George Osborne leaves 10 Downing Street. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Westminster prepares to offer further powers to Scotland - but is it too little, too late?

The decision to keep devo max off the ballot paper may come to be seen as the Unionists' biggest error. 

Even before last night's dramatic poll putting the Scottish Yes side ahead for the first time, the Westminster parties were planning to unite this week to outline the further powers that would be transferred to Scotland following a No vote. But the remarkable momentum acquired by the nationalists (who have gone from 22 points behind to two points ahead in a month) has made a new offer even more imperative. 

Perhaps the biggest weakness of the Unionist campaign has been its failure to clearly spell out what powers would be devolved and the process by which they would be so. Alistair Darling's worst moment in his second debate with Alex Salmond came when he was asked to name three job-creating powers that the Scottish Parliament would gain after a No vote and was unable to answer. Since polls have long shown a majority of Scots in favour of devo max (which goes beyond anything yet offered by Westminster), the Unionists should have been much better prepared.

In an attempt to compensate for this failure, George Osborne promised on this morning's Andrew Marr Show: "You will see in the next few days a plan of action to give more powers to Scotland. More tax powers, more spending powers, more plans for powers over the welfare state. 

"That will be put into effect - the timetable for delivering that will be put into effect - the moment there is a no vote in the referendum. The clock will be ticking for delivering those powers - and then Scotland will have the best of both worlds."

This doesn't suggest that any new powers will be offered, beyond those previously announced, but it does suggest that, for the first time, a clear timetable will be outlined. 

The hope is that this positive offer, reminiscent of that made to Quebec separatists by the Canadian government in 1995 (which helped give the No campaign victory by a single point), will persuade Scots that a vote for No is not a vote for the status quo, but a vote for a reconfigured Union. But the danger for the Unionists is that this is all too little, too late. As I've said, there is no indication that any party will offer devo max (which would entail full fiscal autonomy), as demanded by some No campaigners, such as J.K. Rowling, today. Others justifiably complain that this more explicit offer comes after some have already cast their postal votes. And that it coincides with the Yes side moving ahead means it looks like an act of desperation, rather than an act of principle.

If Scotland does vote for independence, the moment the Union was lost may come to be seen as October 2012, when David Cameron vetoed the inclusion of a second question on further devolution on the ballot paper. Back then, this was regarded as necessary to deny Salmond a "consolation prize" that would aid his gradualist strategy. But it has ended up endangering the Union anyway. Had devo max been an option on 18 September, Better Together could have told Scots to vote "No" to independence and "Yes" to further devolution: the best of both worlds. But it now faces the far harder task of convincing them that "No" also means Yes. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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?