Brexit Blues (Part II)

Brexit finally came into effect on January 31, 2020 with a transition period due to end on December 31, 2020. It’s still not clear whether key issues such as the post-Brexit trade agreement between the EU and the UK will be completed by then (a major talking point being imports of American chlorinated chicken….). Nor is it clear which other areas of EU laws and standards will survive post-transition. Both of which continue to cause uncertainty for British businesses and local governments that have to operate within and enforce many of these rules. Add to that the recent UK storms and floods, the post-Brexit air of racism and xenophobia, plus the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting drag on global markets and supply chains, and maybe the UK will run out of more than just pasta, yoghurt and chocolate. Perhaps those promised post-Brexit savings of £350m a week really will need to spent on the National Health Service…..

The “Vote Leave” campaign bus, 2016 (Image sourced from Bloomberg)

The seeds of the Brexit debacle were sown in David Cameron’s speech of January, 23 2013. As I wrote last year, that set in motion a series of flawed processes. Despite the protracted Brexit process, it’s now unlikely that the decision to leave will be reversed, especially as the opposition Labour Party has just been trounced at the polls. Instead, Labour continues to beat itself up over the failure of its outgoing leadership either to make a solid case in support of the Remain vote in the 2016 Referendum, or to establish and maintain a clear and coherent policy on Brexit leading right up to the December 2019 General Election. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has a huge Parliamentary majority, a fixed 5-year mandate, and a general disregard for traditional cabinet government and the delineation of roles between political advisors and civil servants. We have already seen that any form of dissent or even an alternative perspective will not be tolerated within government or within the Tory party, let alone from independent and non-partisan quarters.

Since that fateful speech of January, 2013, it’s possible to follow a Brexit-related narrative thread in film, TV and fiction. Not all of these accounts are directly about Brexit itself, but when viewed in a wider context, they touch on associated themes of national identity, democracy, political debate, public discourse, xenophobia, anti-elitism, anti-globalism, and broader popular culture.

The earliest such example I can recall is Brian Aldiss’s final novel, “Comfort Zone”, (published in December 2013), while the first truly “Brexit Novel” is probably Jonathan Coe’s “Middle England” (November 2018). Somewhat to be expected, political thrillers and spy novels have also touched on these themes – Andrew Marr’s “Children of the Master” (September 2015, and probably still essential reading for Labour’s current leadership candidates); John Le Carre’s “A Legacy of Spies” (September 2017); John Simpson’s “Moscow, Midnight” (October 2018); and John Lanchester’s “The Wall” (January, 2019). (For another intriguing and contemporary literary context, I highly recommend William Gibson’s introduction to the May 2013 edition of Kinglsey Amis’s “The Alteration”. Plus there’s an essay on the outgoing Labour leader in Amis junior’s collection of non-fiction, “The Rub of Time” published in October 2017.)*

Elsewhere there have been TV dramatisations to remind us how significant, important and forward-looking it was when the UK joined the EEC in 1973 – most notably the chronicling of the Wilson and Heath governments as portrayed in “The Crown”. Even a film like “The Darkest Hour” reveals the love-hate relationship Britain has had with Europe. More distant historical context can be seen in films like “All is True” and “Peterloo”.

No doubt, Brexit will continue to form a backdrop for many a story-teller and film-maker for years to come. And we will inevitably see recent political events re-told and dramatised in future documentaries and dramas. Hopefully, we will be able to view them objectively and gain some new perspective as a result. Meanwhile, the current reality makes it too depressing to contemplate something like “Boris Johnson – Brexit Belongs to Me!”

*Postcript: hot off the press, of course is “Agency”, Willam Gibson’s own alternative reality (combining elements of the “Time Romance” and “Counterfeit World” referenced in “The Alteration”) – I haven’t read it yet, but looking forward (!) to doing so….

Next week: Joy Division and 40+ years of Post-Punk

 

Australia’s Blockchain Roadmap

The Australian Government recently published its National Blockchain Roadmap – less than 12 months after announcing this initiative. While it’s an admirable development (and generally, to be encouraged), it feels largely aspirational and tends towards the more theoretical rather than the practical or concrete.

First, it references the US Department of Homeland Security, to define the use case for Blockchain. According to these criteria, if a project or application displays three of the four following requirements, then Blockchain technology may offer a suitable solution:

  • data redundancy
  • information transparency
  • data immutability
  • a consensus mechanism

In a recent podcast for The Crypto Conversation, Bram Cohen, the inventor of the BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharing protocol, defined the primary use case for Blockchain as a “secure decentralized/distributed database”. On the one hand, he describes this as a “total oxymoron; on the other, he acknowledges that Blockchain provides a solution to the twin problems of having to have trusted third parties to verify transactions, and preventing double-spend on the network. This solution lies in having to have consensus on the state of the database.

Second, the Roadmap speaks of adopting a “principles based but technology-neutral” approach when it comes to policy, regulation and standards. Experience tells us that striking a balance between encouraging innovation and regulating a new technology is never easy. Take the example of VOIP: at the time, this new technology (itself built on the newish technology of the internet) was threatened by incumbent telephone companies and existing communications legislation. If the monopolistic telcos had managed to get their way, maybe the Post Office would then have wanted to start charging us for sending e-mails?

With social media (another internet-enabled technology), we continue to see considerable tension as to how such platforms should be regulated in relation to news, broadcasting, publishing, political advertising, copyright, financial services and privacy. In the music and film industries, content owners have attempted to own and control the means of production, manufacture and distribution, not just the content – hence the format wars of the past in videotape, compact discs and digital file protocols. (A recurring theme within  Blockchain commentary is the need for cross-chain interoperability.)

Third, the Roadmap mentions the Government support for Standards Australia in leading the ISO’s Technical Committee 307 on Blockchain and DLT Standards. While such support is to be welcomed, the technology is outpacing both regulation and standards. TC 307 only published its First Technical Report on Smart Contracts in September 2019 – three years after its creation. In other areas, regulation is still trying to catch up with the technology that enables Initial Coin Offerings, Security Token Offerings and Decentralized Autonomous Organizations.

If the ICO phenomenon of 2016-18 demonstrated anything, it revealed that within traditional corporate and market structures, companies no longer have a monopoly on financial capital (issuance was largely subscribed via crowdfunding and informal syndication); human capital (ICO teams were largely self-forming, self-sufficient and self-directed); or networks and markets (decentralized, peer-to-peer and trustless became catch words of the ICO movement). Extend this to DAOs, and the very existence of, and need for traditional boards and shareholders gets called into question.

Fourth, the Roadmap makes reference to some existing government-related projects and initiatives in the area of Blockchain and cryptocurrencies. One is the Digital Transformation Agency’s “Trusted Digital Identity Framework”; another is AUSTRAC’s “Digital Currency Exchange” regulation and registration framework. With the former, a more universal commercial and government solution lies in self-sovereign identity – for example, if I have achieved a 100 point identity check with Bank A, then surely I should be able to “passport” that same ID verification to Bank B, without having to go through a whole new 100 point process? And with the latter, as far as I have been able to ascertain, AUSTRAC does not publish a list of those digital currency exchanges that have registered, and exchanges are not required to publish their registration number on their websites.

Fifth, the need for relevant training is evident from the Roadmap. However, as we know from computer coding and software engineering courses, students often end up learning “yesterday’s language”, rather than acquiring flexible and adaptable coding skills and core building blocks in software development. It’s equally evident that many of today’s developers are increasingly self-taught, especially in Blockchain and related technologies – largely because it is a new and rapidly-evolving landscape.

Finally, the Roadmap has identified three “showcase” examples of where Blockchain can deliver significant outcomes. One is in agricultural supply chains (to track the provenance of wine exports), one is in education and training (to enable trusted credentialing), and one is in financial services (to streamline KYC checks). I think that while each of these is of interest, they are probably just scratching the surface of what is possible.

Next week: Brexit Blues (Part II)

 

Signing off for Saturnalia

According to a Gallup Report, in 2018 the world was “sadder and angrier than ever. If recent global events are anything to go by, 2019 will easily top that. And as I write, much of south east Australia is on fire (the bushfire season having started back in early August), only adding to the sense of rage. I can’t recall an angrier year, maybe not since the 1970s.

Image of Scott Walker scanned from the NME Annual for 1968

Reasons to be angry? World politics, climate change, fake news, growing nationalism, economic stagnation, and sectarian intolerance. Evidence of anger? Brexit, Impeachment, Hong Kong, France, Chile, Iran, India, Iraq, Adani, Extinction Rebellion, #MeToo, etc.

Meanwhile, considered academic debate has been reduced to very public slanging matches. Even popular music seems shoutier than ever, and no action movie is considered complete without gratuitous violence, hyperbolic pyrotechnics and pounding soundtracks.

So much noise, so much hot air (verbal and atmospheric) and so much sheer rage, not always easy to articulate or understand – and not easy to predict how that will translate at the ballot box, given the election results in Australia and the UK. Politicians of all persuasions are increasingly seen as being a key cause for voter anger, but in both cases, continuity was deemed preferable to change.

As we wind down for the holidays, it’s frustrating to think that the “season of goodwill” is limited to just a few weeks of the year. I’m not suggesting 12-month-long Black Friday Sales. Rather, can we find it in ourselves to be more civil to each other throughout the year, even if we disagree on certain things? In particular, I’m thinking of the growing evidence of sectarian strife. Established religions may condemn to hell (or even death) anyone who disagrees with their belief systems, but in a democratic, secular and pluralist society, the right to “freedom of religion” also means everyone is entitled to “freedom from religion”.

In light of that, I’d like to wish all my readers a safe and peaceful Saturnalia. Normal service will be resumed in the New Year.

 

 

Recent Notes from Hong Kong

Earlier this month I spent a few days in Hong Kong, on my way back from Europe. Hong Kong was my home for 6 years – before, during and after the 1997 Handover – and I have continued to visit on a regular basis ever since. While I didn’t directly witness any of the latest clashes between pro-democracy campaigners and the police, I did see (and hear) the knock-on effects of the past 6 months. I also spoke to a range of people living and working in the city – from local residents to long-term expats; from small business owners to entrepreneurs; from corporate employees to public servants; from teenagers to senior citizens. Whatever their particular views on recent events, their one common hope is that the situation can be resolved peacefully, and soon.

“Maze of Today” by Wu Guanzhong (2007) – Image sourced from China Online Museum website*

The trigger for the current protests was a proposed extradition law between the Hong Kong SAR and the rest of the PRC (as well as Taiwan and Macau). The bill was highly contentious, given the very different legal systems between Hong Kong and the Mainland. Serious concerns were expressed by the business sector, the legal profession and the general public. These concerns were given wider voice by the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who joined the first of the peaceful mass marches at the start of the summer. Since then, nearly every weekend (and at times during the week) there has been direct action in the form of marches, strikes and occupations – sometimes leading to street battles between police and protestors, images of which have been seen around the world. These events have been accompanied by allegations of police brutality, the alleged use of agents provocateurs, and suggestions that the protestors are either terrorists, traitors or a threat to society.

On one level, Hong Kong continues to operate normally (although getting into the international airport is a little trickier since it was the target of so-called “stress testing” of the public roads and transport system). On the other hand, it certainly feels quieter than normal, and visitor numbers are down – as much as 40% overall on one measure, with a 90% decline in visitors from the Mainland. (My flight from Europe was barely half full.)

With the increased protest activity at weekends, public transport can be tricky. Some subway stations are suddenly closed without much warning from Friday evenings onward, and the express train from Central to the airport bi-passes the usual intermediate stops. On the Sunday I was there, there had been a mass gathering in Central, and access to the nearest subway station (for the local train service back to Kowloon) was closed, so there was an orderly queue of several hundred metres as people waited for the Star Ferry – many of the passengers dressed in black t-shirts, the unofficial uniform of the protest movement.

Given the recent bans on marches and gatherings in public places (notwithstanding Hong Kong’s right to peaceful assembly) a strange phenomenon has emerged. Each night, at around 10.30pm, local residents open their apartment windows and start chanting slogans associated with the pro-democracy movement. It is both eerie and extremely moving.

This nightly display certainly evokes the sense that no-one wants to see complete chaos or a violent end to the protests, so they chant in hope that a peaceful solution can be found. Otherwise, hope will give rise to despair, and with it the slow, painful decline of Hong Kong as a global city – a multi-cultural, international hub for trade, commerce, finance, ideas and innovation that combines notions of east and west, new and old, pragmatism and spiritualism.

The protestors have issued a set of five key demands. One relates to scrapping the extradition bill, which has now been withdrawn by the Hong Kong Chief Executive. Three relate to the protests themselves – removal of the term “rioters” to label the protestors; an independent investigation into the police response and alleged brutality (and even into police in-action when protestors were attacked by counter-demonstrators with seeming impunity); and an amnesty for all protestors who have been arrested to date.

The fifth demand, Universal Suffrage in direct elections for both the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s Parliament) and the Chief Executive, is a lingering issue from the Umbrella campaign of 2014 (when large parts of the city were occupied in protest at Beijing’s decision to “defer” one person one vote). It’s probably even more contentious than the withdrawal of the extradition bill. To summarise: the Basic Law is Hong Kong’s Constitution. It is supposed to enshrine the city’s pre-existing common law systems for a minimum of 50 years after the Handover. Under the “One Country, Two Systems” regime, designed to govern Hong Kong’s legal, political and economic relationships with the Mainland, the people of Hong Kong were assured that their way of life would continue as before after 1997.

Article 45 of the Basic Law, states that:

“The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

The above has to be read in conjunction with Article 15 (Beijing directly appoints the Chief Executive), and Annex 1 (defines the candidate selection and election process – which has been revised in recent years).

The challenge is that the Central government believes it has to keep control over both the candidate nomination process, and the membership of the Election Committee (election college). On current evidence, the people of Hong Kong are unlikely to get to directly elect their own Chief Executive, nor nominate the candidates of their own choosing. (And the Legislative Council will continue to comprise members who represent “functional constituencies” – elected representatives voted in by their peer groups from various vested interests.) Even if they did directly vote for the Chief Executive of their choosing, Beijing would reserve the right not to confirm them in office, and would appoint their own candidate instead.

Of course, it’s not that Hong Kong was particularly democratic under colonial rule – the Governor was technically appointed by the British Monarch (on the advice and recommendation of the British Foreign Secretary), and acted as the Crown’s direct representative.

On another level, the model for the Election Committee is something like the US Electoral College that formally elects the President, based on the delegates elected by each State. This process was seen as “a compromise between election of the President by a vote in Congress and election of the President by a popular vote of qualified citizens”.

Finally, I was given an interesting interpretation of “One Country, Two Systems” by an elderly gentleman I spoke to on the MTR one day. “Where are you from?” he asked. “Australia” I replied. “Ah, near New Zealand. Same country.”

* My reason for choosing the above picture of Hong Kong by Wu Guanzhong to illustrate this blog is two-fold:

First, the painting is called “Maze of Today”, rather an apt title for the current state of affairs. Second, while I was working as a publisher in Hong Kong in the 1990s, my company licensed another Hong Kong picture by Wu for the cover of an introductory book on the law of the Hong Kong SAR. The first edition was issued in 1996, with a second edition in 2001 – and it still appears to be on the Hong Kong University reading list for law students, and cited in other law books as recently as this year.

Next week: Startup Vic’s Impact Pitch Night