Will Alex Salmond and his opponents seek to gain political capital from the Commonwealth Games? Photo: Getty
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The Commonwealth Games begin: will they be a political spectacle?

The Commonwealth Games will open in Glasgow today, and Alex Salmond has promised not to use them for political purposes. Will he keep his word?

The torches are lit, lurid lycra is being donned, Rod Stewart and Lulu are doing some vocally-beneficial gargling and some poor soul is dressing up as a larger-than-life cartoon thistle called Clyde. The 20th Commonwealth Games begin later in Glasgow’s Celtic Park.

But big sports events are never uncomplicated, and we can be sure to see some politics playing out in this year’s spectacle, not least because of its location. Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond will no doubt be considering how useful the Games could be for his Scottish independence cause, what with the referendum coming up in September.

He’s already bemused Andy Murray and family, as well as all Wimbledon viewers, by waving the saltire in the Royal Box at Centre Court when Murray won Wimbledon last year. He also controversially urged Scots to get behind the “Scolympians” in the Olympic Games in 2012, a name he came up with to describe Scottish competitors rather than “Team GB”.

The BBC’s Today programme this morning asked whether the Games would be a “politics-free” zone, and explored this question with Jim Naughtie visiting the 1990 City of Culture (now it’s known officially just as a “City of Culture”) and asserting that the Games are bound to be about “national feelings” and “questions of identity”. He said the Games would be a significant “backdrop” to the debate the Scots have been having about their role in the UK and the world.

Yesterday, the Independent’s Chris Green asked whether the Scottish referendum would be the “elephant in the stadium”, writing how both sides of the debate will probably be planning how to play their part in the Games with political shrewdness:

For the next fortnight, leaders on either side of the Scottish independence debate will desperately try to avoid being seen to make political capital out of the sporting spectacle unfolding in Glasgow – while privately hoping that their attendance at the Commonwealth Games will do just that.

While Nick Clegg has commented that, “the less politics, particularly politics relating to the referendum campaign, the better. Let’s celebrate the sport, not the politics, at the Commonwealth Games”. And the government’s Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael has warned Salmond not to pull another stunt like he did at Wimbledon, saying it would be “exceptionally foolish” and an “enormous mistake and a misjudgement of the mood, especially in Glasgow…

“People in Scotland will react badly to anybody who tries to make political capital from the endeavour of sportsmen and women.”

Salmond himself has promised not to use the Commonwealth Games for political capital, announcing his “self-denying ordnance” over referendum campaigning for the ten-day duration of the event:

I’ve taken a kind of self-denying ordinance to concentrate on the Games over the next 10 days and I think that’s what the people of Scotland want.

However, as the Telegraph pointed out yesterday, Salmond has already gone back on his promise criticising the Chancellor George Osborne for being based in London and arguing that Scottish athletes would “flourish” in an independent Scotland, during a Games press conference.

So, aside from the 6,500 athletes and 17 different sports, a spectacle worth watching will be both sides of the referendum debate trying to gain traction for their causes in the final lap of campaigning.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

DebateTech
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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to write a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the MPs behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

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