Spain turns to Bitcoin, prompting incoherent discussion on Today

There are problems with the currency. But not those problems.

Wired's Ian Steadman reported yesterday about the surge in downloads of Bitcoin apps in Spain, noting that:

Three iOS apps – Bitcoin Gold, Bitcoin Ticker and Bitcoin App – each jumped up the App Store charts in Spain, all on the same day, as the news broke from Cyprus. Compare their download histories to those from a country like the UK and it's clear that the upward trend is more pronounced in the more at-risk nation. Bitcoin Gold's all-time high ranking of 83 in Spain came on 17 March; for Bitcoin Ticker, 68 on 17 March; Bitcoin App reached a high of 147 on 19 March. The highest rankings for those apps in the UK are lower – 293, 201 and 48 –and they were all records set months or even years ago.

That surge has been noticed by others, too – including Radio 4's Today Programme, which had a little interview with an economist about the fledgling currency. Sadly, they didn't really do themselves proud. A choice excerpt:

INTERVIEWER: A currency supply has to be limited, otherwise it can be devalued and copied. Who limits it? Who controls it, if there's no central bank?

INTERVIEWEE: Well, it's all controLled by users of the bitcoin community, and that's the reason why it has become so popular in recent years.

INTERVIEWER: What, they're all unbelievably virtuous, they all control it? What's the mechanism?

INTERVIEWEE: Any currency, and any asset class, is basically predicated on trust. We trust the central bank, we have full faith in credit, so we go into a shop and we trust that our £20 note is freely exchangeable for £20 of goods.

Now, heaven knows I'm not the biggest fan of the digital currency, but this is doing it an enormous disservice.

The reason why gets a bit technical, but if you want to know more about the currency, it's worth learning how it works. If not, skip the next five paragraphs.

The heart of bitcoin is based on something called public-key cryptography. This technique – used throughout the web, whenever security is needed – uses very large prime numbers to create a form of encryption where the key used to lock data is different from, but related to, the key used to unlock it. What that means is that you can send copies of the first key far and wide, and so long as you keep the second key hidden, other people can encrypt information which only you can then decrypt.

But there's a second thing the technology allows. If you use your private key to lock the data, then anyone can unlock it with your – and only your – public key. That lets you sign messages in a way which, so long as people are certain that it really is your public key they have, proves it was you who wrote it.

A bitcoin is, in its purest form, a list of past transactions signed with private keys and verified with public keys. So long as you keep your private key secret, it is impossible for other people to "spend" bitcoins which the network knows are held by you, because those transactions wouldn't be accepted.

It bitcoin were a centralised currency, that would be that. But it's decentralised, and that means that there's a second problem to overcome. I could send one bitcoin to Alice with her key added to the end, and the same bitcoin to Bob with his added on. Until the two of them spoke, they wouldn't know who had the "real" coin and who had the fake one.

The way bitcoin solves this is the really clever part of the whole thing. All transactions are broadcast throughout the network, and then certain computers – called "miners", analogously to gold – work to group them into a timestamped block every ten minutes. Multiple computers do this at once, because the calculations required to make a new block are, deliberately, very difficult. Honesty is therefore enforced by the fact that the easiest group to co-ordinate is the one telling the truth about which transactions came first.

OK, back to the non-tech stuff. How is this linked to inflation? Well, if your computer is the one which solves the puzzle and makes the block, you get some free bitcoins. Currently, it's 25 every block, but that number halves every four years until it drops to 0.00 in the year 2140.

And that's it. That's the only way new coins are created, and there's just over 1.25 million made each year. So there's nothing to do with "trust" in the whole system: low inflation is inherent to the entire idea. In fact, that's actually one of the things used to attack bitcoin; orthodox economics holds that a low level of inflation is good, because it encourages people to spend rather than horde. If there was a bitcoin economy the size of a nation, it would be in a permanent state of recession, and there would be no possiblity of monetary policy saving the day.

The worst thing is, the interviewee apparently knew this, because later on in the segment, he said:

They're so popular because they offer a little bit of something new, a little bit of security, an anti-inflation side of things, as well, because they've built something into the trading algorithm which means that it actually deflates over the cause of the lifetime.

Bitcoin might or might not work as a currency – you can tell what side I come on – but if Today is going to cover it, they ought to cover it well.

Of course, none of what Today actually discussed helps address the real question: are the panicky Spanish savers doing the smart thing by moving their money into bitcoin? (That's assuming they actually are; as Steadman points out, iOS is small fry in Spain, and three apps increasing their sales figures does not an exodus make.) It depends what they are fleeing.

If the fear is that the Spanish banks might implement a Cypriot-style deposit tax, then bitcoin would help. As a potentially anonymous currency, it's a tax avoider's – and tax evader's – dream, but only insofar as taking money out of the bank and keeping it in cash under the bed is. You can keep your money hidden from the tax man, but when you come to spend it, you're going to raise questions. In fact, the whole thing comes back full circle, because with Cyprus on lock-down, money laundering got a bit harder to do.

If your fear instead is Spain exiting the euro and devaluing, then bitcoin is a slightly better choice – but again, only so good as holding your money in dollars in a safe. But the exchange rate matters here. If I'm right, it's actually considerably worse than holding dollars in a safe. The bubble will burst, the exchange rate will plummet, and your bitcoins, measured in a currency you can actually use to buy food in, will lose all their value.

If I'm wrong, and the 100 per cent month-on-month increase continues, or even just levels off, then moving all your money into it could leave you rich. Who knows? That's the gamble you're taking

But fundamentally, the reason for switching to bitcoin from any other currency is that you have lost trust in the very concept of governments looking after money. If you are sitting in the eurozone at the moment, that might be an understandable belief. But I still have very little hope that switching from a currency with bad monetary policy to a currency where monetary policy is deliberately impossible will help matters to any great deal.

Spaincoin! Bitspain? Spitcoin. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Alex Hern

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

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Tory backbench leader Graham Brady: “When we vote to leave the EU, the PM should stay”

As chair of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady is a king among Tory backbenchers. So what does the ardent Eurosceptic make of David Cameron’s prospects in the EU referendum – and afterwards?

Enter Graham Brady’s office and you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view of the Palace of Westminster and Parliament Square. It is an appropriately grand vantage point for one of the most influential MPs. As the chairman of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, Brady is an essential barometer of Tory opinion. In recognition of this, he was one of the first guests to No 10 Downing Street in the hours following David Cameron’s general election victory. A prime minister with a majority of 12 – the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974 – must take permanent heed of his backbenchers.

I met Brady, 48, shortly before the start of Prime Minister’s Questions on 10 February. Among Conservative MPs below us in Portcullis House, there remained only one topic of discussion: Europe. Cameron’s draft agreement with the EU has failed to persuade many Eurosceptics that they should vote in favour of membership of the Union when the referendum is likely held on 23 June. Brady, who entered parliament in 1997 as the MP for Altrincham and Sale West, is one of those who intends to campaign for withdrawal.

“There is a very long-term problem that there is a massive difference between what Britain thought it was joining – the European Economic Community – and what it actually was joining,” he said. “There was no appetite or decision to join a political Europe . . . That is something that has always needed to be resolved in some way and I think the more the eurozone, in particular, integrates with the continuing crisis, the more we will have to see massive political and fiscal integration and probably, still, the departure of some of the weaker eurozone countries. As that process goes on, the United Kingdom has got to redefine its relationship in a meaningful way.”

In advance of the European Council summit in Brussels on 18-19 February, he warned that Cameron’s renegotiations had fallen far short. “The reforms that are being sought by the Prime Minister, while all welcome changes, don’t come anywhere near to that fundamental reform of the nature of our relationship with the EU.”

I asked Brady, who was elected to lead the 1922 Committee in 2010, how many of his Conservative colleagues he expected to join him. “It’s very hard to say. I’ve always thought that a clear majority of Conservative members of parliament are deeply unhappy about the shape of the current European Union. And probably a clear majority would have a preference of leaving the EU as it is today. I suspect that roughly 100 will declare that they’re campaigning for Britain to leave. But many more will be very sympathetic to that objective.”

His estimate of 100 is notably higher than the 50 to 70 predicted by Steve Baker, the co-chairman of Conservatives for Britain.

In recent weeks, Eurosceptics have complained as pro-EU cabinet ministers have campaigned for membership while front-bench opponents have remained “gagged”. Brady told me it was “not unreasonable” for Cameron to force them to abide by collective responsibility until the renegotiation had concluded. But, he added: “What is important is that once the deal is done things should be brought to a conclusion as rapidly as possible. I hope there will be a cabinet meeting, if not on the Friday after the Prime Minister returns, then on the Saturday morning, [so] that the cabinet can agree its collective position and also agree that those who don’t share that view are free to say so and free to campaign.”

Some MPs expect as few as five cabinet members to support EU withdrawal (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) although others remain hopeful of persuading Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to join them. “I hope that everybody who is really committed to Britain’s future as a free, independent democracy will realise this is a key decision point,” Brady said.

“There’s no doubt that if Boris Johnson were to campaign for Britain to leave it would bring an energy and buzz to the campaign. Of course that would be welcome, and I hope that Michael Gove will resolve his dilemma in the same direction.”

I asked Brady if he was worried by what some Eurosceptics call “the Farage problem”: that the most prominent opponent of EU membership is also the most polarising. “Nigel Farage is very good at what he does,” he said of the Ukip leader. “He’s a very effective communicator with some audiences, so clearly he has a role in the campaign. Given the salience of the issue for him and his party, it would be unreasonable to expect him not to be prominent in the campaign. But he is a Marmite character and I think this is why it’s so important that there should be a wide range of different voices.”

Brady, who had just returned from a breakfast meeting in the City of London, told me that a number of business people have revealed to him that although their “institutional position is firmly that we should remain in the EU . . . privately their view is completely the opposite”.

Two days before we met, Cameron had been accused of “scaremongering” for warning that “the Jungle”, the refugee camp in Calais, could move to Dover in the event of EU withdrawal. Brady told me that the Prime Minister’s remarks were indeed “inaccurate” and that it was “enormously helpful of the French government to point out that it wasn’t going to happen”.

Were Britain to vote to leave the EU, as polls suggest is possible, many Tory MPs on both sides believe that Cameron would have to resign as Prime Minister. But Brady rejected this suggestion. “No. When we vote to leave the European Union I think it is very important that we have a period of stability. I think it would be hugely valuable to have an experienced team in place to deal with the renegotiation, I think it’s actually very important that the Prime Minister should stay.”

I noted that he referred to “when” Britain leaves the EU, suggesting he was confident of victory. “I’m always confident of victory,” he replied with a smile.

Given Cameron’s decision to pre-resign before the election by vowing to serve only two terms, there will be a Conservative leadership contest before 2020. I asked Brady whether, as some have suggested, the members’ ballot should be widened to include more than two candidates.

“The rules are constructed for each contest by the 1922 executive and agreed with the party board. The only stipulation in the constitution of the party is that we should provide ‘a choice’ to the party members. That has always been construed as a choice of two. I can’t see any reason why parliamentary colleagues would wish to reduce their own influence in the process by putting forward a larger field.”

The Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has argued that it is essential there be a female candidate (ideally herself). Brady offered her some advice: “I have very fond recollections of a woman leading the Conservative Party. I hope that if Nicky wants to launch her campaign seriously, she’ll talk to me about how we might promote more grammar schools and selective education as one of the ways that we can stimulate real social mobility in the country again – and she’ll have my support.” It was after the then shadow education secretary, David Willetts, argued in 2007 that grammar schools inhibited social mobility that Brady resigned as shadow minister for Europe.

If there is one stipulation that most Conservative members and MPs will make, it is that there be an anti-EU candidate in the field. I asked Brady whether he would consider standing himself.

“I say to people that I’m very happy with being the returning officer for any leadership contest,” he replied. But the man with a better feel for Conservative backbench opinion than any other ended our conversation with this prediction. “I do think it’s very likely that if we put two candidates forward to the party in the country, at least one of them will have been someone who campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle