The politics of open source

The Conservatives say they like open source. Now they must prove that they mean it
Written by Leader , Contributor

The difference between PR and persuasive argument lies in the numbers. George Osborne is shadow chancellor in a party led by a PR man, so his coming out as an open source fan needs viewing through a jaundiced eye.

His namechecks for Firefox, MySpace and Wikipedia are not by themselves proof of a 21st century mentality, but his willingness to quote actual figures for potential savings for public open-source deployment shows he hasn't bought into the "expensive software is cheaper" newspeak. He even claims that he wants to adopt an open-source philosophy for more than just IT: he may not have thought this bit through.

Open source has been described as "communistic" by Darl McBride, the philosopher-king of SCO. We'd go further: open source is the primary working example of Marx's call: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs". Marx was predicting a future where work was a pleasure and scarcity had been eliminated — a future that in a limited way has indeed been brought about by cheap, powerful computers and capable networks.

There is much to enjoy in seeing Conservative support for such wickedly effective socialist principles, not least in the light of the Labour government's failure to lose the chains of proprietary software. There are, of course, few commitments or firm promises in Osborne's speech. But his recruitment of a Cambridge academic to create a procurement strategy that encompasses open source is politically sound — as was the Tory declaration that they'd cancel all contracts connected with the ID card scheme. Being in opposition does wonders for one's creativity.

Credibility is another matter. As the next election nears, we expect to see more detailed explanations of what the Conservatives would do and with whom, together with equivalent strategies from the other parties. After all, the Lib Dems may have to work with either party in the event of a minority administration — and Labour has made such a mess of governmental IT that it might as well start from scratch. This could be the first election where IT issues make a real difference: whatever the outcome, we're pleased to see one party with the confidence to start that debate.

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