'The Brexit referendum was won because of networks. The Britain that it yields – whatever happens between now and March 29 – will be shaped by networks.'

Welcome to a world ruled by networks

Matthew d'Ancona

Matthew d'Ancona , in this edited version of a keynote speech on Brexit delivered today at the Constitution Society, says that old-fashioned institutional analysis is no longer sufficient to understand power

29 November 2018 16:21

When I was first asked to deliver this speech, it was clear that it would broadly coincide with the achievement – or non-achievement – of a deal between HMG and Brussels.

What I could not foresee, through the political fog, was that it would also coincide with the most multi-dimensional political crisis in living memory.

Just as all moments of military and geopolitical tension are reflexively compared to Munich, so all constitutional traumas seem to invite automatic parallels with the Abdication Crisis or Suez. To which I can only say: imagine if Wallis Simpson or Anthony Eden had been on Twitter. It is, as they say, a diverting thought.

There are two ways of examining the constitutional significance of Brexit. Both are valid, important and necessary. But one approach exercises a much greater gravitational pull because of its sheer familiarity and our habituation with the categories it deploys.

This approach meshes with the comfort zone of constitutionalists: those who are at home with Erskine May, with Dicey, with Stubbs, with Jennings, with Bagehot.

We are all pupils of this school, of greater and lesser distinction. Political journalists such as myself do their best to keep up with the scholarship, conscious of falling short. Academics of note press hard at the borders of philosophy, jurisprudence and institutional study, and we are all in their debt.

And, of course, Brexit is occupying them, and us, to an extraordinary extent – as well it might. How indeed could it be otherwise?

Imagine if Wallis Simpson or Anthony Eden had been on Twitter. It is, as they say, a diverting thought.

Let us look, swiftly, at some of those institutions and the uncommon pressures brought to bear upon them by the process of Britain’s prospective departure from the EU.

Start with Parliament: how long ago it seems that the judiciary were branded ‘Enemies of the People’ by the Daily Mail for ruling that the Commons should have its say before Article 50 was triggered.

It would be a triumph of hope over experience to say that the Brexit process has rejuvenated Parliament. The menacing zeppelin of populism has always loomed over its deliberations on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal and the nature of the forthcoming ‘meaningful vote’ on December 11.

But – if nothing else – the notional restoration of parliamentary sovereignty, however it is potentially attenuated by the interim structure set out in the deal, will have huge implications for the business of Parliament.

Deal or no deal, Brexit means 700 to 800 new pieces of legislation on the statute book. I rather like the laconic verdict of Sir Nicholas Green, the chairman of the Law Commission, who told The Times: ‘I think there could be a technical challenge in making that work.’ Well, yes.

In the Bruce Lee hall of mirrors and MC Escher etching of dizzying optical illusions that is Brexit, this is surely one of the few sure bets. That what was presented by its champions in 2016 as a moment of light-switch emancipation will be a decade-consuming task that will absorb much of Parliament’s energies, if not snarl it up entirely. Parliamentary sovereignty will perhaps seem less glamorous than when the long campaign to leave the EEC and later the EU began its flame-eyed march.

The courts, too, will be busy trying to work out – first of all – the extent to which, and in which, areas of law the ECJ retains jurisdiction, and for how long.

I do not imagine that many judges, or those in the executive whose decisions will be subject to judicial review, will take much comfort from the 25-page political declaration’s promise of a joint committee to arbitrate initially in such matters.

Much more likely, I assume, that a long and contentious jurisprudential argument will now ensure about the proper function of ECJ-related precedent in common law and judicial culture.

It would be a triumph of hope over experience to say that the Brexit process has rejuvenated Parliament.

Again, we come up against the prime characteristic of populist measures of which Brexit is one, par excellence: the proposition that there are simple answers to complex problems. And, of course, this is not the case – borders can be managed not closed, you cannot leave a club and retain all its benefits, cake has the awkward habit of refusing to be both kept and eaten.

This is not the place to debate in detail the likely consequences of Brexit for the Union, except to say that it has already been shaken to its foundations. I find it increasingly hard to argue with Scottish Nationalists who argue that their country did not vote to leave the EU and that this harsh act of severance bolsters the case for Scottish independence. Likewise, I have tremendous sympathy for our fellow citizens in Northern Ireland who feel that, 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement, their future is being gambled at the casino tables of Westminster.

Separately, I suspect that Brexit will have collateral impact upon other institutional and electoral arrangements in the medium-term.

The 2017 Conservative manifesto is not a document that many consult all that closely these days. But it is worth remembering that the Tories were all set to abolish the Fixed Term Parliaments Act only six years after it had been passed by David Cameron’s government. I do not think that future prime ministers will want to be hemmed in by its complex constraints.

Expect, too, that the whole function of referendums will be called into question in the months and years to come. As the laureate of plebiscitary studies, Prof Vernon Bogdanor, reminds us: the referendum was first proposed as a conservative device, a means of protecting common sense against the whim of elites.

The great constitutionalist, A. V. Dicey (1835-1922), championed plebiscites on precisely these grounds, and the ‘people’s veto’ specifically as a means to thwart Irish Home Rule. The referendum on the alternative vote system in May 2011 was a vintage example of this: a Lib Dem pipe dream snuffed out by the people.

Dicey’s view was that referendums were a firewall against ‘the possibility…which no one can dispute of fundamental change passing into law which the mass of the nation do not desire.’ Those words, funnily enough, may strike an unexpected chord with supporters of the People’s Vote today, who essentially want to mobilise public caution in the face of the recklessness of a cliff-edge Brexit – wisely so, in my view.

But I wonder how ready future prime ministers will be to gamble, as David Cameron did in January 2013, by seeking to resolve a grievous political problem by putting the matter to the people.

I suspect that Brexit will have collateral impact upon other institutional and electoral arrangements in the medium-term.

It is an exaggeration to say that most referendums have tended in the past to have broadly predictable outcomes: but not much of an exaggeration. In today’s febrile, volatile, hectic political culture – in which social media can weaponise this or that opinion at low cost – I wonder how appealing the plebiscite will be as, to borrow Jim Callaghan’s famous image, a ‘rubber life raft’ for politicians in a jam. These days, the rubber life raft is all too likely to spring a leak – as it did for Cameron in 2016.

So much for the institutional landscape. And there’s plenty there. The second part of my argument is rather more provocative, however.

I have always been struck by a line of Lyndon Johnson, often quoted by his biographer Robert Caro: ‘Power is where power goes’. It seems to me that this apparent platitude contains great wisdom.

It is the assumption of constitutionalists that power resides in institutions.The Oxford Dictionary, for example, defines a constitution as ‘a body of fundamental principles or established precedents according to which a state or other organization is acknowledged to be governed’.

Hard to argue with that. It is accurate. But is it true? What I mean is: yes, constitutional studies can easily proceed on the basis that power still resides in institutions and be conducted accorded to the old, conventional assumptions.

But do we really capture the world as it in clinging to this old approach? In his compelling book Pax Technica (2015), the academic Philip N Howard argues that ‘The state, the political party, the civic group, the citizen: these are all old categories from a pre-digital world.’

We need, Howard insists, to look at the world afresh and see it ‘as a system of relationships between and among people and devices’, and to grasp that politics ‘used to be what happened whenever one person or organisation tried to represent another person or organisation’. Now, he says, ‘devices will be doing much of that representative work in the years ahead.’

What this amounts to is nothing short of a revolution in human behaviour and interaction, one whose profound consequences and challenges are beginning to force a germinal reaction from the political class.

I have always been struck by a line of Lyndon Johnson, often quoted by his biographer Robert Caro: ‘Power is where power goes’.

We have already seen the comprehensive investigation into ‘fake news’ being carried out by the Commons select committee on digital, culture, media and sport. In last month’s Budget, Philip Hammond announced a new tax on tech giants, while ministers have expressed increasing exasperation with corporations like Facebook, Google, and YouTube over their failure to combat the threat of terrorism and the proliferation of extremist content online.

The extent of online intimidation and violent bigotry drew heavy criticism in December from the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The NSPCC has called for action to prevent the manipulation of YouTube by paedophiles as a ‘shop window’ for horrific imagery of child abuse. Barely a day passes without fresh evidence of the ways in which ‘big data’ — the unprecedentedly huge caches of information about every citizen accumulated by the tech giants — may be covertly exploited for financial or political gain.

And, in May, the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (or GDPR) came into force, transforming the obligations of organisations that hold and transfer information about citizens.

Still, however, the extent to which this will force tech giants to adopt new practices remains a matter of bitter dispute — not least because the Government has announced its intention to preserve the EU’s regulatory structure on data even after Brexit.

I mention these initiatives not because they are fit-for-purpose but because – in aggregate – they are so puny and so late. The problem is one of pace or, more specifically, the inability of our traditional political system to keep up with the most dynamic technological revolution in history.

Barely a day passes without fresh evidence of the ways in which ‘big data’ may be covertly exploited for financial or political gain.

It is only 14 years since Facebook was invented, 12 since Twitter was founded, eight since Instagram went live. Scarcely surprising, then, that the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 — the rules which governed the Brexit vote — is a such a flimsy barrier against cyber-intervention and the destructive work of marauding bots.

And why do I make this point in a speech about Brexit and the constitution? Because the location of power has changed, is changing and will continue to change at radical speed thanks to digital technology and the conspicuous inability of the old rule-based system to keep up.

To take the clear and present example of Brexit: look at how easily both Vote Leave and Leave.EU were able to circumvent the authority of the Electoral Commission. Thanks to the epic work of Carole Cadwalladr and other journalists, a mass of evidence has now accrued that the two main pro-Brexit campaigns were engaged in electoral vandalism, astonishing levels of disinformation, and serial breaches of the law governing referendums. Earlier this month, it was announced that Arron Banks, the Leave.EU donor, is under investigation by the National Crime Agency – facing allegations that, one should say, he strongly denies.

One response to this is to say: well, fine. But surely this is simply a matter for our legislators and regulators? We need new laws and better regulations to deal with an evolving panorama of power dynamics. Keep calm and carry on with constitutional studies as usual.

The trouble is that this steady-as-she-goes approach is not remotely sufficient to address the new realities. Nor, indeed, is it consistent with the versatility of thinking that underpins the best traditions of constitutional studies.

Bagehot, for one, addressed his study of the English constitution through the prism of social Darwinism. He wrote not only about the institutions of the Victorian era, but about that era itself.

More recently, Philip Bobbitt has charted the emergence of what he calls the ‘market state’ – and, in his classic study, Terror and Consent (2008), plotted their ‘unique vulnerabilities’ and the ‘connectivity that allows a cascading series of vulnerabilities to be exploited.’ Indeed, Bobbitt foresaw many aspects of the networked world in which we now live.

We need new laws and better regulations to deal with an evolving panorama of power dynamics.

What do I mean by this? Let me try and answer the question by identifying some of the key characteristics of the modern network:

The first is the understanding that real-time connection is more important than obedience to convention or process. This is where the populist Right has scored again and again over its liberal opponents. What strategists such as Steve Bannon, and street and social media activists like Tommy Robinson, understand is that connectivity matters more than anything else. The traditional divide between conventional politics and pub-and-terrace thuggery has been abolished and replaced by a web of filaments and connections that, through intermediaries and algorithms, ultimately links the Trump White House to the Kremlin, hacker camps and thugs posing as enemies of the establishment.

Nobody incarnates this new landscape of connectivity like Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, who is now busily at work with nationalist parties in Europe. He has been in direct contact with Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, and has expressed support for Robinson as a ‘solid guy’. To interpret this a ‘conspiracy’ is old thinking. Rather it is a network – and one in which Bannon is the mains cable linking Westminster and street-level activism.

The second key characteristic is that networks disperse and distribute power, but do so in a completely unpredictable way. To take an obvious example: the first Britons who Trump met after his election were not diplomats or ministers but the so-called ‘Bad Boys of Brexit’ – Nigel Farage, Arron Banks, and their unlovely entourage. It is hard to exaggerate the shock waves this sent through the Foreign Office and Downing Street. Some senior Tories even argued that Farage should become our ambassador to Washington. But that, yet again, was to map old the old structure of institutional appointments on to the new networks of informal power. Trump ignored protocol – if indeed he knew about it – and embraced those who were already part of his network. And what a network it is and has been.

Only last week we learned that the President’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort allegedly held secret talks with Julian Assange inside the Ecuadorian embassy at least three times, including once in spring 2016. This has naturally led to speculation about the means by which WikiLeaks released a stash of Democratic emails stolen Russian intelligence officers. Manafort denies any involvement, as does Assange. But the more interesting point is that Mannafort was allegedly there at all  – as was Farage on more than one occasion. Why? Well, indeed. By definition, institutions involve hierarchies, rules, sanctions, mandated transparency. Networks require none of these things to operate or to manage and distribute power. They are the fibre-optic arteries through which power now flows. The bricks and mortar of buildings and the leather-bound volumes of precedent still matter. But they matter a lot less, and we ignore this transformative development at our peril.

The question of power distribution brings me to the third point, which is that networks abolish the old distinction between the centre and the periphery. Traditional institutional thinking depends upon the idea of a centre of gravity, an institutional core, a heart of statecraft from which all else pulses out. It enables the dismissal of the ridiculous, the marginal and the extremist to the edges of discourse and practice. But network power is nimble, agile, hard to pin down and permits ideas previously driven to the periphery to be restored by the engine of digital technology to the very mainstream. Think, for instance, of the direct connection between Trump and Alex Jones of InfoWars – a deplorable man who has claimed that the Sandy Hook shootings were fabricated by ‘crisis actors’.

In the case of Brexit, look at the way in which the rapid-fire, weaponised campaign of 2016 threatened to normalise ideas about immigration and nativism that had been banished to the fringes for decades. Contrast the way in which Enoch Powell was swiftly sacked by Heath in 1968 after the Rivers of Blood speech – exiled from the mainstream for the rest of his career – with the centrality to the 2016 referendum campaign of Farage’s disgusting ‘breaking point’ poster. The Brexit vote was, quite absurdly, a referendum on immigration and integration – and this outrageous way of deciding the UK’s future relationship with the EU was entirely driven by network politics – the weaponization of messages by social media, the firing of bespoke posts into individuals’ newsfeeds, the creation of a discourse that bore little relation to any information stream that had passed through the traditional institutional structure.

Fourth, networks transform the significance of scale. They amplify voices far beyond what used to be possible or conceivable. Look, again, at Bannon: the mainstream media has taken to mocking his failure to sign up parties formally to his new European nationalist Movement, or the tiny audiences at some of his speeches. But his traction remains global and his influence huge. It is a serious mistake to dismiss him as an unkempt irrelevance: in today’s digital ecosphere, the man who looks like an unkempt irrelevance can be king.

The same applies to expenditure: we are used to the notion that the state can usually, to be crude, outspend its non-state antagonists and, more to the point, regulate those who would distort the processes of democracy. But the Brexit referendum showed that a few hundred thousand dollars thrown at personalised social media feeds can have a potentially serious – and more to the point unmonitored – impact. Old institutional thinking encourages us to think of heads of government talking to one another, diplomats engaging, representative bodies tending the garden of democracy. But network thinking teaches us that we need to be just as mindful of teenagers in hacker camps, secret algorithms and Albino pimpernels holed up in embassies. Power is not necessarily where you think it is. Remember LBJ: power is where power goes.

Consider these remarks work in progress. We are in the foothills of this new mode of analysis and I would not pretend that these comments are anything other than a preliminary offering.

And if I have provoked you: good. If nothing else, this was intended as a provocation.

It was intended to persuade you of a single reality that many, I know, will find unpalatable. Namely that traditional institutional analysis is necessary – very much so, and irreproachably so – but also that it is insufficient.

The Brexit referendum was won because of networks. The Britain that it yields – whatever happens between now and March 29 – will be shaped by networks.

In an age of fretful volatility, constitutional turbulence and political indeterminacy, this is one thing, at least, of which you can be absolutely certain.

The Constitution Society can be followed here.

'The Brexit referendum was won because of networks. The Britain that it yields – whatever happens between now and March 29 – will be shaped by networks.'