Getty.
Show Hide image

Dr Liam Fox convenes a new Dr Liam Fox to fix Brexit

What is wrong with these people?

You know, there are some people out there – bad, mean, cynical people, the sort of remoaning saboteurs who wouldn’t recognise national sovereignty if it bit them on the bollocks – who would have you believe that Brexit wasn’t going very well.

Those same people are often to be found pointing out that International Trade Secretary Dr Liam Fox doesn’t really have a job, as such, since the UK is not allowed to even begin negotiating its own free trade deals until it actually leaves the European Union – and that thus the entire Department for International Trade is less a useful government department and more a make work scheme for the disgraced former defence secretary, Dr Liam Fox.

Those people are wrong. Because today, DIT – which is a terrible acronym, but which I’m going to use anyway because it sounds funny – released a press release.

International Trade Secretary Dr Liam Fox convenes a new Board of Trade to ensure the benefits of free trade are spread throughout the UK

Dr Liam Fox will convene a new Board of Trade which will bring together prominent business and political figures from each part of the UK

(…)

The new Board of Trade will bring together prominent figures from business and politics from each part of the UK, including representatives from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

You see, whingers? He’s not just poncing about in a ministerial car, generally sucking up oxygen – he’s doing something useful. He’s ensuring the benefits of free trade are being spread throughout the UK. What have you done for Britain today, you traitor?

There are two things about this press release that are very, very funny. One is that it refers to the international trade secretary as “Dr Liam Fox” throughout, to make sure that we are very, very clear he’s a doctor. There’s probably a protocol reason for that, but I like to imagine Fox leaning over some poor press officer insisting, in an attempt to reassure both us and himself that, whatever he may or may not be doing at the moment, Dr Liam Fox is a useful member of society who has actually valuable skills.

The even funnier thing is this bit:

The only member is:

(i)        Secretary of State for Department of International Trade and President of the Board of Trade (Chair)

So for all the talk of bringing together leaders from the four corners of the UK, the entirety of this new Board of Trade consists of Dr Liam Fox. Who will now get on with promoting trade, on his own, which was already his job. Dr Liam Fox has convened a board consisting entirely of himself. He is a board, now. Can one man even be a board? Isn’t that more of a splinter? Or at best, a plank?

This has been causing much hilarity on the internet this afternoon. The BBC Brexit researcher Joey D’Urso went as far as to call the press office to check it was right, before tweeting:

Just rang dept. Confirm Liam Fox only “official member” but it’s not “just Liam Fox sitting in a room on his own”.

Then, in an act that’s far funnier than anything I’m ever going to come up with even if I stare at this screen until my forehead bleeds, he went through the press release, changing all references to the “Board of Trade” to the still factually accurate “Dr Liam Fox”:

As it happens, the problem is that the new Board of Trade is a committee of the Privy Council, which means that only Privy Councillors can be official members. Most of those involved with it are not Privy Councillors, so can only be listed as advisers to, rather than members of, the board. See? It’s all very sensible and not in any way ridiculous at all.

Nonetheless, it means that, to put rocket boosters under the British economy at this time of national crisis, Dr Liam Fox’s solution was to turn to Dr Liam Fox, to ask if Dr Liam Fox had any ideas. Despite being an incredibly busy man, Dr Liam Fox was kind enough to agree. We are blessed. Truly, this country is blessed.

In 2011, Dr Liam Fox was forced to resign as defence secretary in disgrace after an investigation conducted by cabinet secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell found that his blurring of the lines between his official role and personal friendships and “posted a degree of security risk not only to Dr Fox, but also to the accompanying official party.” He is 56 years old.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.