Shoulda been in Spain!
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”.
Sunak sinking fast
We start – where else? – with the revelations about Rishi Sunak. A bad week for the U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer – in which his wife Akashata Murthy’s non-domiciled tax status and serial non-payment of tax on the £11.5m dividends she receives annually from her father’s company, Infosys – had led to horror headlines and a too-late climbdown decision to cough up to the Inland Revenue.
Neville was interested in the toil toiling on top of toil and the overnight revelation that Sunak held a Green Card until 2021. Sam Coates from Sky News shared footage of the White House Daily Press Briefing at which this news broke.
Sunak held the Green Card – and the status of “lawful permanent U.S. resident” – not only when an elected Member of Parliament, but also when in post in the number two job in U.K. politics. Neville wonders whether he can possibly survive, either in post or in politics.
Sam reports (at at least third-hand) that gossip in the Westminster bars suggests Sunak would be welcome to challenge Johnson for the Premiership in about 2035, by which time – Thomas wryly observes – Sunak will be about 37.
Lack of political alternatives
Sam is sick to the back teeth of the “one rule for you, one rule for us” approach taken by Johnson’s jolly coterie, and Thomas feels very uneasy with the sleazy political quagmire that is modern British politics. So uneasy, indeed, that he coins two memorable neologisms – cakeandeatery and clusterfuckery, which delight Sam – and Thomas is quick to point out the serial errors and wrongdoings of the current British Government are not just mediated via The Guardian,but also, at times, the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, and FT. We’ll come back to the pink one shortly.
With the U.K. mired in a post-Brexit, post-Covid, intra-war cost-of-living crisis, Neville despairs of a lack of an alternative and – later in our debate – wonders whether he might not vote at all at the next General Election, so poor are the alternatives.
And the crisis is real: the U.K. will experience the biggest fall in living standards since rationing post-World War II in the year ahead, but Neville believes that even this will not be sufficient to galvanise any kind of meaningful voter rebellion.
Social media is to blame
It being Grand National Day, the biggest event in the British jump racing calendar, Thomas deftly switches from one of our favourite (hobby) horses – British politics – to another – the pervasive nature of social media. He ridicules both the messenger and the apparently gullible recipients of the message in the form of both Influencer Rishi in his £400 hoodies and Liz Truss, channelling her inner Margaret Hilda Thatcher on a tank … all for the sake of their Instagram feeds. Marina Hyde, as usual, is spot-on acerbic about Dishi Rishi.
Thomas even recounts a tale of Sunak filling up a car with petrol on Spring Statement (mini-budget) day a few weeks back at a supermarket round the corner from where Thomas lives. Not his car, a friend’s car. Snapped and papped by his personal photographer and spewed out on social media to underline his “man-of-the-people” credentials.
That’s Rishi Sunak, married to the tax-evading daughter of India’s richest man, educated at Britain’s most expensive public school, Winchester College, to which he recently made a tax-advantageous donation of £100,000. Sorry, sorry. That’s Rishi Sunak, the Southampton F.C. fan.
We tarry awhile in the fetid groves of Targeted Victory, the darling propaganda machine of the GOP who swelled the companies’ coffers to the tune of US$237m in an attempt to get The Donald re-elected in 2020.
Sam suggests that, if the company were registered in the U.K., Companies House might ask it to change its name. Regular SDF punchbag, Meta, has recently paid Targeted Victory to spread disinformation about TikTok, suggesting it is the source of malign influence in the world, not its social media platforms, Facebook and Instagram.
Thomas draws parallels with the U.K. political spin machine, Topham Guerin, and despairs that the 2024 U.K. General Election will find it hard to get out of frat-boy-style campaigning. “What wins out is culture wars stuff,” he avers.
Like a waft of a freshly-baked madeleine, all Thomas’ talk of culture wars snaps Sam from his reverie. Before the podcast – and while planning topics for SDF España – Sam had reflected on a question he was asked at a conference recently: “Why are you called the Small Data Forum?”
He believes we are perfectly named. In part this is because of the philosophy of social warming, espoused in Charles Arthur’s excellent 2021 book of the same name. Social media algorithms only need to make all of our feeds a little bit more extreme each time we look at them for profound and scary changes to happen at a population level.
À la recherche de culture wars perdu?
But it was the mention of “culture wars stuff” that really catches Sam’s attention, and he commends to listeners and viewers Jon Ronson’s recent BBC Sounds series, Things Fell Apart, the journalist’s “series of strange, unexpected human stories from the history of the culture wars”.
Like Arthur in his book, Ronson shows repeatedly how little, apparently inconsequential events have led to seismic shifts in public sentiment on critical issues and gargantuan lurches in unexpected directions.
Again, it’s the small things which – cumulatively, like the drip-drip-drip of water on rock – that can have the biggest impact. Except in nature, the Grand Canyon took six million years of erosion to create, and things have fallen apart in global society very much faster than that.
Towards the end of our discussion, we turn to the upcoming French Presidential Election, and the very real prospect of France electing Marine Le Pen, whom Thomas dubs “Cruella de la Village”.
Neville reports that, in the first round set for the day after we are recording, some commentators think it’s too close to call between incumber Macron and hardy perennial challenger, Le Pen.
He is particularly interested in the FT’s “sell-side summary” of a potential Le Pen victory and her antipathy to EU Federalism, and is concerned about the possible impact of low voter turn-out. He also directs us to a superb, moving summary of the poll of polls offered by Politico.
Thomas reminds us that one-term presidents are the norm in recent years in France – Sarkosy, Hollande, and perhaps Macron too. Re-election hasn’t been seen since the 2000s and Jacques Chirac and the 1980s-1990s and François Mitterand.
Thomas is particularly alarmed by the impact of ultra-far-right presidential hopeful, Éric Zemmour– the son of Berber Jews from Algeria; “a cross between Piers Morgan and Tommy Robinson” – whose outrageous declarations, particularly on immigration, are only serving to make Le Pen appear to be moderate.
The re-rise of the right
Thomas notes the Le Pen is a deft and experienced political performer, who has recently denounced her former pal Putin and jumped on the cost-of-living crisis. While Sam points out that heating prices have jumped 4% in France vs 54% in the U.K., he cannot deny her astute opportunism.
Sam senses a rise of the successful right once more, with Viktor Orban securing a fourth successive election victory in Hungary with 53% of the popular vote, Le Pen thriving in France, and the undead Farage apparently dining in salmon pink cords with the Trumpster at Mar-a-Lago the night before we recorded. Check out the presidential gallery behind the happy diners. Sam and Neville also disagree profoundly on whether the U.K. is a right-wing country, too.
We end with Neville recording that Politico is predicting a second-round result of 53% Macron vs 47% Le Pen.
And in a question so archetypical of we three sideways lookers at the uses and abuses of data big and small in politics, business, and public life, Thomas asks: “What’s the margin of error?”
It seems like the perfect moment to call time on another pod, and – pulling the curtain back, Wizard of Oz-style – Sam suggests we three meet again after the thunder, lightning, and rain of the U.K. local elections in early May.
Listen to Episode 56: