A Clean Slate

Four years ago, when watching Donald Trump’s inauguration on the television, my eyes kept flicking to the White House website. It proclaimed “Yes we did. Yes, we can.”, the triumphal culmination of eight years of Obama’s presidency. There were pages upon pages of policies, speeches, appointments and events. No sooner had the 12 noon mark passed (or 5pm for us in Britain) than it all was gone. In its place was a “transitionsplash” page showing Trump & Pence together and a link to sign up for updates. Continuing to the main site one saw that, while the template was still the same (though a more substantial redesign was done some months later), all of the old content had been removed and the biographies about the first and second couples had been changed to reflect the new incumbents. As the news was quick to point out, this was planned long in advance as part of the post-electoral transition process. The same had occurred, albeit less smoothly, when Obama first entered office in 2009. Sure enough it happened again in 2021, despite all the shenanigans over the previous ten weeks. Biden’s new site has been the subject of much excitement and a little intrigue. The old sites haven’t gone of course, rather they have been moved to the archives – preserved forever in digital aspic.

Really, changing over the website itself is the easy part – a relatively simple matter of swapping the domains around. More difficult is the treatment of the many associated official accounts on various other platforms. These are similarly archived and wiped, which I assume requires the intervention of the platform owners (as it would in many cases be beyond the capabilities of the ordinary user) to move all of the existing material to a different account name and then opening a new account under the old name. This means that the incumbent president always possesses the undifferentiated “whitehouse” address while his predecessors are specifically named or numbered, important for both practical and symbolic reasons. This only appears to apply to the presidency, however, and not to the other cabinet departments, whose websites and other outlets all carry on regardless.

The World Wide Web became available to the public in 1991, during the tenure of George Bush Sr. Since then there have been five presidential transitions, all of them occurring on 20th January of a leap year and all seeing a change of party – from Republican Bush Sr to Democratic Clinton in 1993, to Republican Bush Jr in 2001, to Democratic Obama in 2009, to Republican Trump in 2017, to Democratic Biden in 2021. Interestingly, Biden is the first challenger with a website to win. Each entailed a change of most if not all senior executive offices, making a clean break from what existed before. Not all transitions, though, are quite so discrete. Imagine that the web had launched four years earlier and that the White House had its main website up by the end of Reagan’s term. He was succeeded by his own Vice President of the last eight years and quite a few cabinet officials (such as Nicholas Brady, Dick Thornburgh and Lauro Cavazos) remained the same. Would it have made sense to wipe the slate at that point, given that much of the work being erased would have been the new president’s own? Alternatively, one could have asked the same question in 2001 had the Florida recount gone differently and Al Gore succeeded Clinton. Indeed sometimes the transition cannot even be planned – such as with Nixon’s resignation in 1974 or Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Would Johnson and Ford have been given new accounts immediately, or would they have continued with the old? Given Biden’s advanced years and hints that he will only serve one term, this question could shortly become pertinent again.

In Britain, at least for the last decade, there has been little in the way of neatness. In 2010, following an inconclusive general election and days of tense negotiation, the New Labour government of Gordon Brown was replaced by the coalition government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg (beginning what many term “ConDemNation”). That government had no continuity with its predecessor – every single minister being replaced and no party continuing in power. The coalition survived with reasonably little churn until the long-awaited 2015 election, in which the Conservatives won a majority in the House of Commons while the Liberal Democrats were all but obliterated. Clegg and his ministers resigned from the government, to be replaced by an all-blue team. There was surprisingly little change in the cabinet lineup at this point – out of 30 members (22 full and 8 extras), 17 continued in the same post they held prior to the election, including all four great offices of state. Of those new appointments that were made, four were to replace the excised Liberal Democrats and three more to replace Conservatives who had ceased (voluntarily or not) to be MPs. Cameron’s second government lasted only 14 months, brought down by the EU referendum and replaced by Theresa May. Her reshuffle in July 2016 was a great deal more substantial than that of the previous year – 20 cabinet posts changing hands (including all four great offices of state) as well as one office dissolved and two created. May’s first government was to be even shorter-lived, for the next year there was a snap general election. Contrary to her intentions, this resulted in a small net loss of seats for the Conservatives, forcing her to form a minority government with confidence & supply from the Democratic Unionists. This prompted a fairly small reshuffle of just seven changes, though the next two years saw a high rate of turnover due to fallouts, scandals and protests. In July 2019 the leader herself finally resigned, replaced by Boris Johnson. That reshuffle saw 27 cabinet ministers replaced (again, including all four greats). Johnson’s first government technically still enjoyed supply from the DUP, but in practice had no majority as a large number of Conservatives defected (indeed, party discipline on important votes had broken down long before). It was only fifteen weeks before the chaotic 57th Parliament was dissolved. The Conservatives won a large majority at the ensuing election, allowing Johnson to form a second government without the need for DUP support. Fearful of too much disruption so close to the Brexit deadline, he purposely kept his existing ministers in place until February before carrying out a reshuffle, even ennobling Nicky Morgan so that she could continue her role in the other place for a few weeks.

The purpose of the preceding paragraph’s whistle-stop tour through the politics of the New Tens is to demonstrate that in the past eleven years this country has technically had six changes of government, only the first of which represented a clean break of the kind shown by recent US Presidential transitions. What’s more, looking further back we see little improvement: Brown took over in the middle of the 54th Parliament from Tony Blair, who had been in charge for over ten years of Labour rule. Before that we find an even longer period of Conservative rule, featuring during the 50th Parliament the substitution of John Major for Margaret Thatcher due to a backbench revolt. Only Blair’s succession from Major in 1997 represents a total renewal, which means that in the average Briton’s lifetime* what we imagine as the normal way of regime change – an opposition wins a majority in the House of Commons, then its leader is swiftly appointed Prime Minister – has really only happened once.

How, then, do our government’s websites adapt to events? The online presence of the Her Majesty’s Government has had several incarnations, beginning in 1994 with the Government Information Service, then moving in 2001 to UKonline, a portal allowing the public to search various smaller departments. In 2004 this was in turn replaced by Directgov, and the next month a website was established for Business Link, a service which gave advice for the commercial sector. In 2012, under the coalition, both of these websites were scrapped in favour of the unified GOV.UK, a process which I have discussed here before. Old documentation going back decades is incorporated into the site, with notices such as “This was published under the 1983 to 1987 Conservative government.”  slapped on the tops of the pages. Prior to the move, the Prime Minister’s office could be found at number10.gov.uk (or sometimes number-10, just to confuse you). After Brown left office it appears that posts relating to his tenure were hidden to make space for Cameron. It can be seen that many other accounts were changed at this point, in the aim of “reducing potential confusion to users”. I am disinclined to go through every social media account for every ministerial department, but a little checking shows that HM Treasury has been on Flickr and YouTube since 2008 (albeit the only pictures from pre-2010 are apolitical shots of the building). The Home Office likewise established a YouTube channel in 2008 but its earliest videos are from 2012. The Department for Transport’s channel, established in 2009, averts this a little.

Of course, the US President is head of state as well as head of government, so perhaps a comparison with the royal family would be more appropriate. On the other hand, the most recent demise of the crown occurred when computer science had barely emerged as an academic discipline, and long before the creation of the internet. The earliest government crawls make reference to royal.gov.uk, but the first time I can find it is 1998. The site was redesigned a few times over the following years and then, in 2016, was replaced entirely by royal.uk. A YouTube channel debuted in 2007. Of course, the firm is rather large and contains many subsidiary households, such as for the Prince of Wales, or the Duke of Cambridge. There was a minor headline some years ago when it emerged that the family had been buying up domain names to prevent them being used for cyber-squatting. Most now simply redirect to the main homepage. A massive archiving and wiping operation upon the current monarch’s decease is unlikely, put perhaps the Prince of Wales site will be handed over to Prince William at the time of his investiture. Let us be thankful that the Duke of Windsor never had a Twitter account.

If Britain has any office that functionally resembles a presidency, it would be the directly elected mayors – be they for cities, counties or regions. The most obvious case, naturally, is the Mayor of Greater London, and not just because its most recent holder is now Prime Minister. Its official Twitter account just says “Tweets before 9 May 2016 are from the previous Mayor.” and hopes you won’t be too confused by the appearance of Sadiq Khan’s face next to Boris Johnson’s words. It could be worse, I suppose.

*Worldometers has the median age of the UK population at 40.5 years, which puts Thatcher’s accession in 1979 a little out of reach.

UPDATE (2nd February)

Shortly after departing, Trump established the “Office of the Former President”. While the establishment is routine, the name is not – the many other former presidents have generally named the office after themselves. There has been some controversy around Trump’s use of the bald eagle, though I note that other presidents have continued to use similar devices on their stationery long after leaving office. The discussion is a little reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher in the nineties. So far I have not found a website for Trump’s new office, and indeed he may struggle to find the right domain, as officeoftheformerpresident.org currently redirects to an Atlantic article calling him the worst president in history.

The Little Boat

The little boat was bobbing in the Creek. It was a very sad little boat, its paintwork was dirty, covered in mud from the winter. Its red sail had not been unfurled since its last trip out in the Autumn and no-one had set foot on its deck since that day. It felt dirty, forgotten and unloved. It longed for a sunny day to warm its decks again, it had been such a proud little boat once.

Then one day as it sat on the mud waiting for the tide to be deep enough to re-float it, the incoming tide brought with it a young seal. “Hello little boat” he said, “can I sit on your deck for a while, I have been swimming for a long time and need a rest”. The little boat felt a quiver of excitement as the first of the tide reached her hull and lifted her gently, and not waiting for an answer the seal jumped aboard. “Why are you so sad little boat?”, and the little boat told him how no-one loved her and how lonely she was without any friends. “I’ll be your friend little boat, what is your name”? “I haven’t got one really, they just call me the boat”. “My name is Sammy and I shall call you Fair Lady, though you don’t look very fair at the moment. You’ll soon look beautiful again, the spring is here and everything gets spring-cleaned. Cheer up little boat, I will come and see every day until your family comes back”, and the little boat felt so much better. A weak ray of sun hit her porthole and started to warm her cabin and Fair Lady began to feel alive again for the first time in ages. The seal lay on her deck and told of his travels up and down the river chasing the fish and how he liked to visit the quiet creek.

The next day was Saturday and Fair Lady was hoping Sammy would visit her when the tide came in. The sun was shining much brighter that morning and she started to shiver as in the distance she recognised a voice calling – “I can see the boat – oh doesn’t she look dirty and miserable, not like our boat at all. Can we take her home and wash her daddy?” asked one of the children and her little heart started to thump as she felt feet on her deck again. How lovely the thought, perhaps she would get a wash and her sails set and maybe even a sail down river. After looking her over, she suddenly felt herself moving as she was pulled out of the water and onto her trailer. The children were as excited as she was as finally she was attached to the Land Rover and started to slowly move from the boatyard. The ride was very bumpy over rough land, but that didn’t matter, she was being taken home and her family hadn’t forgotten her. She felt a thrill run from her keel to the top of her mast as her trailer turned onto the bridge and there was the house which called out, “Hello little boat, nice to see you again”, and the little rowing boats wagged their oars at her. She was towed into the field and parked by the tap. She was stripped down, her mast removed and then came that lovely feeling of clean water on her deck and a soft brush making her tingle, soap suds were everywhere and made her sneeze, but oh how she loved it. She had her keel painted with anti-fouling and was polished from head to mast top. Her brasses shone in the spring sun and her mast and sails which had been washed, were put back. That night she was taken back to the creek and launched on the incoming tide. With her family all aboard she sailed out of the creek into the Humber. She felt fantastic and only one thing was missing – her friend Sammy, But suddenly from her port side a voice called “Ahoy there Fair Lady, don’t you look great, I think I gave you the right name”. And side by side the two of them sped up the Humber and her heart swelled with pride and happiness.

Written 25th March 2007
by Pauline Taylor (1927-2018)

Public Domain Day 2021

Tarzan & the Golden Lion, illustrated in 1922 by James Allen St. John

Another year has turned, and another batch of old material has emerged from copyright.

Edgar Rice Burroughs

Born in Chicago in 1875, Burroughs is principally famous for two stories about people removed from their environment of birth: Tarzan, the British noble firstborn adopted by an ape, and John Carter, a Confederate veteran who finds himself on Mars.

George Bernard Shaw

Shaw was forthright in many controversial campaigns, a presence among the highest echelons of society and an active political force well into his tenth decade, but I can’t help but think that nowadays a lot of his works – especially Pygmalion and Arms and the Man – are now remembered more as the basis for puns and parodies than for their actual contents.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald actually died eighty years ago, but the intricacies of US copyright law mean that The Great Gatsby only now enters the public domain. Long used as an educational staple, a landmark of social commentary and the ill-judged inspiration for lavish house parties, this novel is now available for anybody’s interpretation, though maybe Flash is best avoided.

Eric Arthur Blair, AKA George Orwell

The giant of twentieth century political literature, Orwell first became known to me through the school English curriculum circa 2011. In that spring we were tasked to write – and then perform to the class – a speech on what we would consign to Room 101. I was ranked first in class for my condemnation of the caravan. While that was obviously derived more from the television series than from Orwell’s own writing, it still taught us about him if indirectly. In the early summer we analysed his essay Shooting the Elephant and I recall in the end of year examination (not sure if it was the real one or the mock) one of the passages included was an extract from chapter 3 of Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Winston coughs a lot while performing the physical jerks. At that autumn’s prize-giving event I was named best in year for both sciences and humanities and my reward included two book tokens. I distinctly remember that Nineteen Eighty-Four was one the works I most wanted to buy with them, the other being The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins*. It is unclear exactly when I got around to buying and reading them (probably Whitsun 2012 is the late limit), but digging through old email correspondence with a classmate shows that in November I discovered and watched Michael Radford’s 1984 film adaptation. This was a source of unintentional mirth at the time as we noticed two of our history teachers interacting in what we read to be a mildly amorous manner while bearing a vague physical resemblance to John Hurt and Suzanna Hamilton. I also recall a different classmate ardently recommending that I read Animal Farm, which I did at the same time, though I do not recall how I came about my copy of that book nor where it currently resides.

At some point during these years I also found in my school’s library a copy of Homage to Catalonia, the tale of Orwell’s experience fighting for the POUM in the Spanish Civil War. The book was about forty years old** and I could barely turn a page without it breaking off in my hand. The librarian intervened several times with spine tape but eventually decided that the book was beyond rescue and decided to withdraw it from display. She placed it on a special shelf near her desk with a red ticket inside reserving it for me, on the understanding that it would stay there until I had finished it, after which she would throw it out (or give it to me permanently, it seems) and buy a new one.***

Orwell has particular relevance to this entry because period in which I read most of his works was the time of SOPA, PIPA, CISPA and ACTA in the United States, alongside the superinjunction controversies at home. It was also the time when I became engaged in various online “reviewtainment” makers (SF Debris, Red Letter Media, Trilbee et al), as well as various fandom communities, whose existence such bills would have threatened. One consequence I started looking up author death dates to commence mental countdowns to when various bits of media would enter the public domain, and Orwell’s works were especially prominent in this – his writing being so much centred around ideas of the control of information and knowledge.

The question now arises of what can be done to take advantage of his works’ new status, and one possible answer has occurred to me: Nineteen Eighty-Four includes a very sizeable book-within-a-book called The Theory and Practice of Oligarchical Collectivism, ascribed Brotherhood-leader Emmanuel Goldstein. Winston Smith reads the first chapter “Ignorance is Strength” and the third chapter “War is Peace”, but the Thought Police arrest him before he – and therefore we – can get a good look at the second.

I don’t really do competitions on this blog, since I have neither a large enough circulation nor any good prizes to give away, but if there are any teachers reading this I recommend an essay challenge for your students, which technically is also a fanfiction opportunity – tell me why freedom is slavery.

Further Reading:

2021 in Public Domain

*Somewhat ironically, that year’s prize also included a quatercentenary edition of the King James Bible.

**The latest reprint listed on its now-defunct copyright page was 1971, and the only checkout date stamped on the card affixed to the first page was 10th October 2011. Presumably I was the one taking it home on that date, for clearly nobody else had touched the book in a long time, but I may have been reading it within the library before then.

***The next year I took home a 1969 print of J. P. Nettl’s The Soviet Achievement, which I held together with some of my father’s aluminium duct tape. In May and June 2014 she held a clearing sale for a lot more books. I spent 25p on Communist Political Systems: An Introduction (Printed in 1988) by Stephen White and 10p on Structure and Change in Modern Britain (Printed in 1981) by Trevor Noble. The latter two showed no damage except their spines fading in the sunlight, but perhaps no love either as their checkout cards were blank. White’s book I found engaging enough to finish but Noble’s was so dull that I stopped with my bookmark still lodged at page 53 of 416, having found that just reading the blurb aloud would see my classmates drifting off to sleep.