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Laurie Penny on how twitter is changing the face of dissent

December 2010 will surely be remembered as the month when the global ruling class lost its monopoly over information.

If its founders hadn't invented such a silly name for Twitter, it would almost certainly have been closed down by now.

The name suggests the cheery inanity of birdsong: it does not imply a considered and coherent back-channel of radical dissent. Without tweets, twibbons and hashtags, however, the public might not be aware that officers of the law recently assaulted a wheelchair user and dragged him behind riot lines.

In the Parliament Square "kettle" on 9 December, I happened to be standing next to Jody McIntyre when the police began to baton him and his brother, who was pushing his wheelchair. Within seconds, I had pulled out my phone to tweet about what I had seen; within minutes, the backlash had begun as outraged citizens all over the country found supporting evidence of the assault and let each other know what had happened. By the time I arrived home, bloody and bruised from further police violence, the assault on Jody had made the national press.

It is clear that the authorities can no longer control the message. In decades to come, December 2010 will surely be remembered as the month when the global ruling class lost its monopoly over information.

With the WikiLeaks US embassy cables cheerfully blowing holes in the sycophantic and dangerous half-truths of international diplomacy, and young protesters using social networking and interactive digital maps to run rings around the police, the game - as the top cop Paul Stephenson so astutely observed - has changed.

Tooled up

This could be the beginning of a second information age. Any new technology takes some years to become truly useful to popular movements: for example, almost as soon as Gutenberg invented the printing press, it was hijacked as a way to disseminate cheap pornography. Luckily it didn't take long before the power of the press was being put to nobler uses, with the invention of the newspaper and the printing of the Bible in English challenging the monoliths of the monarchy and the Catholic Church.

Today, as social media come of age, the rules of resistance are undergoing a similar shift. Combine digital empowerment with a generation systematically deprived of economic security, and you have the perfect storm. Something huge is happening, and the word for that something is solidarity.

Solidarity has gone hypertextual. The student movement that made its voice so powerfully audible in the fee protests was largely organised on Twitter using the hashtag #solidarity. "Being able to contact thousands of people with one short tag was really important," says Jessica, 20, a student activist who claims to have been "radicalised" by Twitter. "#Solidarity has very obviously now become the link between all of those fighting against the same government in different ways," she goes on.

The notion of true solidarity between workers, students and activists was undermined in previous centuries by the fact that dissent was organised according to the old rules of business, with a central bureaucracy and a controlled message. Now, the economy of information has become collaborative.

“Thanks to the internet, the people are becoming the Panopticon - the all-seeing, ubiquitous power," says Aaron Peters, who is working on a PhD on the political impact of social networking. "With these tools, individuals can legitimately say, 'we are everywhere'."

We are everywhere. That is what the young chanted in Parliament Square as the tuition fees vote came through. Behind the bonfires, you could see the scrawled words, "This is just the beginning". For this government and for any government that seeks to control citizens by monopolising information, the writing on the wall . . . is on the web.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.