Is Boris really the emissary that blockchain needs right now?


With FTX in tatters, bitcoin in abeyance and the entire fundament of crypto finance in doubt, the technology of blockchain was badly in want of an image boost. What the distributed ledger technology needed, Singapore decided, was the rhetorical skills of former UK prime minister Boris Johnson to burnish its battered image, and here he was at a glittering gathering of the blockchain industry in a five-star hotel last week.

Blockchain in particular and innovation in general, Johnson explained, is always scary at first. “Humanity has been paranoid about this since the Titan Prometheus gave us the first flame,” he said, mixing classical reference and technological detail.

Johnson was giving the keynote speech for the International Symposium on Blockchain Advancements to 80 or so crypto enthusiasts who had braved Singapore’s tropical thundery showers to hear his insights. It felt a fitting location for the event in the same week that Singapore’s state-owned fund Temasek was facing scrutiny for ploughing $275mn into the collapsed crypto exchange FTX after eight-months of due diligence failed to flag up any big concerns. It is clear there was never enough paranoia or fear, one nonplussed conference-goer said after an hour of Johnson’s musings on Brexit, Australian submarines and his time at the Telegraph.

Beyond the free canapés and macarons, the event was hard to read as anything other than a plea from the blockchain industry to be taken seriously. Every sector is entitled to seek the endorsement of disgraced former leaders at times, but Johnson’s paeans of praise for Singapore Slings and his room at the famously expensive Raffles Hotel, delivered alongside his lauding of the potential of blockchain to a half-filled ballroom of men in suits, unsurprisingly was not the panacea for its woes.

One delegate, who gave his name as Kai and said he worked at a local crypto custodian start-up, was excited that someone “so famous” was speaking. What about Johnson’s position on digital currencies and the potential of blockchain? “Oh I don’t know about that,” Kai said with a nervous laugh.

A rare female attendee admitted that she was actually a journalist mainly trying to find out how much Johnson was being paid to headline the conference.

Against this backdrop, Britain’s former prime minister jovially assured the room of “blockchain pioneers” that they were in the right place, going on to remind his audience that technology is “morally neutral”. He dwelt at length on how doctors erroneously claimed in the early days of the railways that the rattling and jolting of trains was likely to cause sexual excitement, why the City of London is “the most productive place on Earth”, and something unclear about nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners. But it was not obvious how these digressions would bolster his case for blockchain.

He did eventually circle back to the technology and cryptocurrencies. He said he has “seen some pretty shocking headlines about this whole venture and we need some way of holding people to account”. But no sooner had he raised the subject of recent events in the cryptosphere than he moved swiftly on to topics closer to his heart: Brexit, the Ukraine war and green technology.

Then came his finale. “I will make a strong argument that the UK will become even more attractive as a place to invest once we deliver on all that Brexit stuff.” On blockchain, he added, he could not comment further without more details.

The blockchain enthusiasts seemed less than enthused. Someone showed enough interest to snap a photo only to be admonished by a man who rushed over hissing there was to be no photography.

The interviewer tried valiantly to bring Johnson back to blockchain. What was his overall message for innovators in the industry? “Apart from Singapore, which is a fantastic place for innovation, come to London. Come to the UK . . . It’s a fantastic country . . . it rains more in Rome by the way,” he replied. “I look forward to watching the progress of the blockchain industry with fascination,” he added to bemused applause.


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