In this week’s New Statesman: Assange, alone

Jemima Khan on how Julian Assange alienated his allies. PLUS: Who really runs Britain? We reveal the most powerful people you've never heard of.

Jemima Khan: How an Assange supporter became a sceptic

New Statesman associate editor Jemima Khan writes following the Sundance Film Festival premiere of We Steal Secrets, a WikiLeaks documentary she executive-produced and which “[Julian] Assange denounced before seeing”.  She writes:

In many ways, the film’s narrative arc mirrors my own journey with Assange, from admiration to demoralisation.

Once an Assange admirer and committed supporter, Khan even stood bail for the WikiLeaks editor-in-chief in 2010. She reveals in this exclusive essay how he lost her, and others’, support.

Read this piece in full now.

 

The Shadow Power List: Who really runs Britain?

The new “establishment” of Britain do not reside in Whitehall. They are the directors and chief executives of the companies to which much of the government’s functions have been outsourced. They are unelected, often unaccountable and in charge of ever more of our public services – shaping our lives outside the spotlight. In a special report we profile eleven people “who hold the very British brand of inconspicuous power”.

Rafael Behr writes:

Power in Britain is not contained within boundaries easily definable as “government” . . .

Where we experience the humiliation of powerlessness, this is as likely to be at the hands of a private company as a state institution. When it is a state service, there is every chance its functions have been outsourced to a private provider. ..

[Power] resides on the boards of companies no one has heard of, in quangos, in hedge funds, in networks of friends and former ministerial advisers who work for charitable bodies with opaque remits.

Featuring:

Christopher Hyman, Chief executive, Serco

The National Nuclear Laboratory, the Docklands Light Railway, immigration detention centres, the London cycle hire scheme, NHS Suffolk, the National Border Targeting Centre, air-traffic control services, waste collection for local authorities, maintenance services for ballistic missiles, government websites, prisons and a young offender institution – there is almost no branch of government that has not been penetrated by Serco, the outsourcing behemoth. And few have benefited more from the growth of this shadow state than the company’s chief executive, Christopher Hyman.

Sam Laidlaw, Chief executive, Centrica

Sam Laidlaw, of the privatised utility company Centrica (formerly British Gas), has been described as the “aristocrat” of the energy industry – and his family history indicates how the British ruling class has adapted over the course of a century, from empire to social democracy and the free market. His grandfather Hugh was an executive of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in India, a forerunner of BP; his father, Christophor, worked his way up through BP to become deputy chairman

Joanna Shields, Chief executive, Tech City

Joanna Shields, the new chief executive of the Tech City Investment Organisation, has internet pedigree, having worked with Google, Bebo, AOL and Facebook. She may have been unable to save Bebo, one of the social networks caught in the squeeze between the dwindling Myspace and nascent Facebook, but her reputation in the tech world remains strong. Her task now is to transform Tech City into Britain’s version of Silicon Valley.

Tony Mitchell, Director, Tesco, supply chain

Tony Mitchell is the model of a Tesco company man. He started on the shop floor in 1978 and worked his way up to store manager, then eventually to head office, and now Mitchell decides what £1 in every £7 in the UK is spent on. Getting on to the shelves at Tesco can make a young company, and getting thrown off them is likely to be the death knell.

 

Rafael Behr: If Tory MPs can’t decide what kind of party they want, they’ll have to work it out in opposition

In the Politics Column, Rafael Behr writes on the split within the Conservative party, more than half of whom refused “to accept the Prime Minister’s moral lead on gay marriage” in Tuesday’s free vote. This “expresses a more profound reluctance to be led” writes Behr. Many Tories feel they have lost “any sense of ownership” within the government programme:

But complaints that Cameron is inadequately Conservative are “absurd” considering his implementation of core Conservative ideas – in short “he is the ultimate valediction of 20th-century Conservatism.”

If his party thinks that is a monstrous creation, it faces an epic task working out what it wants to be instead. It is the kind of work can only be done in opposition.

Read this piece in full now.

 

PLUS

 

Nicholas Wapshott: What David Cameron can learn from Abraham Lincoln

In the NS Essay, Nicholas Waptshop draws parallels between Lincoln’s fight to repair the union with Cameron’s modern woes over Scottish secession and the EU referendum. He goes on out outline the similarities and differences between the Prime Minister and the 16th US President.

There are poignant similarities between the conundrum that Lincoln encountered 150 years ago and the dilemma David Cameron faces today. They are both confronted with threats to the very existence of the nations they govern . . .

But while Lincoln was presented with the simple option of whether to take up arms to defend the Union or watch as his country split in two, Cam­eron has no such easy choice.

 

Laurie Penny: Ten years ago we marched against the Iraq war and I learned a lesson in betrayal

Ten years ago this month, millions of people all over the world marched against the war in Iraq- and were ignored. I was one of them...

Tony Blair’s decision to take Britain into the American’s war in Iraq was an immediate, material calamity for millions of people in the Middle East. I’m writing here, though, about the effect of that decision on the generation in the west who were children then and are adults now. For us, the sense of betrayal was life-changing.

 

In The Critics

Much of the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman is devoted to our annual history special. Featuring the historian David Cesarani on the changing face of Holocaust historiography, John Gray on the long and bloody history of political violence, and Britain’s former special representative in Afghanistan Sherard Cowper-Coles reviewing Return of a King: the Battle for Afghanistan by William Dalrymple and Games Without Rules: the Often Interrupted History of Afghanistan by Tamim Ansary.

  • Jonathan Derbyshire interviews historian Norman Stone
  • Ryan Gilbey reviews Pablo Larraín’s film No
  • Kate Mossman reviews new albums by Anaïs Mitchell and Jackie Oates
  • Thomas Calvocoressi visits “Light Show”, a new exhibition at the Hayward Gallery
  • Will Self’s Madness of Crowds.

This and much more in our “In The Critics” blog on Cultural Capital.

Purchase a copy of this week's New Statesman in newsstands today, or online at: subscribe.newstatesman.com

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

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.