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Brexit: Another Fine Mess

‘I do declare that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate hath, or ought to have jurisdiction, power, superiority, pre-eminence or authority within this Realm.’  The Bill of Rights (English Parliament, 1689)

‘Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!’ Laurel and Hardy’s catchphrase seems particularly appropriate as Britain approaches Brexit, due on 29 March 2019.

Few of us can remember a more confused and troublesome time in politics. From Donald Trump’s surprise election as president, to Italy throwing its Euros out of the pram; and from Korea’s nuclear threats to the collapse of ISIS, none of these cataclysmic events has caused as much heart-searching among Britons as the vote to leave the European Union: Brexit.

It is important to record two key facts from the start; first, the vote was on the largest turn out in British electoral history, with 30 million voting and a majority of over one million to leave. Second, the very generation that voted the UK to join the European Common Market back in the 1970s was the very generation that voted to quit forty years later. (Under forties mainly voted to remain.)

This poses the question, what has changed? The answer is simply, Europe. What Britons joined as a Common Market has morphed into something quite different. Today’s EU has taken on all the trappings of a superstate, with its own flag, anthem, currency, budget, courts, diplomatic representation, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels, border police, and is even trying to build its own army. What we see today is not the Common Market Britons thought they were joining back in the 1970s. The electorate was tricked into joining Europe – and quite deliberately, too.

We now know from three impeccable sources that what Christopher Booker called The Great Deception was based on a barefaced lie. Sir Edward Heath, the British Prime Minister who took Britain into the Common Market, lied consistently to the British people about the true consequences of joining Europe. He knew he was signing away Britain as an independent power. He admitted it years afterwards. Moreover, his highly classified Foreign Office briefing notes are now available (FCO 30/1048, April 1971) and confirm his lies beyond all argument. Sir Con O’Neill, the Whitehall mandarin behind this astonishing briefing paper, warned Heath that Britain would, by ceding judicial and executive powers, eventually end up as little more than a vassal state taking orders from Brussels. They knew: and so did Heath. O’Neill advised Heath to ‘swallow the lot and swallow it now’, according to the hitherto secret official record of the EEC talks.

Astonishingly, the faceless authors behind the briefing paper made an even more sinister recommendation; they advised ministers to hide the truth from the British public. The result of this deception has been that successive governments have deliberately kept the British public in the dark about what EEC membership really meant, hoping that it would one day be too late to leave. What Heath and the civil service never anticipated was that sooner or later the British public would see though the fraud and vote to quit Europe in a fiercely contested referendum half a century later.

Britons cannot pretend that they were not warned. There can be no doubt that the avowed purpose of the EU has always been to create a single European super-state, governed from Brussels, absorbing formerly independent and autonomous nation states. But don’t just take my word for it. Here are some quotes from European politicians over the years to confirm the point:

‘A United States of Europe is our goal’. Arthur Salter and Jean Monnet, 1923.

‘Europe’s nations should be guided towards the superstate without their people understanding what is happening. This can be accomplished by successive steps, each disguised as having an economic purpose, but which will eventually and irreversibly lead to federation.’  Jean Monnet, 1952.

‘We have sown a seed … Instead of a half-formed Europe, we have a Europe with a legal entity, with a single currency, common justice, a Europe which is about to have its own defence.’ Valery Giscard d’Estaing, President of the EU Convention, June 2003

‘The European Union is a state under construction.’ Elmar Brok, European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs.

‘We need a true political union … we need to build a United States of Europe with the Commission as government and two chambers – the European Parliament and a “Senate” of Member States … European Parliament elections are more important than national elections …’ Viviane Reding, Vice-President of the European Commission, January 2014

Even the UK politician, Kenneth Clarke, former Conservative Chancellor, in a rare moment of honesty from a British politician takes a similar view:

‘I look forward to the day when the Westminster Parliament is just a council chamber in Europe.’ International Currency Review, Vol 23 No 4, 1996

All this flatly contradicts Heath’s famous 1971 speech on joining the Common Market.

‘There are some in this country who fear that in going into Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty, even that we shall begin to lose our national identity. These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified and exaggerated ….’

If ever there is proof of a lie to the British electorate, the evidence is clear. Heath arguably committed an act of treason. He deliberately misled the British people and betrayed the Queen into breaking her Coronation Oath. Today’s inevitable backlash from a badly mis-sold electorate is what has fuelled the uncivil battle over Brexit faced by Theresa May.

Unfortunately for her, time to come up with a workable exit EU strategy is fast running out. PM May has just a few weeks to devise a new, mutually acceptable solution because, since Brussels rejected her Chequers proposals, she is trapped between the proverbial rock and a hard place: between her mutinous Eurosceptic party wing and an unyielding Commission, determined not to give an inch for fear of encouraging other increasingly rebellious EU nations. The former ‘arch ditherer’ at the Home Office now has to make a crucial decision. Britain’s timid but stubborn leader must shake off her rabbit in the headlights diplomacy.

As for the Europhiles, Britain must be punished, if only pour décourager les autres.

Frau Merkel has said so. She and France’s latest would-be Napoleon, President Macron, dare not back down. To do so would unleash a flood of anti-EU challenges, starting with Italy and its dodgy Euro, to be followed by the rebellious ‘Visegrad Four’ nations of Eastern Europe, who don’t want any more ‘refugees,’ thank you very much. The EU line must be held, at all costs. The European Commission agrees, warning that the political and economic damage inflicted by Brexit simply presents too great a risk to the EU.

Because Brussels recognises that the defection of the UK could be the capstone that collapses the EU’s arch. The loss of 10% of the Commission’s budget alone is a grievous blow: but the threat of mass defections and an unravelling of the whole European project terrifies the EU Federalist elites, let alone the nervous European banks. Their gravy train could hit the buffers.

The irony is that this bitter and protracted struggle to stifle dissent and lock the stable door is caused by an organisation that was meant to foster European harmony. The Europhiles and the Commission appear to have allowed their dream of a united Europe to over-ride the genuine concerns and anxieties of democratic voters in free nations. They don’t understand, for example, that the annexation of Northern Ireland into the EU means political suicide for any British PM.

What is now clear is that the biggest change to the unwritten British political constitution since 1689 was based on a politician’s lie and the British electorate was deliberately deceived. It was also legally questionable, according to the Bill of Rights.

Whether you agree or disagree with Brexit is immaterial. Brexit goes to the heart of what the UK is. Will Britain be self-governing? Or part of a new federal state?

That’s why it matters.

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ISIS: The Final Countdown?

Winston Churchill once famously said, ‘battles are the punctuation marks of history.’ Well, we have just avoided a potentially disastrous ‘exclamation mark’ in the bloody history of the Middle East. Whilst the post-colonial Versailles settlement of 1919 is being brutally readjusted to take account of the harsh realities of today’s Muslim world, a major crisis has just been avoided. At Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, Turkey and Russia have agreed to form a joint, demilitarised buffer zone around Syria’s embattled north-western province bordering Turkey: Idlib.

This agreement defuses a growing crisis between Ankara and Moscow by preventing any major Russian-backed government offensive from exploding into ISIS’s final rebellious Syrian redoubt. However, significant obstacles remain; Idlib could still become a flash point.

The problem is that the Middle East is as much of an unexploded bomb today as Europe was in 1914. Sunni Saudi Arabia hates Iran, and Shi’a Iran loathes the Saudis. Shi’ite Assad’s remaining chunk of Syria is the close ally of Iran. Behind the Saudis stand the USA, Britain and France. Behind the Iranians stand the Russians, sometimes the Turks, ever keen to obliterate the Kurds, and perhaps China – and watching nervously from its ringside seat is Israel.

For the past ten years we have all been living with this savage struggle to the death. Muslim has been slaughtering Muslim, all in the name of the Prophet of the religion of Peace and Love – ‘May his name be blessed.’ Now this round is nearly over; or is it?

The Turkish-Russian Sochi deal has been welcomed by all sides as an opportunity to avert the suffering that any major offensive would inflict on the province’s 3 million civilians. UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the agreement, saying that the ‘creation of a buffer zone in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province should avert an all-out military assault and provide reprieve for millions of civilians.’

It would also avoid the heavy losses that would be incurred by government forces in launching the biggest battle yet of the Syrian war against the cornered rebels. Turkey, the UN and aid groups have warned that any major assault by Russian and government forces backing President Bashar al-Assad against the trapped rebel fighters would lead to a massacre. It could also send 800,000 new refugees fleeing across the border into an already overwhelmed Turkey.

Many of the civilians in Idlib are already refugees from other parts of Syria following the collapse of the opposition resistance in cities such as Aleppo. The consequences of an all-out offensive against Idlib with its hapless civilians and the risk of Turkish troops fighting Russians could have led to a bloodbath.

The agreement is specifically designed to halt this major Russian-Syrian-Iranian attack on Idlib, with its trapped civilians.  The agreement calls for a 9- to 12-mile demilitarised  zone around the borders of the region, safe from Syrian and Russian air-force attack and which must be in place by 15 October. Heavy weapons including tanks, mortars and artillery will be withdrawn and Russian and Turkish troops will police the neutral zone. The Syrian government said that it ‘welcomed any initiative that stops bloodshed and contributes to security and stability.’ President Recep Tayyip Erdogan added, ‘With this memorandum of understanding, I believe we have prevented a major humanitarian crisis in Idlib.’

However, the devil is in the detail. The deal’s success hinges on the withdrawal of an estimated 10,000 fanatical jihadi rebel fighters from the buffer zone, fighting under the banner of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida and listed as dangerous terrorists by Russia, the USA and the UN.

These are some of Syria’s fiercest rebels, battle-hardened over years of gruelling warfare. HTS will fight to the death rather than surrender and they have good reason to do so: talks with the government have gone nowhere. In recently recaptured parts of the country, Assad’s goons have promptly arrested former rebels and opposition officials despite assurances of amnesty. Many have disappeared into Assad’s torture dungeons. ‘It’s either die, or surrender – and then die,’ says one rebel leader.

Despite these problems, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (a staunch supporter of Assad) tweeted: ‘Diplomacy works.’ However, he added that his visits to Turkey and Russia in recent weeks had achieved ‘a firm commitment to fight extremist terror.’ Putin himself added, ‘Russia and Turkey reiterated their commitment to continue anti-terrorism efforts in Syria in any of its forms or manifestations.’

Quite how this agreement to quarantine Idlib helps to stamp Islamic terrorism remains unclear because the deal is very fragile. With jets from at least six countries – Israel, Russia, Syria, Turkey, Britain and America – roaming the skies over Syria, the risk of mistakes leading to further escalation of the fighting are just a pilot’s blink away. Also, where will the rebels go?

Nevertheless, the international consequences of Sochi are important. Russia has scored a major diplomatic victory by striking a deal with Turkey. Moscow has avoided damaging its growing strategic relationship with Ankara, whilst achieving its own aims in Syria without more bloodshed. The Syrian war may be ending.

However, some things have not changed. ‘Russia doesn’t like the rebels and they want to help Assad lock down his victory; but they also have strong incentives to continue courting the Turks,’ said Aron Lund, an expert on the region. ‘Syria is just a small part of what Putin cares about. If he can just make the Syrian conflict quiet and unthreatening with Assad still in power, then Russia has won the war ….’

Idlib’s locals have mixed emotions about the Sochi deal. Abdulkafi Alhamdo, a 32-year-old teacher living in Idlib remains wary. ‘After seven years, if we trusted anyone we would be fools. Whenever we trust anyone they trick us,’ said Mr Alhamdo, who lived through the siege of Aleppo before fleeing to Idlib.  He added that he was ‘so happy, and so sad’ about the deal, because it still leaves them in limbo.  ‘People might be able to live again. Children might know there is tomorrow without planes. But we are still in nowhere. Refugees forever.’

Others have spotted the loopholes in the agreement. Thanassis Cambanis of The Century Foundation warns: ‘The gaping hole is that “terrorists” are still fair game. Putin has endorsed a lot of truces, but then Russia proceeded to bomb groups it defines as terrorists, because it says they weren’t part of the wider deal.’

This truce might be different. Putin’s own credibility is at stake, having made such a high-profile deal with President Erdogan. Turkey and Russia are increasingly becoming trade and diplomatic partners. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear reactor. The Kremlin also sees the strains between Turkey and western countries as a wonderful opportunity to divide and weaken the NATO alliance, to which Turkey provides the second largest number of troops. Putin has a personal stake in the Idlib agreement.

However, whilst for the Jihadis the battle may be lost, their long war is not over, because crushing ISIS in Syria will not eradicate the real problem. If the jihadis escape, the deadly spores of terrorism will merely disperse to spread their Islamist terrorism, which is already ‘global and growing.’ Islamist extremists caused 84,000 deaths in 2017 and intelligence agencies have identified 121 groups sharing a common ideology, now operating worldwide. They killed 84,000 people – nearly 22,000 of them civilians – in 66 countries in 2017, according to latest reports.

Even Whitehall admits that a convicted jihadi terrorist is being released onto the streets of Britain nearly every week. Home Office figures show that 46 prisoners held for terrorism offences were released in 2017 (The Telegraph, 13 September 2018)

ISIS and al Qa’ida are still very dangerous. Whatever happens in Idlib, we have not heard the last of them. The fallout from Syria will be with us for years.

Hunting the Algorithm

Algorithms rule your life. Really. I’ll also wager that most of us don’t have a clue what an algorithm is, or what it does. Most of us can’t even spell it.

Nowadays, however, thanks to advanced algorithms, computers can learn and reprogram themselves. They can make their own decisions automatically, without human intervention. Visions of The Terminator franchise’s murderous robots could come true, which is worrying for all of us. Our digital ‘Brave New World‘ is frighteningly close – and seriously alarming.

So, how can we address this issue? First, we have to decide what an algorithm really is, which is a bit like hunting the Snark. They are everywhere and yet there are invisible. The best definition is, ‘a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.’ Note that last word: computer.

Algorithms are the mathematical rules that tell your computer what to do and how best to do it. Computer programs comprise bundles of algorithms, recipes for handling information. Algorithms themselves are nothing more than pathways to manage pieces of data automatically. So, if ‘A’ happens, then go to do ‘B’; if that doesn’t work, then do C. It’s pure ‘either/or’ logic. Nothing could be simpler; or maybe not ….

Any computer program can be therefore viewed as an elaborate cluster of algorithms, a set of rules to deal with changing inputs. The problem is that computers increasingly rule our lives, whether we like it or not. We need to keep a close eye on these robotic machines as they can be dangerous.

Taking a nasty example, one dark night in March 2018 a computer-driven SUV mowed down and killed a female cyclist in Arizona. Sensors told state-of-the-art onboard algorithms to calculate that, given the robot SUV vehicle’s steady speed of 43 mph, the object must be stationary. However, objects in roads seldom remain stationary. New algorithms kicked in, looking for a split-second resolution. The SUV computer first decided it was dealing with another car, before it realised the car was bearing down on a woman with a bike hung with shopping baskets, expecting the SUV to drive passed her. Confused, the SUV computer handed control back to the human in the driver’s seat within milliseconds. It was too late: the cyclist, Elaine Herzberg, was hit and killed. The tech geeks responsible for the SUV then faced difficult questions like: ‘Was this algorithmic tragedy inevitable?’, ‘Are we ready for the robots to be in charge?’ and ‘Who was to blame?’

‘In some ways we’ve lost control. When programs pass into code and then into algorithms, algorithms start to create their own new algorithms, it gets farther and farther away from humans. Software is released into a code universe which no one can fully understand …’ says Ellen Ullman, author of Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology.

The problem is that algorithms now control almost everything. Amazon, Facebook, Google, university places, welfare payments, mortgages, loans and the big banks all rely on the algorithms in their computers to manage their decisions. Algorithms are seen as cool and objective, offering the ability to weigh a set of conditions with mathematical detachment and an absence of human emotion. ‘Computer say “No”‘, the catchphrase of the Little Britain character Carol Beer, is all too real nowadays, thanks in large part to algorithms.

However, currently we are experiencing first-generation, ‘dumb’ algorithms, which calculate solely on the basis of the input of their human programmers. The quality of their results depends on the thoughts and skills of the people who programmed them – people like us.

In the near future, something new and alarming will emerge. Tech pioneers are close to realising their dreams of creating human-like ‘artificial general intelligence’ (AGI): computers that don’t need programming, once they are up and running. Like Bender in Futurama, these machines possess intelligence: they can learn. A genuinely intelligent machine is able to question the quality of its own calculations, based on its memory and accumulation of experience, knowledge and mistakes. Just like us. Critically it can then modify its own algorithms, all by itself. As an analogy, It can change the recipe and alter the ingredients – without the busy chef realising what is happening.

Early iterations of AGI have already arrived: predictably, in the dog-eat-dog competitive world of financial market trading. Wherever there’s a fast buck to be made, clever individuals are already training their customised computers to attack and beat the market. The world of high-frequency trading (HFT) relies on central servers hosting nimble, predatory algorithms that have learned to hunt and prey on lumbering institutional ones, tempting them to sell lower and buy higher by fooling them as to the state of the market.

According to Andrew Smith, Chief Technology Officer at ClearBank, a major finance trading company in London: ‘In essence, these algorithms are trying to outwit each other; doing invisible battle at the speed of light, placing and cancelling the same order 10,000 times per second or slamming so many trades into the system than the whole market goes berserk – and all beyond the oversight or control of humans.’ (‘Franken-algorithms: the deadly consequences of unpredictable code‘, The Guardian, 29 August 2018)

In the same Guardian article, science historian George Dyson points out that HFT firms deliberately encourage the algorithms to learn: they are ‘just letting the black box try different things, with small amounts of money; and, if it works, reinforce those rules.’ These algorithms are making these decisions by themselves. The result is that we now have computers where nobody knows what the rules are because the algorithms have created their own rules. We are effectively allowing computers and their algorithms to evolve on their own, the same way nature evolves organisms.

This is potentially dangerous territory. Who is in charge when situations get out of hand?

Eighty years ago the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov foresaw these problems in his ground-breaking Robot series of short stories and novels, of which I, Robot is the most famous. Asimov formulated ‘Three Laws of Robotics,’ which make even more sense today, as we stand on the brink of a future world infused with robots. These Laws are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Asimov’s stories focus on the perils of ‘technology getting out of control’, when robots become problems, either because of conflicts between the Laws or because humans trying to interfere with the Laws, allowing robots to go their own way. Now, Asimov’s fictional concerns are coming true: today we face the challenge he only imagined. The problem remains what can we do about potentially vicious ‘creatures’ that may escape into the wild?

One truism is that we cannot disinvent things. From the crossbow (which a medieval Pope tried to ban) to the torpedo and the atom bomb, our clever and murderous species has invented dangerous toys. We have all had to live with their lethal consequences.  Computer algorithms are no different. We are stuck with them.

If we don’t find a way of controlling algorithms, we may wake up one day to find that they are controlling us.  Algorithms are already telling us what to do, particularly in public services such as law enforcement, welfare payments and child protection . Algorithms have become much more than data sifters; they now act as more like gatekeepers and policy makers, deciding who is eligible for access to public resources, assessing risks whilst sorting us into ‘deserving/undeserving’ and ‘suspicious/unsuspicious’ categories. Helped by their ubiquitous algorithms, computers are now making decisions for us.

However, we have to recognise that not all governance is data-based. Real life has to deal with the messy, complicated complexities of decision-making among conflicting demands. Policymaking is a human enterprise that requires us to deal with people, not numbers. It’s time to look at Asimov’s concerns anew, because soon it may be too late.

Unless you can guarantee unplugging the robot, of course ….

Who Needs Money Anyway?

Here’s a riddle for you:

Question ‘What loves money, but hates cash?’
Answer ‘Governments and banks.’

Governments love money – your money – because it helps them to bribe electors. Not for nothing has modern democratic politics been dismissed as the art of redistributing taxpayers’ money. There is no such thing as ‘government money’ – just your hard-earned dosh, taken from your pocket by law. As Louis XIV’s Minister of Finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, put it so elegantly, ‘The art of taxation is in plucking the goose so as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least amount of hissing.’

But modern governments, like banks, hate real money. This deep-seated dislike of cash in people’s pockets is because governments cannot control it. Money is mobile; money is anonymous. Money is running loose out there in the wild. For the control freaks of every government and their snivel serpents, money is an untidy, reckless, irresponsible commodity, out of government control and, horror of horrors, in the hands of ordinary people. Cash makes all those illegal economic activities easier – from terrorist activities to criminals using cash to pay for drugs, because it cannot be traced; in any cashless economy, counterfeit notes would be useless. So it’s no surprise that governments around the world want to eliminate cash because all transactions have to be linked to bank accounts that can be taxed.

Banks in their turn dislike hard cash, albeit for different reasons; all those dirty banknotes and coins need to be counted and added to ledgers. Money needs branches where you can visit to check on your dosh or negotiate a loan with a human being. However branches require staff – expensive staff. Replacing them with self-service apps allows the senior managers of financial institutions to control customers directly and, of course, such a system cuts costs and boosts profits. For the big banks, what’s not to like?

So ‘Big Finance’, enthusiastically backed by the man in Whitehall, is pushing hard for what they see as the bright new future of a cashless society; a world where IT and digital communications can get the customers to do their work for them without recourse to all that messy money. The most powerful advocate of change is the payments industry, with its credit card companies and banks. Every transaction that is done using cash is really a missed opportunity for Visa and MasterCard to earn another 2.5%. Unsurprisingly it is in their interest to trumpet that cash is redundant, inconvenient and inefficient.

However, the cashless society is a con – with Big Finance behind it. Already, all over the Western world, banks are trying to shut down branches and ATMs. They are trying to push you into using their own digital banking infrastructure to make digital payments. Financial institutions want to force everyone to put all their money through the banks’ digital systems to be recorded and harvested. Cost cutting and control is the order of the day, and our brave new digital world is making it possible. IT has made a cashless society a reality – and this demands some hard thought, because the cashless society will change all our lives.

For a start, in many cases, money as a traditional exchange of value is losing ground. Money is becoming much more a concept of ‘credit reassignment’ rather than a transfer of physical material. Everywhere today people are using credit and debit cards on a regular basis in everyday situations, such as shopping. These are cashless transactions. The question is, ‘What exactly is this cashless society?’ This leads to real impacts of living in a cashless world?

Perhaps the best finance model to consider is Sweden, which is fast becoming the world’s first completely cashless society. For example, none of the banks around Stockholm’s main Odenplan Square handle cash any more. If you want a cup of coffee and Kanelbulle in the country’s largest café chain you can only pay by card or by using your smartphone. No money please! Also, there is no chance of using coins or notes if you want to hop on one of the shiny blue busses purring past – contactless payment swipe only. Tak!

The Swedes see nothing unusual about this cashless phenomenon. Most Swedish banks have long stopped allowing customers to withdraw or pay in cash over-the-counter. A quarter of people living in Sweden use cash only once a week. Sweden’s cashless trend has been praised as the way of the future, mainly by banks and the credulous commentariat, and is increasingly being copied in places as far apart as Idaho and India.

However, not everyone is convinced that the Nordic nation’s embrace of living by technology is quite the happy Valhalla claimed. There are growing concerns about the pace of change. For example, many older Swedes are becoming alarmed amid concerns that this cashless society is causing problems for the elderly and other vulnerable groups.

‘As long as it is legal to use cash in Sweden, we think people should have the option to use it and be able to put money in the bank,’ says Ola Nilsson, of the Swedish National Pensioners’ Organisation and its 350,000 members. ‘We’re not against the cashless society, we just want to stop it from going too fast.’

They are right to be wary; because the cashless society hides some very dangerous trends. The debacle of TSB and Visa’s disastrous IT switchover is a cautionary tale for our potential cashless future. The more we rely on technological solutions, the more we will have a problem when they fail.

Moreover, there are some clear downsides to a cashless world. First, it will alienate a lot of people and put them on the fringe of society, if not make them outlaws. Not everyone has a smartphone, a bank account or even a permanent address.

Nor do all developed countries wish to go down the Scandinavian route. Switzerland, for example, rejects non-cash transactions as an invasion of privacy. The Swiss were not even keen on cashless train travel cards, worrying that the government could snoop on their travel habits.  Many people wouldn’t want their day-to-day spending habits recorded and monitored.

Then, there is the serious matter of censorship. There is already an ugly precedent. In February 2016, Uganda blocked the popular Money Mobile app during its elections. The allegation was that the opposition would use it to buy voters. The real reason was to block donations to the opposition party. In another instance, Bank of America, Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and Western Union blocked donations to Wikileaks, which has seen its revenue dip by over 95%.

Finally, cash is an important safeguard against economic disaster. When things go wrong, when confidence in the banking system crashes, citizens like to withdraw their cash in wadges and stuff it under the mattress. A run on the banks is governments’ worst nightmare: remember the Northern Rock debacle? A cashless society makes that impossible – and, paradoxically, it also makes it impossible for governments to control money flow and unable to inject money (i.e. ‘print banknotes’) to stimulate the economy.

The conclusion is that because of its reliance on electricity, electronics, software and IT, modern society is becoming more and more fragile, and vulnerable. Cyber-attacks are increasingly common, as is theft by hacking. So real money will remain a bulwark against technological vulnerability. In 2017 the average amount of cash carried by people was £33; that has now fallen to £21 in 2018. However, when technology goes wrong, hard cash still remains the safest way to make basic transactions.

So ignore those ‘nudging’ you towards purely digital services – it’s really all for the banks’ benefit, not yours. Obviously, plastic and helpful IT have their part to play, but we should not get carried away by the vision of a cashless society.

The signals say, ‘proceed with caution.’