In this week’s New Statesman: Steven Poole on the rise of Big Data

PLUS: Rafael Behr on the angry white guys tearing the Tories apart.

Cover Story: The Digital Panopticon

In this week’s cover story Steven Poole looks at the promise of “Big Data” – that we will be saved from our manifold dilemmas so long as we measure the world. Google Flu Trends can track the spread of an influenza epidemic, Google Translate’s corpus of phrases and likely translations far surpasses all others, and aircraft and other complex engineering projects can be made more reliable once components are able wirelessly to phone home information about how they are functioning. But how useful is big data in the first place? And should we be wary of the consequences?

. . . as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier point out in their useful recent book, Big Data: “Big data itself is founded on theory.” And once you’ve manufactured data with instruments that operate according to certain theories, you then need to analyse it theoretically. At the Large Hadron Collider, subatomic smashing generates a million gigabytes of data every second. Automated systems keep just a millionth of this for analysis (discarding the rest based on theories), but the bit-heap is still Brobdingnagian. And it needs to be analysed according to still other theories before scientists will understand what is going on. Until then, the data itself is just inscrutable numbers. Raw data is not knowledge. According to IBM, 90 per cent of the world’s extant data has been created in the past two years. Unless I missed something important, that is not because the human race has very rapidly become much wiser.

Rafael Behr: He was the future once – David Cameron and the struggle to be modern

By the end of this year, David Cameron will have served longer as the leader of the Conservatives than any of his three most recent predecessors put together, writes Rafael Behr. Longevity would be an advantage for a prime minister in charge of his party, running a competent administration and presiding over a benign economy. Cameron is doing none of these things:

The Cameron project was conceived in the middle of the last decade as a re-enactment of Tony Blair’s march on power in the mid-1990s. A metropolitan cult of renewal was central to that ambition . . .

When the Tories were in opposition, cultural refugees from the new liberal-left social consensus could cherish the hope that a Conservative prime minister might bring cultural restitution. Then along came Cameron’s clique of west London fops, legislating for gay marriage and referring to the party’s stalwart activists as “swivel-eyed loons”. To the disinherited fringe, Cameron’s “modernisation” felt like a continuation of the reviled Blair-Brown occupation. (The reliance on Labour MPs to pass same-sex marriage legislation reinforces the sense of conspiracy.) No wonder Farage’s rallying cry is territorial. He urges supporters to “take our country back”.

What’s more, the Tories have miscalculated the Ukip vote. “We indulge these people by saying they’ve been given nothing,” a senior Conservative adviser says. “How many Ukip supporters have second homes in Marbella?” Not very many, actually, according to the polls.

The prevailing tone of British politics is alarmed by the present, ashamed of the recent past and obsessed with romantic retellings of an imaginary past anterior. The vacancy for a leader who projects credible optimism about what comes next is unfilled. For Cameron, this is now an almost impossible task.

David Blanchflower: This was King and Osborne’s lost decade

In the Economics Column this week our economics editor, David Blanchflower, berates the joint record of George Osborne and the outgoing governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, saying he “nearly fell over laughing” when King announced at the press conference for his valedictory inflation report that “a recovery is in sight”.

“I would be surprised to see growth of more than 1 per cent this year and next,” Blanchflower predicts. “This looks like King and George Osborne’s lost decade.”

So just what does King mean by “recovery”, and is there any merit to the Chancellor’s assertion that the economy is “healing”?

There is rather mixed evidence from business surveys: the purchasing managers’ surveys showed some pick-up, but the Bank of England agents’ surveys suggest little improvement. The EU’s Economic Sentiment Index, which combines consumer and business surveys, fell again in April. The labour market continues to weaken. Underemployment is rising again; there has been a further surge in the number of people who are part-time but want full-time jobs . . . It is unlikely that, with such uncertainty in the air and shrinking wages, consumers are heading for a spending spree. The patient is still in intensive care.

PLUS

The Diary: Jonathan Smith on the darker side of Cornwall, tailgaiting in Virginia and Elvis’s top half

David Herman: Why is television still so white?

Letter from Serbia: Fiona Sampson takes a journey to the heart of the Balkans

Hugh Purcell on the New Statesman’s past: Fellow-Travellers at the NS, shadowy MI6 placements and the senior staffer Gaitskell’s wife said was “Stalin dressed as a nun”

Laurie Penny applauds the bravery of the suffragettes

Ed Smith: In cricket, as in Britian, the north-south divide is as deep as ever

David Puttnam: What makes us human?

In the Critics

This week, Hedley Twidle, the winner of the 2012 Bodley Head and Financial Times Essay Prize, considers the latest travelogue by Paul TherouxThe Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola. Theroux, Twidle writes, “is unwilling to let go of his African fantasies” and the result is disastrous. “He mints generalisations and insults at such a clip that they soon begin to outstrip even the most gifted parodist.” Twidle concludes: “Bankrupt in more ways than one, this is a book I would recommend as a teaching aid or to someone interested in tracking the final sub-Conradian wreckage of a genre.”

PLUS

  • Colin MacCabe reviews Stephen Nadler’s The Philosopher, the Priest and the Painter. “Nadler’s book, though an admirable portrait of Descartes’s life in the Netherlands, gives no sense of the strangeness of Descartes’s vision.”
  • George Eaton praises the modesty and wisdom of Andrew Adonis, which shine through in 5 Days In May, his book about the coalition negotiations. “As a long-standing believer in a ‘progressive coalition’, Adonis felt this failure [of the Lib-Lab negotations] more keenly than most.”
  • Alice O’Keeffe on the limitations of nature writing, as revealed in Robert Macfarlane’s latest book, Holloway. And Leo Robson praises All That Is, the latest novel by the87-year-old American writer, James Salter. “Salter’s grammar-defiant swooning is the vehicle for a deep seriousness about human sensation and emotion and you give in, happy to helpeless.”

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.