This is the most unusual election I can remember. It has been brought about by parliament’s inability to come to a decision on Brexit and most people think it will be an instrument to register their opinions of Brexit. The main parties have gone into official and unofficial pacts about Brexit. The Unite to Remain pact of the Liberals, Greens and Plaid Cymru is the most obvious pact, but other remain alliances are being forged in Ireland and Scotland. Although no clear pact has been formally announced, the Conservatives and The Brexit Party are making non-hostility arrangements to try and solidify the leave vote. So, in essence, the Parties are making sure that the only way we can vote is either with a ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ candidate. It is very clearly an election caused by, and about, Brexit.
Unfortunately this poses a problem for the two major parties. The smaller parties are all in the clear as they all have a consistent and unambiguous Brexit policy : to remain in the EU from the Lib-dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens or to leave the EU from the Brexit Party and UKIP (remember them ?). But despite all the prevarication and word-play the two major parties remain split on the Brexit issue. Labour wants to appear a leaver party in its old northern heartlands but to appear to be a remain party in the metropolitan areas. The conservatives, similarly, want to appear to be leave party to appease its right wing members while, at the same time, wishing to try and peddle a partial remain treaty (BRINO – Brexit in name only) to placate its more centrist majority.
The end result of this is that both Labour and the Conservatives want to talk about anything other than Brexit in this very Brexit Election. This has had a predictable effect. Both parties now want to shower us with gifts. They seem to be saying “Forget all that about Brexit, we’ll deal with that, but look at this huge amount of money we have found to fix the real things that worry you“. Both parties are now promising huge spending increases for the NHS, Police Force, Infrastructure projects ; you name it they will put money towards it at the moment. The only difference between the two parties at the moment seems to be whether you measure their largesse in billions or trillions of pounds.
Now it is quite possible that this is the correct time for some spending on infrastructure to give a boost to the economy. After all lending rates are low at present and borrowing is cheap. Further, a long period of uncertainty has dampened activity and an improvement in infrastructure could help boost productivity which has remained stubbornly low in the U.K.. But we have to remain careful if we are to use this type of stimulus that it has the effect that we want and that any loosening of the pursestrings doesn’t lead to waste or increased inefficiency in public spending.
So while I’ll not lose much sleep over more money being spent on hospitals, transport, police or education I do have some concerns about some aspects. I am concerned about the policy to give free broadband to everyone in the U.K.. Why on earth would I want to look this gift horse in the mouth ? Free broadband – what’s not to like ? Surely this is a clear vote winner, nearly as good as a policy of “A free iPad if you vote for us!” which must surely be next.
My main concerns are that internet penetration in the UK is already 92% (Only Japan and the UAE are higher). At present at least 80% of households have personal internet and 90% of these have some form of fast broadband. The problem that exists is largely one of needing to deal with the urban-rural divide. There are still areas, in the countryside, which are badly served by current broadband providers and here is the rub – this provider is Openreach. Openreach has an essential monopoly on providing the infrastructure for broadband internet. It has never been properly separated from BT and has never been exposed to healthy competition. Our ongoing problems in the rural areas might have been dealt with some time ago were we able to call on more than one provider.
Labour’s plan for free broadband will require nationalisation of openreach and also of divisions of Virgin, EE, Sky and Vodaphone. This will reduce competition and slow development in this area. I am old enough to be able to remember the BT monopoly and the wait to get a phone line installed, or indeed to gat any type of service from them. People are obviously happy to pay for their broadband at the moment and this has helped develop services; it would be foolish to stop this. It also makes little sense to single out this communications tool – why not free mobile phones or free instant messaging ?
But while I fear nationalisation will slow the spread out of broadband internet to remote and rural areas (which is the main infrastructure problem) this is perhaps my smaller worry. Just imagine if the state did have a monopoly of internet provision. If the state ran all the DNS servers and knew every ISP address you visited, hosted all of your email communications, knew all your social messaging opinions and knew every online search you had made – would this make you feel happy ? Looking at the opinions, as far as they can be heard, in China it seems that this is a very bad move. This could be the first step to serious loss of liberties.
It has been a common theme in the world of high tech. People come and promise lots of nice things for free while at the same time taking away a lot of our data without us noticing. Google helps us know millions of facts but in return we supply Google with gigabytes of personal data about ourselves. Facebook help us keep in contact with friends but they cost is that they now know all our interests and social networks. Amazon makes shopping easier but in return they know our wants and desires as well as our finances. These sweeteners are nice but we need to look in the horse’s mouth and check what we are getting ‘for free’. Free broadband might be the most expensive gift, if we are silly enough to accept it, if it means the loss of our privacy, our rights to free expression and free association. This policy might just look like a bribe but it is much more dangerous than that.