Friday, 23 October 2009

Can't Stop the Blog

This article was published on the Huffington Post on Tuesday; I wanted to leave a few days before cross-posting to keep the previous post at the top of this blog. Hope you enjoy it!

The people of Britain understand the political potential of the internet like nobody else in the West. We have a ferocious craving for democratic involvement, in part because we have been denied it for so long within our democracy, and electronic engagement offers us a voice where our own government does not.

The unique circumstances in which the United States was created has led to the overwhelming impression that the North American government, whatever its flaws, is of the people and by the people. In Britain, by contrast, government is still an arm of the elite, operating by mandate of the crown. Last week, 'The Unspoken Constitution', a document drawn up by Westminster insiders and journalists to expose our country's painful lack of a just and concrete political settlement, was published and disseminated online - just like nearly every dissenting element of British political thought. It is because we do not feel that we own a stake in our own democracy that the internet holds an unique fascination for the British as a nation.

This week, the power of the internet over the British political imagination spread its infectious energy to the world. First, there was Trafigura. When the London law firm Carter-Ruck obtained an order to ban the Guardian newspaper from reporting on Trafigura's dumping of toxic waste , millions of internet users fought to keep the information public - and won.*Trafigura and *Carterruck became trending topics on the social networking site Twitter, bloggers across the world published their own research into the cover-up, and Carter-Ruck found itself unable to contain the spread of information. The firm has withdrawn the gagging order, and international attention has been drawn to social and environmental abuses which might otherwise have slipped under the radar.

Then on Thursday Jan Moir, a columnist for ultra right-wing newspaper The Daily Mail, published an hatefully homophobic article claiming that popstar Stephen Gateley's sudden death from a congenital heart condition could not have been "natural", despite the coroner's ruling - because Gateley was civilly partnered to another man. The tweetosphere and blogosphere mobilised in disgust at Moir's column, again forcing a reaction from both the media elite and the international community, with retailers such as Nestle and Marks and Spencer withdrawing their advertising from the newspaper to distance themselves from Moir's intolerance. The Press Complaints Commission received 21,000 complaints about the article in a single weekend - more than it usually receives in five years. As blogger Iain Dale tweeted on Thursday: "Jan Moir's career has died of perfectly natural causes."

The latest instalment of the Welsh-American webcomic 'bunny', entitled 'Can't Stop the Blog', sums up the situation perfectly, with two suited figures under attack by giant blue birds that resemble the Twitter logo. For British users of the incongruously named site, the sudden sense of power in a progressive online consensus is thrilling.

Despite or, perhaps, because of our lust for freedom of collective expression, Britain boasts some of the strictest libel laws in the world. Trafigura was not the first international company to attempt to exploit this fact to its advantage, nor will it be the last. The state has good reason to tremble at the possibility of its populace being allowed to share opinions at speed. When the last earth-shattering communications revolution, the printing press, finally achieved widespread uptake in the 17th century, the explosion of handbills, newsheets, satire and subversive literature helped to catalyse a decade of bloody civil war. In a very real sense, moveable type set in motion the dire and righteous machinery whose trajectory ended, on a cold January morning in 1649, with the killing of a king.

The American abolitionist Wendell Phillips once said that '“What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind.” The internet has had the equivalent impact of the advent of atomic warfare on the world of ideas, making individual thinkers part of a chain reaction whose power can be immediate and devastating. Marshall McLuhan observed in ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy that "societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication". The British are desperate to see our creakily ancient institutions – newspapers and political parties dominated by wealthy Oxbridge graduates and a parliamentary system where official communication between the two houses is still overseen by the hereditary figure of Black Rod – reshaped by the internet.

Slowly, that reshaping is beginning to happen. Last year, Britain watched in awe as Barack Obama’s presidential campaign demonstrated the power of the internet to effect change, and activists of all stripes have determined to learn from the campaign: advisers on internet strategy for Obama/Biden ’08 are still swamped by requests to speak at seminars and conferences in the UK. Moreover, the boldness of online commentators and independent auditors this year has inspired British media institutions, particularly the Guardian group and the Daily Telegraph, to embrace for the first time in decades the duty of keeping the government and law enforcement honest.

The process is achingly slow. Twitter user Leon Green commented that “When Twitter campaigns lead to people voting 1 way or another then I'll be excited. It's just off starting blocks till then.” But a groundswell of online grumblers is gradually changing the shape of British politics.

We have always been a nation of grumblers, gossipers and whiners. Thirty centuries of being invaded by nearly everyone, ruled over by bloodthirsty fops in stupid tights and incessantly rained on will do that to you. Now that Britain has the highest percentage of internet users in the world, with 79.8% of the country's population connected, we finally have a chance to turn our national pastime of whinging into a focused endeavour. October 2009 may well go down in history as the month when Whitehall and the world learned not to underestimate the power of several million Brits grumbling as one.


  1. Slightly OT, but: We have always been a nation of grumblers, gossipers and whiners. Thirty centuries of being invaded by nearly everyone, ruled over by bloodthirsty fops in stupid tights and incessantly rained on will do that to you.?

    What about the sizeable number of British people whose parents or grandparents were immigrants? Are you meaning to exclude them or their contribution from your analysis?

  2. Nearly all British people's parents or grandparents are immigrants if you go back far enough. That analysis, and that aspect of the national character, applies equally to families who immigrated more recently. Indeed, this is only from personal experience, but a lot of my family who are immigrants are 'more British than the British' when it comes to complaining!

  3. Britain hasn't been successfully invaded since 1066. Unless of course you are equating waves of immigration with invasion which would be an unexpected and unlikely trip into racist language for you.

    Oh and your stats on internet users seem to be wrong. Britain has the 22nd highest rate of internet penetration with 68.6% while Greenland is number one with 92.3%

  4. I don't think the grandparents of MOST denizens of these isles are "immigrants", even if you "go back far enough"? Despite the binary expansion of my family tree into history, I know e.g I am tenth generation "English", crossed with fifth generation "Welsh", albeit on a linear sample?

    Just as Far-Right's bizarre idea that (perhaps) we are of "Aryan" descent is false, so is the idea that we are generally of "multi-cultural" descent. Heck, if I had Jewish, Isalmic, Brown or Black forbears, I'd be equally PROUD of them too... but factually, I suspect, I do not. :P

    Good luck with your REFRESHING blog thoughbut. ;)

  5. PennyRed, I said parents or grandparents for a reason. I was talking about recent imimgration.
    It's funny how often any reference to recent immigrants, or any desire to differentiate oneself from offspring of recent immigrants gets dismissed with "we're all immigrants if you go back far enough". Totally avoiding the point, and not very respectful of other people's heritage.

    If what you say about your own family is true, then clearly, the propensity for complaining is not a particularly "British" trait. Or are you saying the family members you refer to suddenly became complainers after they came here? If not, then it totally undermines your argument that it is being "British" which makes people complainers, when by your own admission, recent immigrants display the trait to the same or greater extent than those descended from 400 years or more of non-immigrants. Weird.

    The notion of "more British than the British" makes a mockery of your argument, because it implies that recent immigrants aren't "British" that "British" is a separate thing which excludes recent immigrants. I'm really not sure that's what you meant to imply, is it?

    When you use that phrase, you implicitly acknowledge that there is a group of people worth referring to, who don't have recent immigrants in their backgrounds, yet this same group of people aren't allowed to assert or acknowledge our own existance without the "we're all immigrants" being trotted out to deny us.

    I really think you need to think this through.

  6. @Dandelion: Your making a chicken out a feather.
    Besides, British is someone who lives in Britain, no?

  7. The best blogs are diverting polemical rumour mills; nothing more significant. Blogs don't affect policy or sway public opinion vis-a-vis portentous issues; at their most potent they can sometimes expose misconduct and pour petrol on scandals involving individuals and errant personalities but achieve little else in the real world.

    To demonstrate the impotence and insignificance of the general run-of-the-mill blog simply peruse the number of comments its readers make to its posts. Unless the blog is very famous or infamous, e.g., Guido Fawkes, comments normally number less than a few dozen, indicating that said blog has been viewed by, probably, only a few dozen, certainly less than a hundred, internet users being optimistic.

    Blogs and bloggers are totally insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

  8. It's a great article.
    While I wouldn't go to far as to suggest it, I wonder what an election held by online voters would look like?

  9. Heh thanks for the quote. Be nice to be attributed though. ;)


  10. Will do hon! Sorry, I was writing on the fly and had no time to ask if you wanted to be anonymously quoted or not. L.x

  11. I rescued from cassette this talk that Marshall McLuhan gave at Johns Hopkins University in the mid 1970s. I have not found an audio file of this talk anywhere online. So far as I know it's an original contribution to the archive of McLuhan audio. Enjoy. Rare McLuhan Audio


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