Cryptoassets: Regulation — [Christina Rees in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:36 am on 7th September 2022.

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Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader) 9:36 am, 7th September 2022

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the Government’s regulatory approach to crypto-assets and currencies.

It is good to see you at least in the Chair, Ms Rees, and it is good finally to be here to talk about a subject that has produced an awful lot of heat and often little light in this place—that of the regulations on cryptocurrencies. I hope you will forgive me if I go on at some length about the issues that I think we have to debate in Parliament today.

We should start with a few pieces of accountability as, of course, we are not quite in the post-trust era. I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on blockchain, as well as being a vice-chair of the crypto and digital assets all-party parliamentary group. I see the chair of that all-party group, my hon. Friend Dr Cameron, in their place today. The latter group is a relatively new kid on the block as it was established just last year, whereas the all-party parliamentary group on blockchain has been around for some time.

Let me come to the first of many aspects of what we can see as a sort of cognitive dissonance around the idea of crypto. Despite the fact that we often talk about crypto as a new kid on the block, it is now a pretty widely accepted concept, even if a poorly understood one, and I am glad to see that we have interest in today’s debate from across the Chamber—at least, I think we have interest from across the Chamber. I hope we will hear a lot of interesting ideas about what the future holds, and I will add a couple of suggestions of my own towards the end of my speech. Given that this is the first debate in the House on the subject, we require something of a tour d’horizon of the landscape as it lies today before we move on to the challenges and some opportunities that recent developments provide for the future of crypto.

Before doing so, however, let me place on the record my gratitude to the secretariat of the all-party parliamentary group on blockchain, led by Professor Birgitte Andersen of the Big Innovation Centre. Her leadership in creating space within the all-party parliamentary group to allow many of the big issues of the day to be debated over the past few years has been vital, and the work put in by her researcher, George Farrer—and indeed by his predecessor, Fernando Santiago—to ensure that the topics remain current and relevant has been much appreciated.

Through the forum that the all-party parliamentary group provides, I was able to meet Dr Robert Herian, now of the University of Essex, and I am much indebted to the work he has done, particularly in his 2018 book “Regulating Blockchain”, which will provide the basis of some of the suggestions I make today. If Members are interested in the subject, they should buy a copy of the book. I am sure Dr Herian will be glad of the plug.

For a movement that is often described as a cult, it is apt that crypto even has its own origin story: it was invented on 31 October 2008 with the release of Satoshi Nakamoto’s “Bitcoin Manifesto”. However, as with much of the myth and legend around the subject, it is unclear whether Nakamoto is a single person, or indeed whether much of the work was singly their own, given that theoretical work had been done on different concepts of blockchains, going back to the early 1980s.

What Nakamoto’s manifesto did, however, was bring the technology to wider prominence. There was a ready pool of adherents in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, who understood the importance of decentralised finance and the potential to move beyond financial institutions as they have been conceived hitherto. Progress was slow but steady at first, but it picked up in the middle of the last decade with the release of books such as Alex and Don Tapscott’s “Blockchain Revolution” in 2016, which was my gateway into the possibilities of the technology. That was followed by exponential growth over the past few years, with the rocketing in value of not only Bitcoin but other cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum and the range of memecoins, which made up so many of the initial coin offerings that we saw around 2018-19.

All the way through, many have predicted a crash, but the pandemic lockdown saw crypto reach unforeseen heights, whether it was furlough cheques or the lack of faith in existing investment that drove the trend. The high watermark seems to have been in November 2021, when the value of one Bitcoin reached about $68,000. The ultimate symbol of the bubble may well have been the adverts during the American Super Bowl half-time break, with Hollywood A-listers such as Matt Damon and Larry David imploring us to buy crypto.

The Super Bowl ads were not just good at showing us what the bubble looked like; they probably go down as one of the supreme examples of what crypto’s contribution to our discourse has been: its unique culture. One had comedian Larry David decrying seminal innovations throughout history—the wheel, the toilet, the light bulb—before doing the same with crypto. “Don’t be like Larry,” the ad exhorted the watching millions, “Don’t miss out on the next big thing.”

FOMO, or fear or missing out—there are plenty of folk in this place who have that—has certainly motivated many to get into crypto, but so have a range of other acronyms that appear on the profusion of online crypto culture forums. I hate acronyms, as many of my colleagues know, but the one that struck me the most is HFSP—have fun staying poor. It is a motto that manages to encapsulate so much: the unscrupulous nature of so much of this mainly unregulated space; the background of so many crypto investors, cut off from access to the traditional markets; and the pervading millennial jokey humour.

I come to the first very important point at which more Government attention needs to be paid to crypto. The market has been allowed to proliferate, drawing in uninitiated small-scale investors, who begin crypto trading because they see only the upside: the market that lies beyond outright scams such as Squid coin or OneCoin, in which investments of dubious provenance have been hyped and pumped, attracting the hard-earned savings of so many people.

I represent one of the poorest constituencies in the country, West Dunbartonshire. I grew up in that community in the ’70s and ’80s and lived through what I believe was its ruination by Thatcherism. It is still a resilient community, but too many feel marginalised and remote even from our neighbour, the city of Glasgow. Many of my constituents are the type of people who have been caught up in the dubious practices around crypto, and I wish more could be done about it, especially as we head into the cost of living crisis. We need to remember that it is often those who feel they have nothing to lose who are the targets of scams.