Encyclopedic Knowledge

The main selling point of Wikipedia is its open nature. Unlike other on-line information sources, Jimmy Wales’s gift to the world can be edited by anyone and everyone reading it. Further, where most forums or newspaper articles would request at least a name and an email address before permitting outsider contributions to be made, if not a full account established, Wikipedia allows strangers to interact with the site’s content with negligible effort or commitment. That being said, a great many regular users do sign up, as I did in February 2014. Since then I have made well over a thousand edits to various pages. The vast majority of these have been minor, often inconsequential details, but then that is how most Wikipedia edits go. Thousands of contributors make thousands of piecemeal amendments (linking one page to another, adding a picture, extending a paragraph by half a sentence, etc) which over time allow enormous and elaborate articles to grow. There are few pages which any individual can truly call their own work, for each is the product of less an elephant than an army of ants.

Theoretically any editor can write anything on any page. In practice, however, editors who attempt to cover all the information in the world will quickly find their efforts obliterated by another with superior local knowledge. In a community so vast, the generalist stands no chance. It is more prudent, therefore, to specialise in the extreme and carve out a niche, however minuscule, where one can reign supreme. In my case this was the correction and maintenance of the honorifics of British politicians.

While my primary interest would ordinarily have been the natural sciences, I knew that I would struggle to hold my own on any scientific topic compared to those with far greater qualification on the matter. I went instead for a relatively simple yet frequently error-laden topic where the corrections were simple to grasp and unlikely to be challenged.

By and large my edits were to pages rarely perused – such as colourising the illustration for John Fane, 10th Earl of Westmorland or establishing a new info-box for George Henry Roberts. Occasionally, though, I have moved to more populous wards, whose greater interest and attention can sometimes generate controversy and conflict. Margaret Thatcher, for instance, is hotly contested – not only for her divisive political legacy, but also the mere issue of whether she should be styled as “The Lady” or “The Baroness”. If edits to the biographies of the dead were contentious, those of the living are a minefield. In particular those involved in unfolding events tend to undergo short but dense periods of extremely heavy editing over seemingly minor but often quite important issues.

Since I took up this hobby, Britain has undergone two changes of government. The first was caused by a parliamentary general election whose date was advertised as 7th May, but whose origins were several weeks earlier: When a parliament of the United Kingdom has run its course it must dissolve, to be replaced by the product of the ensuing votes. In the past the dates of dissolution and election would be a closely guarded secret until its announcement by the prime minister, but the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011 removed this prerogative so that the expiration date of the fifty-fifth parliament was known in advance to be Sunday 30th March 2015. As midnight approached on Saturday 29th I was poised to strike, for dissolution means that the House of Commons no longer exists and thus the people formerly described as MPs are no longer entitled to that status. Their post-nominals must therefore be deleted and suggestions of incumbency rectified. On the first day of official campaigning I enacted this for the pages of more than a hundred politicians. On election night, of course, I had to begin putting them back again.

After a British general election it is traditional for the outgoing government to publish a list of Dissolution Honours. I created a page in waiting but no list appeared, and when I tried to add the names of new peers appointed immediately to the new parliament (Maude of Horsham, Altmann, Keen of Elie, Dunlop) they were swiftly struck down. Finally I gave up and, assuming that there was to be no list at all, requested that the useless page be deleted. When the list finally did appear I was on holiday with no access to the internet, so that the process was started again and almost completed without me. All that remained was to move the pages of lesser known recipients to less ambiguous addresses (such as Donald Foster (politician) to Don Foster, Baron Foster of Bath).

Later in the same year Canada had its own federal election. Though the Canadian parliamentary system is in many ways a carbon copy of our own, the events there elapsed rather differently – the Conservative Party was defeated and Stephen Harper announced he would step down as prime minister. Immediately (indeed, before the election had even concluded), the page of his victorious rival Justin Trudeau MP (Liberal, Papineau) had been edited to credit him as “Prime Minister of Canada”. He was unfit to be thus accredited, however, for his appointment to said office had not yet happened. Whereas British elections – excepting those which produce hung parliaments, of course – typically conclude with the leaders of the defeated parties vacating their posts before all of the seats have even declared, it remains in Canada conventional for several days to elapse before the resignation of a defeated incumbent actually takes effect. So it was last year that despite polling day having been 15th October, Trudeau the Younger did not come to power until 4th November. This, naturally, was too slow for the notoriously impatient citizens of the internet, so his info-box had instead oscillated between such unsupportable adornments as “Prime Minister-elect”, “Prime Minister-designate” and “Prime Minister (presumptive)” throughout the interlude until finally the undifferentiated appellation became reality.

Come 2016, the elections arrived for the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly. Again, I raced through page after page deleting MSP, AM and MLA from every info-box I could find. I also edited the pages of the legislatures themselves to set the memberships to zero and change the party balance pictures to show empty chambers. Again, these all had to be restored for the re-elected once the results had been announced. In simultaneous occurrence was the London mayoral election, in which a smaller group of candidates battled to replace Boris Johnson MP as Britain’s most popularly-mandated statesman. Elections of this type use the Supplementary Vote, a kind of cut-price Alternative Vote system in which all but the top two candidates would be eliminated after the first round. In this case it was obvious well in advance that said candidates would be Zac Goldsmith MP (Conservative) and Sadiq Khan MP (Labour). Given that London is more populous than Scotland, and that the mayoral race has the entire city as one enormous constituency, it is perhaps unsurprising that the counting process took over twenty-four hours. The editors naturally got twitchy. As soon as newspapers began reporting that Khan was “ahead” or “set to win” there came a series of edits and reverts as various users jostled to be the first to add the “Mayor of London” category. Again there were some “Mayor-elect” attempts also, regardless of the fact that the right honourable member for Tooting had not yet been formally (or even informally) declared the winner.

As long and as complicated as “Super Thursday” might have been it could never have been Britain’s primary political event in 2016. That distinction is the property of the referendum on 23rd June, in which some seventeen million voters decided that the United Kingdom should no longer be a member of the European Union. In spite of earlier insistence that he would remain regardless (and strong requests from ministerial colleagues on both sides to do so) David Cameron told the nation that fresh leadership was required and thus he would step down at some point in the autumn. His “term_end” was at once set to October 2016 before being swiftly reverted. Again there was a dispute between the semantics of announcing that one intends to resign, resigning, and ceasing to be incumbent.

There was no time to quibble over the status of the government, though, as events were unfolding rather more rapidly in the opposition. News emerged shortly after the referendum that Labour MPs (namely the Right Honourable Dame Margaret Hodge) had called for a motion of no confidence in their leader Jeremy Corbyn, following his alleged poor performance in the campaign. These sentiments were relayed to him personally by his shadow foreign secretary Hillary Benn, whom Corbyn promptly dismissed from his frontbench team. Mr Benn was swiftly followed by a steady trickle of other shadow ministers who resigned in protest, citing similar dissatisfactions with Corbyn’s leadership. Naturally I went to edit their respective pages to note their departures, only to realise that many of their offices had never been listed in the first place. When a person is appointed to be a minister of the crown – in particular a secretary of state – then there will be official correspondence including certain legal documents which explicitly say which job they have and when they got it. For junior ministers there is less available evidence (their appointments are not mentioned in Orders in Council) and though there is some documentation of their offices (such as Hansard, or official correspondence, or the government’s website) there can often be inconsistencies between references (sometimes they are just a minister of parliamentary undersecretary of state, name of department, others they have a more specific title) and often there are subtle changes in the exact portfolio whenever such a position changes hands. Marking out a clear line of succession for certain junior posts is therefore rather difficult. It is not helped by the fact that junior ministers are, by nature, given less media attention and so there are fewer sources to hand. Moving over to the opposition team, the shadow cabinet are usually fairly well documented, but it should be remembered that theirs are courtesy titles in the gift of the leader of the opposition. While mostly they correspond to the titles of those on the treasury bench, there are some (such as Michael Howard’s Shadow Secretary of State for the Family or Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Minister for Young People & Voter Registration) which do not, which heralds yet more confusion. Such was the state of affairs throughout the last week of June when, in the words of some otherwise-forgettable Twitter commentator “People whom I’ve never heard of are resigning from positions I didn’t know existed.” Eventually Mr Corbyn announced his new team, which was filled with people even more obscure. Richard Burgon MP, for example, became Shadow Lord Chancellor at the age of thirty-five, having only been elected to the House of Commons thirteen months prior. He, and many others in what surely must now be Labour’s C or even D team, had a biography shorter than that of Larry the Cat.

Eventually the “coup” subsided when there was nobody left to resign, and Corbyn still did not step down as leader. Over on the Conservative side, by contrast, the leadership election moved all too quickly. The first ballot saw Theresa May win the support of exactly half of the Conservative MPs, with Stephen Crabb and Liam Fox dropping out. The second ballot eliminated Michael Gove, which left the final battle between May and Andrea Leadsom. For the briefest of moments it appeared that an intense fight was about to erupt as Leadsom cast doubts on the barren May’s ability to govern as a non-mother. Then, suddenly, it was all over – on Monday 11th July the minister of state was seen announcing her withdrawal from the contest. The whole political landscape changed as Theresa May was left as the only candidate in the severely truncated race. Yet again the editors were quick to proclaim the new premier, as if First Lord of the Treasury were an actual barony whose abeyance had recently been terminated. Shortly after Leadsom’s surrender a meeting of the 1922 Committee was convened and May was officially declared Leader of the Conservative Party. Cameron, now even more of a lame duck than before, brought forward his resignation to Wednesday 13th July. The next two days saw an excruciating struggle to keep the relevant pages up (or rather down) to date against myriad attempts to publish the handover prematurely. After Cameron’s speech before the black door, the cameras hovered around Buckingham Palace waiting for the former prime minister to emerge and the incoming one to arrive. Finally – and after an awkward photograph of the home secretary shaking Her Majesty’s hand, Mrs May returned to Downing Street to announce that she had indeed accepted a request to form a government. Finally the moderators gave way and the edit could legitimately be made.

The relief was to be short-lived, for the new prime minister hurriedly enacted a cabinet reshuffle, sifting out the Notting Hill set in favour of her own allies. There were some short spells of confusion, such as when it appeared that Jeremy Hunt had been relieved of the Department of Health, only to find that he would remain in place (word had it that May had wanted Theresa Villiers to replace him, but then Villiers resigned and there were no other candidates available). Whereas the reshuffle was for the most part routine (if rather large), there were some notable differences with the establishment of three new departments of state (Exiting the European Union; International Trade and Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy) and the dissolution of two old ones (Energy & Climate Change and Business, Innovation & Skills). Many of her predecessors were criticised for rearranging departments too often, but Cameron was unusually passive in this regard – his one noticeable change was to have the department for children, schools & families renamed the Department for Education. Collectively the editors cocked up the transition where the business portfolio was concerned, as the new BEIS had a separate page created, thus preventing the old one from being moved until the erroneous creation had been deleted. Finally it was assumed that Greg Clark would be President of the Board of Trade, as all his predecessors had been. Instead, it transpired that this sinecure would actually belong to the Secretary of State for International Trade (The Right Honourable Liam Fox MP). Amusingly we discovered that government officials had made the same error themselves, with Clark being appointed president for four days until Fox succeeded him.

Now, at the end of August, the British political line-up appears to have reached a moment of relative stability. No doubt there will be further resignations, appointments and re-elections in the foreseeable future, and no doubt there will be confusion over who has what, but I or others like me will always be around to ensure that, if nothing else, their post-nominals will be accurate.

One thought on “Encyclopedic Knowledge

  1. It’s interesting to read a detailed analysis from a significant Wikipede. I find it useful. I credit it in the permanent language of my blog. Yet it surely tends to certain weaknesses. It was in pursuit of its inner workings that I became a contributor. But that turned out not to suit me terribly well.

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