Sajid Javid arriving at No 10 after being appointed as Culture Secretary. Photo: Getty
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Sajid Javid and the left, the “extermination” of grammar schools and Pamuk in Oxford

The response of some Labour MPs to Javid’s promotion was idiotic.

Sajid Javid, the first British Asian man to become a cabinet minister, is a politician the Conservatives have been waiting for. He’s not the son of high privilege, a member of the trust-fund class. As has been widely reported, his father was an immigrant from Pakistan who, after arriving in England with £1 in his pocket, found work as a bus driver. The family home was a two-bedroomed flat above a shop in Bristol; Javid attended a comprehensive school and then Exeter University. There he met Tim Montgomerie, who went on to create the ConservativeHome website, and Robert Halfon and David Burrowes, both now Tory MPs.

These Exeter Tories have influence. Halfon, who holds the marginal seat of Harlow, my old home town in Essex, is one of the most thoughtful MPs in Westminster. He advocates a kind of ethical, blue-collar conservatism that resonates in Harlow, where there is energy and aspiration but also entrenched intergenerational deprivation and underachievement.

John Major once asked: what did the Conservative Party have to offer a working-class boy like me? His answer was that it made him prime minister, as it did the grocer’s daughter before him. If the Tories are ever to win a majority again, they must become more than a coalition of middle- and upper-middle-class interests, as they are perceived to be under the plummy Cameron but never were under Thatcher.

The response of some Labour MPs to Javid’s promotion was idiotic: they denounced him for being rich, as if this were some kind of stain on his character. Javid is indeed extremely wealthy, having worked for two decades as a City financier. He is also a dry-as-dust Thatcherite and appears to have little hinterland.

Yet, like Jay Gatsby, he is self-made and has dared to dream. From a flat above a shop in one of Bristol’s toughest neigbourhoods to a seat at the cabinet table: anyone who cares about social mobility and wants Britain to become a more open and diverse society ought to be cheered by his ascent, even if you find his politics narrowly ideological and his professed cultural tastes – U2, Star Trek – uninspiring.

High lights at the Sheldonian

On the eve of municipal elections in Turkey, I chaired the Chancellor’s Lecture at the Oxford Literary Festival. The “lecture” turned out to be a conversation between Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s pre-eminent writer, and me. Pamuk was in Oxford at the invitation of Chris Patten, chancellor of the university. The previous day, Pamuk, who has been persecuted by the Erdogan government, had signed an open letter protesting against Turkey’s censorship of Twitter. Before our conversation – we discussed Islamism, the unique space between east and west occupied by Turkey, the global novel and the melancholy of Istanbul – we were introduced by Lord Patten who, with late-evening sunshine streaming through the high windows of Wren’s magnificent Sheldonian Theatre, delighted me by remarking on the revitalisation of the New Statesman, which he told the audience was “ascendant”.

Literally east

I asked Pamuk whether, in the digital age, the novel had much of a future. As I discovered when I was editor of Granta, overmany people want to write stories and novels – if everyone who wanted to write for Granta actually subscribed to it, the old magazine would be a bestseller – but there is a corresponding shortage of willing readers of literary fiction, especially men. I reminded Pamuk of something Philip Roth had said: “To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading . . . I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is [now] hard to come by . . .”

He wasn’t convinced. The novel, Pamuk said, was a bourgeois art form and would find a new and eager audience in countries with rapidly growing middle classes: India, China and Indonesia. So the future of the novel, as with so much else, resides in the east.

The old grammar of merit

The NS was the media partner of this year’s Cambridge Literary Festival, where I was present for a stimulating conversation between John Carey and my colleague Michael Prodger. The setting was the Cambridge Union, where Carey was talking about his memoir, The Unexpected Professor. He is a curious fellow: erudite but anti-elitist, thin-skinned and sharp-tongued. He writes clean and very simple sentences, perhaps too simple – Orwell is his model – but he reads with complexity and sophistication. He’s a grammar school boy and was evidently wounded by the slights he endured long ago as an undergraduate and junior don at Oxford. In conversation, he bemoaned what he called the “vindictive extermination” of the grammar schools. “Oxford and Cambridge still take vastly disproportionate numbers of public-school students,” he said.

True enough. But what we call the “7 per cent problem” – the dominance of the privately educated in public life – is the result not of the destruction of the grammar schools, as Carey believes, or of bias in the Oxbridge admissions system, but of deep structural problems to do with class, land ownership and inherited privilege in English society (Alex Salmond is attempting to address these issues in Scotland by breaking up the British state).

As Michael Gove says, “More than almost any [other] developed nation, ours is a country in which your parentage dictates your progress.” Which is why the rise of Sajid Javid is so interesting and why it poses such an awkward problem for Labour (which has never had a woman as leader or an Asian cabinet minister, and whose most successful prime ministers were privately educated) as well as for Ed Miliband’s lofty seminar-room socialism.

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 14 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?