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Devolution strikes back – but do Cornwall and Yorkshire want more powers . . . or just more money?

 If prospectors struck oil off the Falmouth coast tomorrow, I don’t see how anyone could blame the Cornish for rolling out barbed wire along the banks of the Tamar.

In the last weeks of the referendum campaign, I’ve been annoying my colleagues even more than usual. “What about Cornwall?” I pipe up. “If I lived in Cornwall, I’d be pretty pissed off with the current constitutional set-up, too.”

One of the defining themes of the independence debate has been how badly served many people in Scotland feel by the concentration of power in Westminster. “We didn’t vote for this Tory government!” said a succession of men draped in the Saltire on the news. “Scotland’s Future in Scotland’s Hands”, went the title of Alex Salmond’s New Statesman lecture in March.

One obvious consequence of this anti-establishment fervour is that activists in the English regions have renewed their call for more powers. The devolution agenda – widely regarded to have stalled in November 2004 when voters rejected a north-east assembly – is back. And it’s not just in the big cities of the north, for which elected mayors are sporadically proposed. The rural regions also bridle at the thought of being governed by a “metropolitan elite”, which is the new way of saying “townies”. Think of the antipathy generated by the coalition’s proposed sell-off of the forests or the slow dredging of rivers on the Somerset Levels. Many English people feel that their particular concerns are going unheard.

A few figures to illustrate the problem: James Ball, who leads the Guardian’s data blog, analysed the number of news stories in national papers that mentioned Scotland between 8 and 15 September. The tally for this year was 2,157 – up from 1,077 in the same week in 2013. James, being a proud Yorkshireman, repeated the exercise for his home county, which has roughly the same size population as Scotland. The result? A measly 469, down from 503. If you live outside the capital, the media take you for granted unless you threaten to bugger off.

No wonder regionalist parties are sounding off. On 1 August, an outfit called Yorkshire First launched its “Yorkshire pledge”, dem­anding devolution of “powers to the least centralised authority capable of addressing those matters effectively”. It points out that Yorkshire has an economy twice the size of Wales’s but far less powers. Fun fact: if Yorkshire had seceded from Britain and competed in the 2012 Olympics, its seven golds, two silvers and three bronzes would have put it 12th in the medal table.

There is a problem, however: where do you define Yorkshire’s borders? Even the Yorkshire First website gets its whippets in a twist: it claims an area of 22 councils, including two from Lincolnshire. A similar problem afflicts the Wessex Regionalist Party (WRP), which originally used Thomas Hardy’s definition but has since decided to annex Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, too. (Luckily, with a grand total of 62 votes in Witney, the only seat it contested in 2010, the WRP’s imperial ambitions are unlikely to become worrisome.) English devolution will always stumble because historically, unlike Germany, we don’t have clearly defined administrative boundaries.

But that is not an issue for Cornwall, which has a clearly defined geographic area. (“Lots of the Cornish think England should stop at the Tamar and ‘Kernow’ should be its own country,” a Cornish friend told me recently.) It also has specific troubles: it is the most deprived part of Britain after western Wales, according to Eurostat.

The poverty levels show that Cornwall is getting a bad deal from being part of the United Kingdom. If prospectors struck oil off the Falmouth coast tomorrow, I don’t see how anyone could blame the Cornish for rolling out barbed wire along the banks of the Tamar. As it stands, the region is heavily reliant on tourism, so there is no possibility of a successful independence movement – and therefore no chance of tweaking public spending to buy it off, as the Barnett formula did for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. (That said, leaving Europe would have interesting consequences: Cornwall has received hundreds of millions in EU funding.)

What looks likely is further devolution - and here Cornwall has an advantage over more nebulous regions, because it already has a unitary authority, established in 2009, to which more responsibility could be given. The other option is a Cornish assembly, which the Liberal Democrats are squarely behind, for reasons that I’m sure have nothing to do with having three Cornish MPs with small majorities in seats where the Tories are in second place. (The three other parliamentary seats in Cornwall are held by Conservatives.) They judge, as Labour has done on the national scale, that when you don’t have any goodies to give away, you can always promise to give away power.

I asked Ian Saltern, an environmental project manager who moonlights on the cross-party campaign for a Cornish assembly, what such a body could offer. “Dydh da!” began his chirpy email back (Cornish for “Good day!”). Over the phone, he told me that the region needed more control over its housing, police, health, education and heritage policies. “The metropolitan mindset probably misses some of the unique problems that we have,” he said. “So much power has accrued to London and the south-east . . . and, you know, we don’t have a motorway – not that we’d necessarily want one, but that’s how far we are from London. During the floods, the news kept on about the ‘main train line’ between Cornwall and London. Actually, it was the only train line. And all the authorities coped really well. We think they could do that all the time, not just under emergency conditions.”

Over the next few years, Saltern’s theory is likely to be put to the test: after what we’ve seen in Scotland, the demands for devolution from the English regions will be hard to ignore. But they might well find that more powers are no substitute for something more concrete: more Treasury cash. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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How Martin Lewis’s battle with Facebook could shake online advertising to its core

The consumer advocate is furious that his face is being used to sell scams. 

Facebook simply cannot catch a break – not that many people will feel at that sorry for it. This month the company is in the middle of dealing with the fallout of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, while also trying to make its service compliant with strict new EU data protection rules.

And now it’s having to deal with a lawsuit that could, in theory at least, threaten its entire business model. The challenge comes from consumer advocate and financial talking head Martin Lewis – no stranger to publicity – who is suing over the issue of his image in Facebook adverts linked to financial scams.

Adverts for these scams are one of the major sources of fake news across the internet, and Lewis is far from the only person to see his likeness used in them. The adverts are for an extremely high-risk and under-regulated form of trading known as “binary options”, which have seen numerous reports of people losing their life savings.

The extremely high-risk product, though, is often advertised as virtually (or entirely) risk-free, thanks to some formula devised by an expert – often accompanied by a convincing fake write-up by a trusted news network, such as the BBC or CNN. One such site even created a video faking an endorsement from the physicist Stephen Hawking to sell its services.

Lewis, then, has picked a good villain: he has every right to be angry that his image is being used to sell such scams, and a good case to make that it could be damaging to his reputation. He argues that despite the volume of adverts uploaded to Facebook, given their reputation for facial recognition and other technologies, they should easily be able to stop these adverts appearing at all.

This is where Lewis’s argument becomes somewhat simplistic: no level of facial recognition would let Facebook automatically fix the problem of placing adverts. Yes, Lewis may not lend his image to sell any financial product, but what if he was the keynote speaker at a conference? Or if a news outlet did an interview with him and wanted to promote it to help it attract views (a practice some outlets actually do)?

In the case of other public figures it gets trickier still: an environmental group may wish to use a picture of an oil company CEO as part of a Facebook advert, or campaign groups may wish to use pictures of politicians. Preventing all of this would effectively create a huge new right over use of likeness, to the detriment of free speech and free debate.

And yet Facebook’s current response – that it removes any misleading adverts if they are reported to it by users – feels lacklustre to the point of inadequacy. This becomes especially true given the strange plot twist following the publication of stories about Lewis’s legal challenge. In a tweet thanking outlets for the coverage, Lewis alleged that similar adverts were now appearing next to the articles in question, including on Sky News and the Guardian, asking them to “rectify this immediately”.

This highlights a huge issue for any site mainly or partially reliant on advertising – including this one – where many if not most of the adverts you see are determined by algorithm with no prior control or sight by any staff (editorial or commercial) before they’re seen by the public.

Sites can try to rule out adverts for certain types of product or services, or based on certain keywords, but such rules are patchy. The result is often that on numerous high quality journalism sites, the adverts can push dubious products, if not outright scams. At their most harmless, these are very low quality, ad-stuffed, celebrity listicles (‘18 celebrities you never realised were gay’). But then there are questionable sites offering help with PPI refunds – which can be got for far lower fees through official channels – and binary option scams.

Editors can and do try to get such adverts removed when their users alert them, but this needs to be done on an ad-by-ad basis and can be time-consuming. Oddly, thanks to the ad networks upon which they rely, news outlets find themselves facing the same problem as their oft-time rival Facebook

As a result, the high-quality media which is currently railing against, and trying to fight back against, fake news often finds itself at least partially funded by that self-same fake news.

If successful – and it’s likely to be a very long shot – Martin Lewis’s lawsuit could find that it radically breaks and reshapes the way not just Facebook advertising, but all online advertising. That would be a huge, perhaps existential, risk to many sites which rely on it. But given the threats posed by the current business model of the internet, many could be forgiven for feeling the risk might be one worth taking.

James Ball is an award-winning freelance journalist who has previously worked at the Guardian and Buzzfeed. He tweets @jamesrbuk