons over the last few years should serve as a metaphor and a warning of what late-stage capitalism is doing to Britain generally.

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Soon to be a Swenglishman

I applied for Swedish citizenship just after the Brexit vote. It’s taken them nearly two years to get round to me. I’m told it’s because there were so many applications from Brits dispossessed of their European identity by that vote, and with Swedish connexions; on top of other (darker-skinned) refugees. The office was overwhelmed. But I was patient. Yesterday I got a letter from Migrationsverket asking me to send in my British passport. I hope that means I’ve been accepted. I’ll soon be a semi-Swede.

Brexiteers are always going on about ‘taking back control’. Funny; I felt that Brexit undermined that control. When I get my Swedish/European passport, I’ll be in control of my life again. So you can stuff it, you single-nationality Brits. You asked for it.

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A Supermarket Trolley

I’m working on my latest book – another collection of old articles, mainly, but hopefully corralled into some kind of order. I’ve come almost to the end, and a new ‘Concluding’ chapter; at which point I thought I should look back at my ‘Introduction’, which set out my original plans for the book, in order to be able to return to these. (That’s always a good way to finish.) I was surprised however to discover that what the book has become is nothing like what I originally intended for it; so I’m going to have to write the Introduction – not hopefully the meat of the book – all over again.

This is how it often happens with writing – my writing, anyway. You begin with an idea, and start developing it, only for the idea itself to deviate in entirely different directions. It’s a bit like pushing one of those supermarket trolleys with defective wheels – it goes where it wants to. That’s not a bad thing, of course; it means that one is prepared to change one’s mind as one meets with new obstacles. The odd thing is that I do that best through the process of writing, rather than simply in my head. I imagine that having to put an idea down on paper forces one to define and reconsider it. If I didn’t write, I really would be stuck in my ways and prejudices.

So this is one reason why I’m not blogging much just now. Another is that I can’t think of much new to say. On Brexit, for example, others have already said it all. And – as I’m writing presently in my Conclusion – History, my sole claim to expertise, is not all that much help in explaining what is going on today. Not in terms of ‘precedents’ or ‘lessons’, anyhow. Were there any leading politicians in Britain’s past quite like Boris and Nigel?

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How Fake News Works.

Paul Mason is my favourite left-wing commentator. I met him at an ‘alternative’ conference to mark the anniversary of Magna Carta a couple of years ago. This – if you can get it up – is v.g.

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