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.

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