No room for closure

. . . on the Iraq inquiry, public spending cuts and Mandy’s manoeuvres

I do not care whether the Iraq inquiry is held in public or private. It is a waste of time and money. Like, I would guess, most NS readers, I think Tony Blair and his aides decided to follow US instructions, distorted the intelligence, and prepared inadequately for the consequences of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Blair should have been forced from office, and possibly indicted as a war criminal, once it became clear there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The five Establishment figures appointed to hold the inquiry cannot turn back the clock and are unlikely to recommend that our former prime minister be hauled before the beak in The Hague. Indeed, it is hard to say what they can do. Lord Butler has already been over the intelligence (anybody who reads his report, rather than accepting Labour’s post-publication spin, will see he did a fairly good job) and, given that the inquiry members, apart from a war studies academic, lack significant military knowledge, they do not seem equipped to pinpoint military failings, as the Esher committee did after the Boer War. Many people want to hear a stirring denunciation of what were essentially political shortcomings, thus providing what is now called “closure”. But Blair would still swan around the world, collecting fat lecturing and “consultancy” fees while pretending to be a peacemaker.

No inquiry was held into the Second World War. Post-1945 governments just got on with building a welfare state. More pertinently perhaps, there was no inquiry into Suez. Britain just accepted its imperial days were over. Now our politicians should accept that we shouldn’t be accomplices to US imperial projects.


Should we lefties be in favour of public spending cuts? Whenever the subject is broached, our default response is to throw up our hands in horror. We believe public spending is inherently good, the Tories believe it is inherently evil, and that’s how we tell each other apart, rather as you can allegedly detect social class by whether someone says “toilet” or “lavatory”. Yet if anything, the left should take a harsher, more rigorous attitude to spending because most of the money comes (and always will) from the workers by hand or by brain.

I suspect the need for spending reductions from 2011 is exaggerated and some of the expected Budget shortfall can in any case be reduced by imposing higher taxes on the rich. Nevertheless, whichever party takes office after the next election will need to make substantial cuts. Labour should publish its list and challenge the Tories to publish theirs. I would include defence (particularly Trident), identity cards (I don’t particularly object to them, but I think we can manage without for a while), road-building programmes, subsidies to farmers, and subsidies for arms exports. I would stop doctors issuing prescriptions for conditions that would, in time, clear up anyway. I would stop creating fancy new schools such as city academies. I would scrutinise all quangos and abolish half of them. I would impose a salary maximum on every public service, so that bosses get no more than five times the pay of the average worker.

You may say I’m a fascist beast or my cuts are impracticable and wouldn’t raise enough money. Fair enough. But the left needs to have a conversation like this if it is to retain credibility.


In Corfu last autumn, an English sailing instructor first broke the news to me that Peter Mandelson had rejoined the government. Mandelson was set to become the next PM, the instructor confidently asserted.

That was impossible, I patiently – and, I fear, patronisingly – explained. Mandelson was no longer even an MP and membership of the Lords would make him ineligible for the premiership. Besides, the Labour Party would never stand for it. So much, I have reflected in recent days, for my inside knowledge and constitutional expertise.

Incidentally, the Mail on Sunday reports that Ed Miliband, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary, has been excluded from Mandelson’s inner circle. If Ed had heeded my advice to make a principled resignation, he would have been spared this humiliation.


The Tories have got themselves into a frightful muddle over the Sat tests for 11-year-olds. If I understand correctly, they will abolish the exams at the end of primary school but have them, instead, when children start secondary school. This, they believe, will stop primary teachers coaching for the tests and encourage a more rounded curriculum. Yet the Tories will still use the results to compile primary school league tables.

Since the point of league tables is to help parents avoid low-scoring schools, why would primary teachers stop coaching? The most likely result is that teachers will instruct parents to drill their children daily over the holidays and I can imagine some primary heads organising summer cramming schools. Middle-class parents are more likely to co-operate, and so, the league tables will become even more unfair to schools that serve disadvantaged areas.


When rain interrupts one-day cricket, as it did during England’s World Twenty20 match against the West Indies, the authorities use something called the Duckworth-Lewis method, which involves algorithms. The principle is that, if one side batted 20 overs and got 160 runs (England made 161, but I’ll try to keep it simple), and there’s time for only nine more overs, their opponents shouldn’t have a target of just 73 runs (nine-twentieths of 160 plus one). Because they’ve still got ten wickets, their target should be higher.

Nobody understands Duckworth-Lewis. Anybody can understand the Wilby method (as I shall call it). Reduce the target proportionately, but also reduce the number of wickets. So the side batting nine overs has to get 73 runs but can lose only 4.5 wickets. (When the fourth wicket falls, one batsman takes strike at both ends.) The decisive advantage of my method is that England would have won against the West Indies.

Which, since we invented cricket and its Twenty20 variant, seems only fair.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Iran

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

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