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The right are defending Uber, because they don't really understand it

TfL's judgement isn't what stops Britain being a hub of digital innovation. But the reaction of its critics is.

Rest in peace, British capitalism. You had a good run, but thanks to Sadiq Khan’s decision to end Uber’s licence to operate in London, it’s all over now.

Even the usually sensible Conservative MPs, like Tom Tugendhat  and Matt Warman, have got in on the action. Tugendhat wondered if Khan would “switch off the Internet” next, while Warman warned that the move sent “a clear message” that digital businesses were not “welcome in London”. The ASI's Sam Dimitru describes it as "a disaster for Londoners", who, he says, benefit from the flexibility it offers both to customers and drivers. 

What all these statements do is reveal Uber’s very, very clever marketing trick, in that they’ve convinced a large number of politicians, across the left and the right, that they are a digital start-up. What they actually are is a minicab firm that has invested time and money in an excellent app.

That matters because the regulation they have fallen foul of has nothing to do with their “digital” contribution and everything to do with their human contribution. As Jonn explains in greater detail here, Transport for London has suspended Uber’s licence because of their repeated refusal to vet their drivers.

These are not problems that Uber is incapable of addressing while continuing to turn a profit. Nor can they be said to be essential to Uber’s “model”, such as it is. Frankly, there is no reason a business can’t provide the things that people enjoy about Uber – the easy-to-use app, the low cost, and the quantity and quality of cars – and address TfL’s concerns about vetting their drivers. The "disaster for Londoners" that the loss of Uber represents can still be avoided, while also avoiding the disaster for Londoners that is getting into a cab with a dangerous driver.  (Uber is losing money overall worldwide but I am reliably informed that it does make a profit in London.) 

What is striking is that there is an excellent example at the moment of government interference risking the future of a digital business, and it’s not coming from City Hall but Downing Street. It’s the repeated insistence from the Prime Minister and Home Secretary that communications companies such as WhatsApp “ban end-to-end encryption” in order to prevent terrorists plotting on the service. But end-to-end encryption not only protects terrorists, but anyone transferring money, or confidential details, or medical records from one place to another. Countless businesses, not just WhatsApp, literally could not function without encryption as it exists.

That there isn’t the organised wailing from Conservative MPs and the right-wing press about encryption that there is about TfL explains the real barrier to digital businesses in the United Kingdom: that our political class just doesn’t understand technology as well as it should. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Four key thinkers more deserving of a revival than “Trump’s philosopher” Ayn Rand

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely.

A recent story in theTimes carried the headline, “Trump’s philosopher is heading for your local pub”. The philosopher in question was Ayn Rand, whose works The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957) have been a profound influence on the American right since they were published, and are apparently enjoying a resurgence.

The story went on: the previous week, “about 15 people packed into a room above the Plumbers Arms in Victoria, central London” to discuss Rand. You read that right: 15! Three more than a dozen! Their cups runneth over indeed. We later discovered that Britain’s first Ayn Rand Centre is being set up. Moreover, new groups dedicated to Rand have popped up in Reading and Milton Keynes.

Everything about this story was designed to make me angry. For one thing, Rand was above all a novelist, not a philosopher. For another, it’s generous to suggest that the star of America’s Celebrity Apprentice, who is also the current occupant of the White House, is deeply familiar with her overall body of work. He said he enjoyed The Fountainhead; that’s some way short of her being a favourite philosopher.

But the thing that really riles me is this fashion for stories about intellectual fashions. Last year, apparently, there was an upsurge of interest in, and sales of, George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. During the financial crisis, displaying knowledge of Hyman Minsky’s oeuvre became the columnist’s trope du jour – just as, in the recession that followed, flaunting one’s knowledge of John Maynard Keynes’s The General Theory was a mark of cool and learning.

If thinkers have enduring value, it is because their ideas are timeless, not timely. So here, apropos of nothing in particular, are four other key thinkers that are being unfairly neglected.

1. Polonius The true hero of Elsinore, who manages to distil in one speech more wisdom than the self-indulgent prince manages over five acts. Where Hamlet’s meandering vanities take him hither and thither to no great end, Polonius speaks the language of uncommon common sense to which this column aspires. And how prescient is he? His “neither a borrower nor a lender be” anticipated the post-monetary policy era four centuries before Mark Carney took the reins in Threadneedle Street. And his advice to “Give every man thine ear but few thy voice” is the perfect coping mechanism for social media. 

2. Judith Kerr If you have young children, chances are you are more than familiar with Kerr’s seminal work, The Tiger Who Came to Tea. In it, Sophie is having tea with her mother in the kitchen when a big, furry, stripy tiger knocks on the door. It joins them and promptly eats and drinks everything in the house, forcing the family to go out for a special dinner when Sophie’s father comes home from work. Naturally, I don’t approve of the stereotypical gender roles in this plot; but the message of instinctive generosity and openness to unfamiliar outsiders, with unforeseen benefits for family life, undoubtedly carries lessons for our age of mass migration and rapid demographic upheaval.

3. Meryl Streep Less neglected than my other candidates for your attention, I’ll grant; but I really think Meryl Streep’s assertion, when asked in 2015 by Time Out if she was a feminist, is crucial. She said: “I’m a humanist.” In doing this she proclaimed the connection between feminism and universal ideals, placed feminism within a broader philosophical tradition, and revived interest in humanism at a time when religiosity is again on the march. Given the current conniptions over gender in our public domain, this was an important contribution, don’t you think?

4. Humphrey Appleby Have you noticed that, amid the toxic warfare over Brexit, the once unimpeachable integrity of Britain’s civil servants is now being traduced? Jacob Rees-Mogg criticised them only the other week. I recommend he revisit Yes, Minister, in which the peerless Nigel Hawthorne played the ultimate British bureaucrat. His dictum that “a cynic is what an idealist calls a realist” is both plausible and the perfect coolant for our
overheated democracy.

Back to the Ayn Rand philosophy club: I don’t believe I’ve tried the Plumbers Arms in Victoria. But I’ll make an exception if some New Statesman reader is prepared to start the first UK society dedicated to the propagation of these thinkers’ ideas. Anyone fancy a pint? 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist