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All about Dave

Dr Johnson had his Boswell and Goethe his Eckermann. Now the leader of the Conservative Party seems

The 7,006th best-selling book on Amazon as I write this review is Dylan Jones's set of "conversations with David Cameron". It has had some glittering endorsements that suggest the work can only soar ever higher in the charts. Mr Jones's friend the editor of the Spectator says on the back of the dust-wrapper that the author brings to his subject "formidable writing talent, wit and wisdom". As if that is not enough, he adds that this is "an important book". I, too, had better declare an interest. I would not presume to claim that I am a friend of Mr Jones's, but he is an able and genial man and I wish him well. For that reason, I wish he had thought twice before writing this book.

For a year, Mr Jones was invited not just into the Cameron machine, but into the bosom of the Cameron family. The politician who famously, when quizzed about his drug-taking exploits, said he was entitled to a "private past" was quite willing not to have a private present, but to share much of it with Mr Jones. This was not, as it turned out, too much of a threat to Mr Cameron's emotional security. Mr Jones somewhat belies the claim in his introduction that "I am not a Cameron apologist", for the tone of his side of the conversations is so reverential that one supposes they were conducted in an attitude of permanent genuflection. Mr Jones also explains to his reader that "nor am I even a real Tory". That will have sealed it for Dave, for neither is he.

As someone who has earned his living writing mostly about politics for the past 25 years, I have no desire for that trade to be a closed shop. Politics is a revoltingly closed world and those who write about it can be depressingly insular and disconnected from those for whom they should be writing. A sense of perspective is absent too often. However, those who come in from the outside to chronicle the activities of politicians inevitably lack the ocean-going cynicism that those of us who have been exposed to politics in its raw state develop. To some readers, the naivety Mr Jones brings to his subject will be refreshing, and they will be glad to hear the possible next prime minister of our country speak without interference from know-alls and critics. To others it will be simply appalling. I am in a third category, as I suspect any of you who read this book (and it is already available on Amazon for a mere £6.93 plus p+p) will be: the unintentionally amused.

The first laugh is that Mr Jones - who takes his subject and his pontifications entirely seriously - chooses some delightfully bombastic chapter headings. Once you have gone past "There is no looking back, no quarter. This is the moment. The time is now" you know you are in for a roller-coaster ride, though you are never quite prepared for the one entitled "I love you, David Cameron!" (the words of a punter, I believe, but one cannot be sure in a book like this).

Being the editor of what I believe is known as a men's style magazine, Mr Jones is inevitably fascinated by the style of his subject. We have much about not merely his clothes, but also his taste in pop music and crap telly. It is all manifestly aimed to make Dave seem a man of the people. Be reassured: there is no mention of tweed, Wagner, Proust or anything exclusive that might frighten the focus groups. The nearest we get to anything a bit highbrow is the odd Graham Greene novel. Oh, and how dear old Jonesy is bewitched and seduced by this effortless, demotic superiority. "He was wearing a white shirt, no tie, a dark blue suit and had no discernible stubble. Here was a man who looked as if he only shaved every other day. A baby-faced killer." It is as if Boswell had described the scent of Dr Johnson's perruque, or described the colours of his nosegay, or revealed that he liked to tap his foot to the airs of Arne or Boyce.

Our new Boswell is at the side of his hero on his travels around the country, and he represents a story of continued progress and triumph: which, given the way Gordon Brown has sawn himself off at the knees over the past 12 months, is hardly surprising. There are two schools of thought on this, of course. Some of us sceptics think Dave is only streets ahead in the polls and destined for Downing Street because of the grotesque failure of his opponent rather than because of the originality, radicalism and excitement of his own policies. Mr Jones is not of that view. It is all down not merely to the inherent genius of Dave himself, but to the inherent genius of the inherent geniuses that he has, with his own inherent genius, chosen to surround himself. There is not a pejorative adjective in sight when these people heave into view. At this point it ceases to be Boswell and becomes rather more like the Gospel according to St Dylan.

See, and indeed hear, the awe with which our gospeller describes Dave in mid-mission. "Unlike a lot of politicians, David Cameron becomes easier to like the more time you spend with him. His performance in the street market [in Bury] later that morning was a masterclass in electioneering. He was engaged, interested and sincere . . . he was followed by a phalanx of eager and highly professional assistants, who steered him whenever he went walkabout, trying to make sure he stayed away from nutters." They appear not to have been entirely successful.

"In Bury market, people appeared genuinely to like him, wanted to touch the cloth, press the flesh. You could see a proper politician getting better and better at his job, and never once looking as though he didn't enjoy every second of it." I have known women who have married men who were never so nice to them as that. One also wonders what a "proper politician" is, and longs to have a debate with Mr St Dylan Boswell-Jones about his definition and understanding of the term. He was certainly right to say in his introduction that this is not a book about politics. It is a book about love.

Not all of it is quite so nauseating as this. Some of it is even more so. Here is a typical question put to the Great Man during a conversation: "You're very powerful when you are speaking in the House, and, as I've said before, people respond to that very positively. They like the fact that you're being ballsy, being tough . . ." Then the man who values his private life is asked by St Dylan: "How often do you tell Samantha you love her?" Instead of being told to mind his own bloody business, he gets the answer: "Quite often, actually. We have a very intimate banter with each other."

Why did Mr Cameron agree to do this? It wasn't so that he could outline his policies, because when the reader gets to the end of all this he or she is none the wiser. There is lots of flannel - acres of flannel - but we've heard it all before. It amounts to nothing; it is just the stream of consciousness of touchy-feely warm and cuddly garbage that a man who doesn't want to commit himself, but who wants to appear wonderful, engages in all the time.

It is not all bad for Mr Cameron. One thing that even his sternest critic has to concede to him is that he is a superb father to his disabled child, and that is quite clearly evoked by Mr Jones. There has been a debate about whether Mr Cameron exploits this personal tragedy for political gain. Those who do not have to cope with such a difficulty in their lives should perhaps hold off: different people will have different ways of dealing with this sort of thing, and it is the one aspect of Mr Cameron's personality that emerges from this book as unequivocally admirable.

Mr Jones makes an unlikely propagandist, and has not entirely succeeded. Goebbels was not a nice man, and the author should take comfort in his own failure to emulate him.

And is there anything else you would like to say to the nation, Mr Cameron?

Simon Heffer writes for the Daily Telegraph

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Labour: How to save the party

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.