What's in a name?


Is there a hunting season for libertarians in the Rocky Mountain states? Or would a close season be an unwarranted state intrusion on the freedom of any citizen to shoot them when he pleases? They are certainly easy to track down. The distinctive bellowing of a libertarian in distress, rather as one imagines an elk sounds while being castrated, resounds across the net at all times, and at the moment it is deafeningly loud whenever Internet addresses are mentioned.

The difficulty comes when one must decide exactly what all the fuss is about. People who complain that the Internet is threatened by a "Clinton/Gore United Nations World Government" have a hard time being taken seriously outside their natural constituency. Yet the issue they are addressing is undoubtedly important. Until roughly last autumn, the Internet remained governed by an unelected oligarchy of geeks. These people decided the way in which names and addresses could be handed out, in the first place because they were the only people who understood the situation (since they had built it) and in the second place because no one else cared very much.

But the founder generation is old and rich now; and the member of it who was most trusted and revered, Jon Postel, died last autumn. Other things have changed. Every government and every business in the world understands that the Internet matters; most governments outside America resent the way in which American law is exported to their countries. So a committee named Icann has been set up to co-ordinate the distribution of Internet names and addresses. Until this year, this was done, so far as it was done at all, by an American company, Network Solutions Inc, which had a monopoly over the distribution of Internet names. If you wanted a ".com", ".org" or ".net" name, you paid Network Solutions $70. That is why it has a stock market value of $2 billion after only five years in existence.

When its monopoly was threatened, Network Solutions offered to charge a wholesale price of $16 a name: the actual cost of administering the service, which is no more than a large database, has been estimated at $2 per name. The compromise price, agreed with the US Department of Commerce, has been set at $9. No wonder that Icann set as its first task the abolition of Network Solutions' monopoly, and no wonder that the company has been lobbying ferociously to persuade Americans that this is a vile interference by European bureaucrats into the freedom of the American citizen.

What is fascinating to the outside world is the way in which Network Solutions has been able to plug into the libertarian right in the USA for assistance in these efforts. In recent months Network Solutions has given tours of its offices to an alphabet soup of right-wing pressure groups: Citizens Against Government Waste, Americans for Tax Reform and the infamous Cato Institute. These make wonderful lobby fodder, because you only have to show them that the government is doing anything and they are against it; and what the American government is doing with Icann is essentially handing over to an international non- governmental organisation the control over the Internet that it had devolved to a private American company.

There were times, trying to unravel this story, when I thought my head would break from the battering of acronyms and the miasma of wet-farting indignation that rose from almost everything written on the subject. But everything finally made enlightening sense when I realised that it was all a sort of science fiction.

One should never underestimate the influence of the SF writer Robert Heinlein on the thought processes of the Internet. The classic Heinlein hero is completely apolitical. He lives from contract to contract but owes allegiance to no community or government whatever. He is in fact the Platonic consumer. Network Solutions represents a pure Heinlein fantasy: a private corporation that has grown rich because its founders were quick to see an opportunity. Now the government is going to take it away from them and they believe it's theft. What is extraordinary is the extent to which these fantasies take for granted the benefits of government: the enforcement of contracts and even the trillions of dollars of defence funding that formed the compost in which the Internet could grow. Equally, the kind of libertarian who thinks it outrageous that American federal law should apply to his own activities is seldom much troubled by the extension of its benefits to the barbarians in Europe.

There are all sorts of horrible things that governments might do to the Internet. Many of them are already being done. But the story shows that a chauvinist and ignorant American government could do as much damage as any; and that, for the moment, the chauvinist tendencies are losing.

This article first appeared in the 28 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Buy your home and kill a job

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide