Sketch: Jeremy Corbyn's manifesto pledges will mean nothing until we get our owls
A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of free broadband. Or it will be, anyway, if Labour has anything to do with it.
Yes, that’s right. In a move straight out of Fidel Castro’s playbook, Labour wants to give free broadband to everyone in the UK.
And the reaction was much as you’d expect, with commentators and political opponents confused and scared by the plan, which would apparently operate through some sort of ludicrous scheme, based on raising revenue from taxpayers and then using that money to provide a public service. Let’s be clear about this, because it sets a very dangerous precedent. They’ll be taking money off you to pay for roads next.
How would Gramsci have approached mobile connectivity?
And you can see why people are worried. The danger is clear. Paying a monthly fee for broadband provision is the bedrock of British society. It’s the one thing everyone loves doing. It’s the one thing holding everything together. In a time of increasing inequality and yawning political gulfs, the importance of setting up a direct debit for your WiFi is the one thing we can all agree on.
So why would Labour want to take away the joy of paying for bad broadband? Where will the division end?
As Jeremy Corbyn explained: “The internet has become such a central part of our lives. It opens up opportunities for work, creativity, entertainment and friendship. What was once a luxury is now an essential utility.
“That’s why full-fibre broadband must be a public service, bringing communities together, with equal access, in an inclusive and connected society.
“It’s time to make the very fastest full-fibre broadband free to everybody, in every home, in every corner of our country.”
Free internet. They’ll be opening up centres to let people borrow books for free next.
People say Karl Marx was one of the most influential political philosophers of the last 200 years, but actually, he had surprisingly little to say on broadband provision
Understandably, the Tories were concerned. As Nicky Morgan put it: “Corbyn is clearly so desperate to distract from his party’s divisions on Brexit and immigration that he will promise anything, regardless of the cost to taxpayers and whether it can actually be delivered. What reckless idea will be next?”
Well, indeed. And what will Labour try to give away recklessly for free next? Healthcare? A high school education? No way. Free internet would be as dangerous as it is frightening.
Boris Johnson, meanwhile, went further, branding it a “crazed communist scheme”, though in fairness, at times it can be hard to keep up with the things Boris Johnson does or doesn’t consider to be “crazed”. Building a bridge to Northern Ireland, for example, is not crazed. That’s fine. In fact, he’s been talking about that for over a year, arguing it would be “very good” before adding to his case by asking, “Why don’t we? Why don’t we?”
Well, because of reality, Boris. Because of the depth of the sea and the strength of the winds and the fact it’s an openly awful idea.
But Johnson’s communist point may be worth considering. People say Karl Marx was one of the most influential political philosophers of the last 200 years, but actually, he had surprisingly little to say on broadband provision.
And who knows. What would Lenin have made of free WiFi? How would Gramsci have approached mobile connectivity? How different would China look today if Mao Zedong had access to reliable 4G?
It’s one of history’s most important debates, though at this point, it’s probably better for the Tories not to draw on Stalin references, or there may be some uncomfortable questions about doctoring videos of your political opponents, or rebranding your party’s Twitter account as an impartial fact-checking service aimed at attacking the Labour party.
Yet while some debated the theoretical basis of taxing the population and using the money to provide a public service, others questioned how deliverable the plan really was.
And there are good reasons for that. The British public has been burned before. Offered false promises. Lied to and wronged. Misled, bamboozled and tricked.
Yes, that’s right, we’re still waiting for our free owls. Our owls should have arrived by now, but they’re not here. We don’t have our owls.
It’s one thing to constantly speculate about a magic bridge, but we’ve been waiting for our owls for years. As the Labour press team announced, via Twitter, back in 2014, “Everybody should have his own owl.”
And it’s true. Everyone should own their own owl. But they don’t. We never got our owls.
Let’s be clear here, the promised giveaway – dubbed the vOwl, during the 2014 referendum – was, arguably, the biggest influence on Scotland voting against independence. It changed everything.
The betray-owl was also, arguably, the biggest factor in Ed Miliband losing the leadership. It’s one thing to lose an election, but there are some things voters can’t forgive.
So although Corbyn and McDonnell will be able to defend themselves by pointing out they weren’t in the Labour leadership at the time of the owl-trage, public anger should still serve as a lesson. And it may be that Labour have good reasons for the wait. Maybe they need the broadband in place to deliver the owls. Maybe the broadband will be used to deliver them.
Maybe it’s all coming together, as one of Corbyn’s long-term strategies, and maybe everything will be fine. First you get power, then you get the broadband, then you’ll get your owl.