As I am typing up the show notes for our latest podcast, news has come in that former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe has been assassinated during a campaign event. A sad, sinister reminder that contrary to what the soon former prime minister of the UK would have us believe, it’s not all a laugh and a half.
As if we needed reminding. The murder of Sir David Amess was only nine months ago, and Jo Cox was killed just before the Brexit Referendum, in June 2016. Culture wars and wedge politics will only ever make things worse.
Even The Spectator is now pushing back against the growing Trumpification of political discourse in the UK. But that was never an issue for the P.T. Barnum of British politics and his confederacy of dunces, as Sam generously labels Her Majesty’s continuously thinning Government.
But the times they are about to be a-changin: together with a majority of – not just the Westminster commentariat but – the great British public, the SmallDataForum punditariat on Friday rejoiced in the news that finally, FINALLY, the Shagamemnon (thanks Marina Hyde) of Downing Street, the tousled blonde cherub, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, announced his resignation on 7 July as leader of the UK’s Conservative Party.
He remains Prime Minister until a new party leader is voted on by Conservative MPs and party members.
For once, it appears, the Small Data Forum three are ahead of the news.
So often in recent months and years, we’ve recorded an episode on a Friday morning and by the Sunday night before publication we’ve had to make rapid edits to the show notes because … a president has been impeached, a special adviser been sacked, or a new lockdown announced.
But today – today feels different. Is it because we were recording first thing on a Monday for next-day publication? Or is it because so much news had happened of late that we had the timing right for once? Time – of course – will tell.
On day 110 of Russia’s war on Ukraine – a topic that doesn’t delay us beyond a heartfelt appeal for the nonsense to stop – Thomas opens proceedings by reflecting on Prime Minister Johnson’s “victory” in his vote of (no) confidence handed to him by his own members of parliament.
Well, 211 MPs (59%) voted for the bloated bloviator, while 148 (41%) wanted to see the back of him. A smaller majority than that recorded by Johnson’s lame duck predecessor, Theresa May (a 63%-37% split), who was history less than six months on.
In another case of the speed of news catching out the SmallDataForum’s best-laid arguments, Neville’s, Sam’s, and my combined Musk-whispering was rendered somewhat outdated by the announcement – just hours after our podcast recording – that enigmatic Elon has put his Twitter purchase on hold because … oh never mind the stated reasons.
Actually, it wasn’t our exploring Musk’s motivations that had become outmoded, it was merely the factual base of our musings. Will he, won’t he buy Twitter? Will he, won’t he lose billions over the deal?
Will he, won’t he instate rules and regulations that draw the line really only at whether speech has been performed by an actual human (you’re fine, and if you say something that’s “illegal or destructive to the world”, you face temporary suspension, because free speech is a more holy principle than protecting against the impacts of hate speech, ostensibly), or a bot (in which case Elon really doesn’t want you, and in fact will retract his offer if he feels he is being outbotted).
The free speech issue is one of many highlighted by Neville in his characteristically well informative and well judged blog post. Neville also points us to an Axios piece listing everything Elon Musk wants to change about Twitter (surely another news item that would benefit from hourly updates), as well as challenges surrounding the commercials of the bid: a triple whammy of Twitter’s market cap dropping $9bn below Elon’s offer, Tesla’s share price down by a third from April Fool’s Day, and the Bitcoin crash impact on Tesla’s investment position.
So maybe, just maybe, Musk’s stated bot problem is a bit of a sock puppet. The Washington Post at least thinks that won’t get him out of the deal.
Sporting a gardener’s tan from ongoing travails in his garden in Southern Spain, Thomas welcomes Sam and Neville to the first-ever Saturday recording of the Small Data Forum podcast.
We recorded on 9 April, two years to the day – as Neville points out – from when we were supposed to be on a weekend-long podcast recording sojourn to the self-same spot from which Thomas addresses us.
But then Covid happened. Indeed, were it not for the Covid-spike-enforced crew shortages for easyJet, Sam should have been with Thomas, but as The Guardian pointed out in that day’s paper, the country – and indeed the world – is suffering a semi-paralysis from a variant of Long Covid and is facing “a new pandemic of disruption”.
Taking its cue from professional media commentators, the SmallDataForum kicks off with Thomas quoting Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, who is better known by his nom de class struggle, Lenin: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
Unprecedent times, anyone?
Sam is reminded of the times of Soviet openness and reconstruction, Michail Gorbatschow’s Glasnost and Perestroika initiatives of the late 1980s, ‘when it all began’ – laid out with great insight in this four-part series of The Rest is History podcast.
To which Thomas adds some on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand perspective: Francis Fukuyama’s famously misunderstood End of History essay, versus the insight of US Army educators that a permanent pulling back of the Iron Curtain will reveal a stage beset by increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, which gave us VUCA – a sort of cat nip for business school educators.
With the benefit of hindsight, declaring the end of history turned out to be as premature as the description of our ever-modern world as VUCA was prescient. Brexit, Trump, COVID, war in Ukraine – it doesn’t get more VUCA than that.