Shakespeare saw it coming

Fabulous opinion piece by Stephen Greenblatt about Shakespeare’s Richard III, a character marked by “a weird, obsessive determination to reach a goal that looked impossibly far off, a position for which he had no reasonable expectation, no proper qualification and absolutely no aptitude”.

“Richard III,” which proved to be one of Shakespeare’s first great hits, explores how this loathsome, perverse monster actually attained the English throne. As the play conceives it, Richard’s villainy was readily apparent to everyone. There was no secret about his fathomless cynicism, cruelty and treacherousness, no glimpse of anything redeemable in him and no reason to believe that he could govern the country effectively.

His success in obtaining the crown depended on a fatal conjunction of diverse but equally self-destructive responses from those around him. The play locates these responses in particular characters — Lady Anne, Lord Hastings, the Earl of Buckingham and so forth — but it also manages to suggest that these characters sketch a whole country’s collective failure. Taken together, they itemize a nation of enablers.

Remind you of anyone?

Cabinet told to watch it

According to the Torygraph (so it must be true) Theresa May has stipulated that her senior ministers will be barred from wearing Apple Watches during Cabinet meetings amid concerns that they could be hacked by Russian spies.

Under David Cameron, several cabinet ministers wore the smart watches, including Michael Gove, the former Justice Secretary.

However, under Theresa May ministers have been barred from wearing them amid concerns that they could be used by hackers as listening devices.

Mobile phones have already been barred from the Cabinet because of similar concerns.

One source said: “The Russians are trying to hack everything.”

Apparently Michael Gove (who was once a serious politician, apparently) used to wear an iWatch and once treated the Cabinet to a few bars of a Beyoncé song while surreptitiously checking his email.

It’s a logical precaution. Mobiles have been verboten in Downing Street for a long time. Many years ago, when I was doing some consulting work in Whitehall, I once had to go to 10 Downing Street to see a senior civil servant. Upon entering through the front door, I was instructed to leave my mobile phone on the hall table and given a post-it note on which to write my name. I did so and went to my meeting in the warren of rooms behind No 10. When I got back to the entrance hall I went to reclaim my phone. Next to it was another handset (a Nokia, I think) with a post-it note saying “First Sea Lord”.

So this is how it ends

Good evaluation by the Economist of the second presidential debate:

SO THIS is how it was to end: a septuagenarian con-man flanked by four victims of sexual assault, real or alleged, trying to intimidate his opponent by dredging up old accusations against her husband, Bill Clinton. That pre-debate Facebook Live broadcast by Donald Trump, which combined farce, dystopia and reality-TV in three tawdry minutes, presaged the tone of the encounter that followed. As it turned out, his second confrontation with Hillary Clinton, at a town-hall style event in St Louis, did not signal the end of Mr Trump’s presidential bid. It may not lead to the headlong disintegration of the Republican Party, another outcome predicted in advance. Instead a hairline crack may have opened in the American republic itself.

Great piece, worth reading in full. It concludes that the debate wasn’t the cataclysmic event for the Trump campaign — but only because he was playing to his core supporters, who would probably vote for him even if he’d shot Clinton live on stage. But it shows the kind of damage that the last 30 years have inflicted on the American polity. And it’s more than a ‘hairline crack’.

ALSO. Great column by George F. Will. Ends thus:

Today, however, Trump should stay atop the ticket, for four reasons. First, he will give the nation the pleasure of seeing him join the one cohort, of the many cohorts he disdains, that he most despises — “losers.” Second, by continuing to campaign in the spirit of St. Louis, he can remind the nation of the useful axiom that there is no such thing as rock bottom. Third, by persevering through Nov. 8 he can simplify the GOP’s quadrennial exercise of writing its post-campaign autopsy, which this year can be published Nov. 9 in one sentence: “Perhaps it is imprudent to nominate a venomous charlatan.” Fourth, Trump is the GOP’s chemotherapy, a nauseating but, if carried through to completion, perhaps a curative experience.

Quote of the Day

“If it’s a blip, you tweak. If it’s a shock, you rethink”.

Malcolm McKenzie of consultancy firm Alvarez & Marsal, quoted in a Financial Times piece on UK business after Brexit.

Larry Summers is on the road to Damascus

Writing in today’s FT (paywall), Larry Summers reports on last week’s IMF summit in Washington. It’s a sombre column.

“The pervasive concern”, he writes,

was that traditional ideas and leaders were losing their grip and the global economy was entering into unexplored and dangerous territory.

IMF growth forecasts issued before the meeting were “again revised downwards”. (Note the ‘again’.).

“While recession does not impending in any large region”, he continues,

growth is expected at rates dangerously close to stall speed. Worse is the realisation that the central banks have little fuel left in their tanks.


Containing [recessions] generally requires 5 percentage points of rate cutting. Nowhere in the industrial world do central banks have anything like this kind of room even making allowance for the effects of unconventional policies like quantitative easing. Market expectations suggest that it is unlikely they will gain room for years to come.

The problem is that:

After seven years of economic over-optimism there is a growing awareness that challenges are not so much a legacy of the financial crisis as of deep structural changes in the global economy.

Which of course is one of the factors which led to the Brexit vote and the rise of Trump. Interesting therefore to hear a leader of the global elite coming round to the same conclusion.

Better late than never, I suppose.

Just because it’s ‘trending’ doesn’t mean it’s true

This morning’s Observer column:

On 27 September, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced up to one another in the first of the televised presidential debates. Most observers concluded that Clinton had come off best. She was better prepared, they thought, and towards the end Trump seemed rattled and rambling.

Needless to say, this didn’t stop the Trump campaign team from using the phrase “Trump Won” in ads even before the debate ended. Aha, you say, that’s American politics for you: you get what you pay for. And in these circumstances, every candidate says that she or he has won anyway, no matter what happened in the debate.

But then something interesting happened. The hashtag #TrumpWon went viral on Twitter and in a few hours had reached the top of the global trending list. Trump was on to it like a shot. “The #1 trend on Twitter right now,” he tweeted, “is #TrumpWon – thank you!”

Read on

Why those “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” turned out to be rather important

Tim Montgomerie, writing in today’s Times (behind a paywall) says that

many people have learnt it can be dangerous to laugh at the party that won four million votes at the last general election. Jean-Claude Juncker, for example. The European Union he leads would be managing one less existential crisis if Mr Farage’s popularity hadn’t frightened David Cameron into holding the Brexit referendum. And Mr Cameron would still be in No 10 if the people he once dismissed as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” hadn’t overturned British politics.

Which is true. But he fails to mention the underlying problem, namely the first-past-the-post electoral system which meant that four million voters get precisely one MP in Parliament. So the people who were enraged by a political system that seemed impervious to their concerns couldn’t register their disaffection through the normal electoral system. But they could in a referendum — and they did.

In the end, the only way to make the UK a modern functioning democracy is to change the voting system so that the distribution of MPs matches the distribution of votes. Theresa May has no plans to do that. Nor, it seems, has the Labour Party, such as it is.

A keystroke away…


In 1939 there were about 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands, including about 25,000 German Jews who had fled from Germany. By 1945, only about 35,000 of these people were alive. The Nazi extermination of Dutch Jews was remarkably efficient, mainly because Holland had been a well-administered state which kept very good records of its citizens, their addresses and their religions. So when the Nazis arrived, their genocidal task was easier than it was in some other occupied countries.

This horrific story neatly encapsulates the dilemma of the data-driven state. On the one hand, good governance requires that a state knows a lot about its citizens — where they live, what they do for a living, what taxes they pay, which schools their children can attend, and so on. Since 9/11, Western democracies have determined that the ‘war’ on terror (or the need to keep us safe, depending on your point of view) requires that the state needs to know an awful lot more about its citizens, and so comprehensive surveillance of their online and mobile communications, movements and financial transactions has been added to the government’s shopping list.

As we know from Edward Snowden and other sources, the scale and intrusiveness of this surveillance is now staggering. And — as the UK Investigatory Powers Bill shows, the state’s appetite for fine-grained personal data seems insatiable and is destined to grow.

Confronted with this new reality, one celebrated ex-spook remarked that we are “a keystroke away from totalitarianism”. What that means is that the information resources now available to states would be a godsend to an authoritarian regime that wasn’t restrained by constitutional niceties, civil liberties or human rights.

When one puts this point to spooks and government officials, however, their instinctive response is to pooh-pooh the idea. It may be technically true, they say, but — come on! — we live in a democracy and the chances of an authoritarian bully gaining power in such a polity are, well, infinitesimal.

Following the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s ascendancy in the US presidential election, this complacency is beginning to look a bit strained.

Take the UK. It is, in general terms, a mature and stable democracy. And yet in the hours and days after the Brexit vote its government went into a meltdown from which it was only rescued by the emergence of the Home Secretary (a.k.a. Ministry of the Interior) as the sole survivor of a chaotic leadership competition in the governing party.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a property-tycoon-cum-reality-TV-star who is unstable, narcissistic, racist, misogynistic, ignorant of world affairs, a proponent of torture and of deporting up to 11 million immigrants has come to within a hair’s-breadth of becoming President of the United States.

Contemplating this alarming possibility, optimists and realists both fall back on tropes about the extent to which presidential power is constrained by America’s constitutional structure. Trump may be terrible, they say, but the system would rein him in.

I wonder. And an interesting Reuters scoop this week illustrates the potential problem. It turns out that a government headed by a President who is a cautious legal scholar secretly compelled a major Internet company — Yahoo — to build a custom computer program to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials.

Just ponder that for a moment: an Internet company was forced to design and operate a bespoke, real-time email-wiretap service for the U.S. government.

“It remains unclear what form the directive took”, says The Intercept‘s report,

“though according to Andrew Crocker, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the best guess is that it invoked Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which permits the bulk collection of communications for the purpose of targeting a foreign individual.

But this Yahoo program doesn’t appear to have had even an ostensibly non-U.S. target. Rather, literally every single person with a Yahoo email inbox was evidently placed under surveillance, regardless of citizenship.

Even Prime Minister Theresa May might regard this as executive overreach — until the next terrorist outrage. But would President Trump? You only have to ask the question to know the answer.

So let’s have less complacency about the stability and implicit good sense of democracies. We’ve moved into uncharted territory.