bear size, pig cunning
One of the problems with speaking English is Americans.
I mean no offence, American readers. It's just, you see, there are an awful lot of you, particularly on the internet, which leads to an awkward tendency for conversations in English to become conversations about America. If you're not American, that is at best irritating, and at worst dangerous.
To give an example of what I mean: A year or so ago, a British minister gave a speech about freeing the UK from red tape. It was heavily influenced by a vaguely trendy debate in libertarian/economist circles, about the deleterious effects of occupational licensing on wellbeing and growth. In itself, that's not a bad thing! Ministers – or ministers' special advisers – being plugged in to informed policy debates is clearly a step up from ministers deciding policy based on newspaper front pages.
The issue is that the debate… doesn't really involve or affect Britain at all, and at no point had the minister's team apparently cottoned on to that fact. The blogosphere's occupational licensing debate involved examples like license-based regulation of barbershops and nail salons, or bans against pumping your own petrol in New Jersey and Oregon. While there are principal-based arguments for those restrictions (health and safety, essentially), it's fairly clear that they are, in the 21st century, mostly protectionist measures designed to boost incomes of the incumbents by limiting competition. At the very least, that's the sort of thing that it's reasonable for a forward-looking Conservative thinker to latch on to.
The problem is that when Liz Truss ported the thinking over to the UK, the best examples she could find were… teachers and medical staff. Which are not, prima facie, industries the public is content to leave to simple market forces to regulate.
Thankfully, Brexit is a nightmare, the British state has been paralysed for four years, Liz Truss is no longer chief economic secretary to the treasure and will probably have no cabinet job at all after the next reshuffle, and the only person who remembers this debate was me.
But the point stands: British politics was hurt, not helped, by the ease with which America-specific issues can feel universal. Even if the discussion is deep, nuanced and well-evidenced, a British audience needs to stop, every time, and ask "does any of this actually apply to me?"
I was reminded of this bugbear of mine – though I should stress that it is also a tendency I fall prey to – by a recent edition of Ranjan Roy and Can Duruk's newsletter The Margins, in which Roy covered Ezra Klein's new book on polarisation. One of Klein's recommendations for reversing polarisation is to "engage more locally". In Klein's book, that means what we traditionally think of as "local news and politics", and that stricture certainly goes for the UK as well, where local news is in a similarly moribund state. But it can also be applied more generally, for a British audience: engage with Britain. And not just in news and politics, but in culture, criticism, art… It's all too easy, if you live a largely online life in the UK, to find yourself smuggling American ways of thinking into your own mind without even noticing.
I don't think fighting this tendency will end the insane culture war that the UK is fighting. But at least we might end up picking our own fronts, rather than fighting a US proxy war.
Who are we?
So, following my own rules, here's a British story that I think has been warped by the influence of American discourse on our culture: the Government's decision to allow Huawei to build out the nation's 5G network.
I wrote a bit about it for the Guardian, which I won't repeat in detail here, but the short version (and the spicier phrasing) is that, if you were having this argument without the pernicious influence of the US, we would have a) had it four years ago and b) settled it back then. Which is roughly what we did, before the American president decided, for political/personality disorder reasons, to massively complicate US/China relations and then attempt to inflict that complication on the rest of the world.
I'm over-egging it slightly, of course, but the basic fact is that, five years years ago, when British telecoms were deciding how to procure equipment for their 5G networks, the issue of Huawei's trustworthiness came up. The networks independently tested the equipment, and continue to do so. GCHQ also tested the equipment, and also demanded and received access to the source code, and continues to do so. The stakeholders agreed to set out a rough pattern of usage that would see Huawei kept clear from the most sensitive parts of the network. And then, five years on, we re-litigated the whole thing, after we'd fit all a substantial chunk of the equipment, when it was clearly impossible to reverse course, and ended up with a compromise that is effectively null from a security point of view but does at least ensure that a bit more cash will flow to Sweden and Finland and a bit less to China.
The smoking gun, for me, is the fact that the Emergency Services Network hasn't been mentioned once in the last week of feverish discussion. This is the program, largely completed last year, to switch the entire infrastructure connecting the police, fire and ambulance services to a new, 4G-based network, finally rendering obsolete the old Airwave-based system they used until then. The nice thing about 4G versus Airwave, of course, is that an IP-based system can multitask much better, and so a lot of the basic infrastructure for the ESN is just the same towers that EE, the carrier who won the contract, use for consumer connections.
There are tweaks, of course; most towers need software to prioritise ESN traffic in case of congestion, the whole system needed to work with push-to-talk radios, and coverage needed to be greatly expanded (the contract is for something like 99% of Britain's A- and B-roads to be covered, which meant an awful lot of towers being put up in remote parts of Scotland). But by and large, it was a nice example of public/private efficiency: EE gets paid to build out its network, which lets it truthfully advertise to customers that it has the widest coverage in Britain, while the government gets to save a bundle on replacing an ageing system with one that is fit for purpose.
But I'll give you three guesses as to who provided a significant chunk of the hardware underpinning the ESN. Who do we think is going to be helping transmit all of the UK's police radio traffic for the next few decades, be it lost cats or major incidents? Yeah. And so, forgive me for not taking the current furore quite as seriously as Tom Tugendhat.
I was going to recommend a book here, but in looking for links, I learned that it's been bought by a new publisher, and so is unavailable until the reprint arrives in September. Which is a shame, but also means you will probably get a nicer cover if you wait.
The Decagon House Murders, recommended by spiritual leader of this newsletter, Robin Sloan, is a Japanese murder mystery novel written in 1987. It is, apparently – I cite only the foreword for evidence – a prime example of the Shin Hokaku movement, of fiendish, puzzle-box mystery novels that came from Japan in the 70s and 80s. The format is almost that of a game: the pieces are put in place, the murders occur (in a fantastic locked-room setting), and then the book ends with a clear break, when you are practically invited to put it down, and think long and hard about, well, whodunnit. A final coda reveals the answer, and you realise that there was no hidden information at all. It was staring you in the face the entire time.
Then you learn that it's the only book by the author available in English, one of the only books of the entire genre available in English, and wonder how long it will take for your Japanese to get up to scratch.
Anyway, I liked it.
The subject line
I’d written the subject line without explanation but feel it probably needs explanation. We learned this week that 30% of Brits would like to see brown bears reintroduced to the UK, but 46% would like to see wild boar. Those numbers are nuts to me. Notwithstanding the fact that wild boar are in fact already reintroduced, accidentally running free in the Forest of Dean, I cannot understand who would look at those two animals and decide on the bear as the scarier one. Wild boars can grow to 270kg. That’s all the downside of a bear, size-wise, but with the unnerving cunning of a pig. Terrifying. Strongly against it.
I now have five Pokémon again but I'm too afraid to fight the fifth gym leader in case Harrison, my beautiful Ninetales, snuffs it. I'm also running out of musicians to name my Pokemon after.
That's enough of that.