Now that gold is losing value, hopefully we can put the "Brown's bottom" myth to bed

Should the Chancellor really be a day trader?

The gold market appears to have well and truly peaked. The Perth mint puts the all-time high way back on 6 September 2011, when the bid price per ounce was $1915.55. It's now plummeted to just over $1600, and appears to be on a steady downward trajectory.

None of which will be much consolation to Gordon Brown, who famously sold most of Britain's gold reserves near the bottom of the market, between 1999 and 2002. He may have made $3.5bn from the sale, at an average price of $270; but if he'd sold on to the same reserves and sold them the day before the 2010 election, he'd have made the country just over $15bn. And he is never allowed to forget it; cries of "Brown sold the gold" are common even today.

But it's unfair to hold Brown to standards only visible in hindsight. After all, he's not magic. So what critics are really saying is "Brown should have known beforehand that gold was a good investment". And if we're holding Brown to that criticism, we have to hold his Osborne to the same standard.

When the chancellor took power, gold was selling for $1170; 18 months later, it had hit its peak. If Osborne had bought back the quantity of gold Brown sold, he'd have had to spend $15bn; but then, 18 months later, he'd have made a profit of $9.7bn, selling the gold for $24bn. Even if he'd just bought back the value of what Brown sold, spending $3.5bn on gold in 2010, he could have sold it for $5.7bn, a $2.2bn profit.

Brown didn't lose money in 2003; he just failed to make money in the years after. Osborne didn't lose money in 2010; he just failed to make money in the 18 months after. Unless we want to punish all our chancellors for not moonlighting as day traders, holding them liable for the money they didn't make is nonsensical.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Amber Rudd's ignorance isn't just a problem for the laws she writes

Politicians' lack of understanding leads to the wrong laws - and leaves real problems unchecked. 

Amber Rudd’s interview with Andrew Marr yesterday is not going to feature in her highlights reel, that is for certain. Her headline-grabbing howler was her suggesting was that to fight terror “the best people…who understand the necessary hashtags” would stop extremist material “ever being put up, not just taken down”, but the entire performance was riddled with poorly-briefed errors.

During one particularly mystifying exchange, Rudd claimed that she wasn’t asking for permission to “go into the Cloud”, when she is, in fact, asking for permission to go into the Cloud.

That lack of understanding makes itself felt in the misguided attempt to force tech companies to install a backdoor in encrypted communications. I outline some of the problems with that approach here, and Paul Goodman puts it well over at ConservativeHome, the problem with creating a backdoor is that “the security services would indeed be able to travel down it.  So, however, might others – the agencies serving the Chinese and Russian governments, for example, not to mention non-state hackers and criminals”.

But it’s not just in what the government does that makes ministers’ lack of understanding of tech issues a problem. As I’ve written before, there is a problem where hate speech is allowed to flourish freely on new media platforms. After-the-fact enforcement means that jihadist terrorism and white supremacist content can attract a large audience on YouTube and Facebook before it is taken down, while Twitter is notoriously sluggish about removing abuse and hosts a large number of extremists on its site. At time of writing, David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, has free use of YouTube to post videos with titles such as “CNN interview on Bannon exposes Jewish bias”, “Will the white race survive?” and “Stop the genocide of European mankind”. It’s somewhat odd, to put it mildly, that WhatsApp is facing more heat for a service that is enjoyed by and protects millions of honest consumers while new media is allowed to be intensely relaxed about hosting hate speech.

Outside of the field of anti-terror, technological illiteracy means that old-fashioned exploitation becomes innovative “disruption” provided it is facilitated by an app. Government and opposition politicians simultaneously decry old businesses’ use of zero-hours contracts and abuse of self-employment status to secure the benefits of a full-time employee without having to bear the costs, while hailing and facilitating the same behaviour provided the company in question was founded after 2007.

As funny as Rudd’s ill-briefed turn on the BBC was, the consequences are anything but funny. 

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