• In the Name of God, Go!

    As storm clouds gathered over Europe in 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, went to Munich where he believed that he had obtained undertakings from Hitler to the effect that Germany would not launch further attacks on its neighbours.  He returned, brandishing the famous “scrap of paper” bearing Hitler’s signature, and proclaiming that there would be “peace in our time”.

    Chamberlain argued that the Munich agreement justified his long-maintained opposition to rearmament; but, in a debate in September 1939, after Hitler had gone back on his word and invaded Poland, Chamberlain – reluctant to declare war on Germany – was opposed by many members of his own party and one Conservative MP, Leo Amery, called out to the deputy Labour leader as he rose to speak, “Speak for England!”

    Chamberlain’s position was further weakened when, in 1940, the British suffered military disasters in the battles of Narvik as they tried to prevent the German invasion of Norway.   The House of Commons responded to the debacle by debating a motion of no confidence in Chamberlain and his government.

    Again, Leo Amery made a telling contribution, quoting to Chamberlain Oliver Cromwell’s famous rebuke to the Long Parliament, “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

    Chamberlain could not survive the defeat he suffered, as many of his own party either abstained or voted against him.  He was forced from office and was replaced by Winston Churchill – the rest, as they say, is history.

    It is one of the great advantages of a Westminster-style constitution that a Prime Minister cannot remain in office if he loses the confidence of his colleagues in parliament.   He can, therefore, be removed at any time.  A decision to send him packing is an expression of the collective will of the House (and not just of a group of disaffected individuals) and will of course be reached only in the most extreme circumstances.

    The American constitution offers no such possibility.  A President’s occupation of the White House does not depend on the support of Congress (though it becomes very difficult to operate effectively without it) – so, what is to be done if a President, for reasons of personality, principle, policy or incompetence, loses the confidence of his colleagues, including those in his own party?

    The need to provide an answer to that question is now becoming especially pressing and must be occupying the minds of many in Washington and beyond.  President Trump’s problems – with Russian involvement in his election, with interfering with the processes of justice, with the nuclear war of words with North Korea, with his failure to condemn neo-Nazi White Supremacists – the list is growing longer day by day – now constitute an existential threat to his presidency.

    The problem is that, unlike Chamberlain, Trump cannot be removed simply because his colleagues have lost confidence in him.  If that were enough, the condition would be easily met.  The evidence is now overwhelming that even his Republican friends in Congress and in the wider worlds of business and the maintenance of civil law and order are desperately concerned about where he is taking them – and the American people.

    The USA’s leadership of the “free world” and its standing across the globe has been gravely compromised.  The moral leadership expected of a President at home is sadly lacking.  It is becoming increasingly clear that the US President lacks the personal, moral and intellectual competence and fortitude to discharge his responsibilities effectively.

    But the US constitution provides only limited grounds for removing a President.  He must commit an impeachable offence or he must be found mentally or physical incompetent.  So, what to do?

    The answer lies, whatever the limitations of the constitution, with the political intelligence and will of his Republican colleagues.  They might not be able to vote him out of office but they can at least make it clear to him that they see him as a liability (as he is surely becoming) and that he cannot expect to achieve anything in office except a reputation as a loser and as an obstacle to good government.

    They may not be able to use, in other words, an opportunity offered by the constitution.  But the necessary words do not have to be uttered at the end of a parliamentary debate.  Leo Amery can be emulated by a powerful deputation of senior politicians who can pick their moment.  Uttered at the right moment and by the right people, the message will be just as clear – “In the name of God, go!”

    Bryan Gould

    17 August 2017

     

  • In the Name of God, Go!

    As storm clouds gathered over Europe in 1938, Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister, went to Munich where he believed that he had obtained undertakings from Hitler to the effect that Germany would not launch further attacks on its neighbours.  He returned, brandishing the famous “scrap of paper” bearing Hitler’s signature, and proclaiming that there would be “peace in our time”.

    Chamberlain argued that the Munich agreement justified his long-maintained opposition to rearmament; but, in a debate in September 1939, after Hitler had gone back on his word and invaded Poland, Chamberlain – reluctant to declare war on Germany – was opposed by many members of his own party and one Conservative MP, Leo Amery, called out to the deputy Labour leader as he rose to speak, “Speak for England!”

    Chamberlain’s position was further weakened when, in 1940, the British suffered military disasters in the battles of Narvik as they tried to prevent the German invasion of Norway.   The House of Commons responded to the debacle by debating a motion of no confidence in Chamberlain and his government.

    Again, Leo Amery made a telling contribution, quoting to Chamberlain Oliver Cromwell’s famous rebuke to the Long Parliament, “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

    Chamberlain could not survive the defeat he suffered, as many of his own party either abstained or voted against him.  He was forced from office and was replaced by Winston Churchill – the rest, as they say, is history.

    It is one of the great advantages of a Westminster-style constitution that a Prime Minister cannot remain in office if he loses the confidence of his colleagues in parliament.   He can, therefore, be removed at any time.  A decision to send him packing is an expression of the collective will of the House (and not just of a group of disaffected individuals) and will of course be reached only in the most extreme circumstances.

    The American constitution offers no such possibility.  A President’s occupation of the White House does not depend on the support of Congress (though it becomes very difficult to operate effectively without it) – so, what is to be done if a President, for reasons of personality, principle, policy or incompetence, loses the confidence of his colleagues, including those in his own party?

    The need to provide an answer to that question is now becoming especially pressing and must be occupying the minds of many in Washington and beyond.  President Trump’s problems – with Russian involvement in his election, with interfering with the processes of justice, with the nuclear war of words with North Korea, with his failure to condemn neo-Nazi White Supremacists – the list is growing longer day by day – now constitute an existential threat to his presidency.

    The problem is that, unlike Chamberlain, Trump cannot be removed simply because his colleagues have lost confidence in him.  If that were enough, the condition would be easily met.  The evidence is now overwhelming that even his Republican friends in Congress and in the wider worlds of business and the maintenance of civil law and order are desperately concerned about where he is taking them – and the American people.

    The USA’s leadership of the “free world” and its standing across the globe has been gravely compromised.  The moral leadership expected of a President at home is sadly lacking.  It is becoming increasingly clear that the US President lacks the personal, moral and intellectual competence and fortitude to discharge his responsibilities effectively.

    But the US constitution provides only limited grounds for removing a President.  He must commit an impeachable offence or he must be found mentally or physical incompetent.  So, what to do?

    The answer lies, whatever the limitations of the constitution, with the political intelligence and will of his Republican colleagues.  They might not be able to vote him out of office but they can at least make it clear to him that they see him as a liability (as he is surely becoming) and that he cannot expect to achieve anything in office except a reputation as a loser and as an obstacle to good government.

    They may not be able to use, in other words, an opportunity offered by the constitution.  But the necessary words do not have to be uttered at the end of a parliamentary debate.  Leo Amery can be emulated by a powerful deputation of senior politicians who can pick their moment.  Uttered at the right moment and by the right people, the message will be just as clear – “In the name of God, go!”

    Bryan Gould

    17 August 2017

     

  • The Real Reason for Housing Unaffordability

    The news that the number of houses being sold is falling and that prices are rising more slowly has been greeted in some quarters with responses that are – sadly – all too predictable.

    The consensus is that these shifts have been brought about by the Reserve Bank’s introduction of restraints on lending by the commercial banks.  The real estate agents have been the first to complain at this threat to their rising profits, but have no doubt been supported by all those others – speculators, landlords, banks – who have prospered by virtue of the crisis of affordability that has afflicted so many of our fellow-citizens.

    The Reserve Bank has been urged to relax the loan-to-value ratios that have restrained bank lending on mortgage and, as a result, have cooled the housing market – and even the government, in the person of the Prime Minister, has weighed in with advice that the Reserve Bank should back off a bit.

    This is a bit rich coming from politicians who have not themselves had the courage to do anything at all to grapple with unaffordability, and who – now that the Reserve Bank has at last taken a few first steps – choose to snipe from the sidelines when those steps prove effective.

    The critics have camouflaged their obvious self-interest in a housing market that continues to inflate – a self-interest, in the case of the property industry, in profits, and in the case of the government, in votes – by shedding crocodile tears for first-time buyers who find it difficult to raise the deposit that is now necessary.

    There may well be a case for relaxing the constraints specifically for first-time buyers trying to buy a (comparatively) inexpensive house in which they intend to live; but the case would be even stronger if the critics showed some awareness that the problems for first-time buyers – and for many others – have been caused by the very failure to act on excessive bank lending that has made it inevitable that housing prices would soar.

    A failure to act now – and, now that we can see how effective the Reserve Bank’s measures can be, to continue to act – can only mean that the housing market would become even more unbalanced and top-heavy, and future first-time buyers and others would be even more priced out of the housing market.

    We can at least celebrate one significant step forward.  The debate about what has really caused house prices to rise so fast can now be assessed in the light of these latest developments.  The conventional view, shared by opposition as well as government politicians, is that the problem is one of market failure – the failure of supply to keep pace with demand.

    But that is to ignore the fact that the housing market is not like other markets.  What makes it different is that, for as long as bank lending on mortgage is unconstrained and the banks can find people to lend to, there is virtually unlimited purchasing power in the hands of purchasers.

    It is that tidal wave of unlimited new money created by the banks washing into the housing market every day that makes it inevitable that house prices will rise and rise.  The only way of slowing it down is to restrict the amount of bank lending, and that is what the Reserve Bank has now done.

    It is to the credit of the Bank and its governor that they have acted on their understanding of what is really happening, and that they have been able, with the effectiveness of the measures they have introduced, to demonstrate the correctness of their analysis.

    But why should we continue to allow our politicians to disclaim rather than accept the responsibility that is truly theirs?  How refreshing and wonderful it would be if Labour’s new leader were to emulate the great Michael Joseph Savage who, in the late 1930s, used “quantitative easing” – not to bail out the banks – but to build thousands of new state houses.  He thereby not only created a long-term and income-producing asset for his government, but provided low-rent, good quality housing for young families.

    I know about this from first-hand experience.  My parents married as the Second World War was about to break out.  When I was born, they moved with their new baby from private rented accommodation into a new state house, which is where I grew up and enjoyed a happy and secure childhood – to which every child is surely entitled.

    Bryan Gould

    16 August 2017

  • The Real Reason for Housing Unaffordability

  • A Weak Man Trying to Look Strong

    Donald Trump would not be the first political leader to try to build his popularity, or divert attention from his troubles at home, by seeking a diversion – usually by means of a military adventure of some sort – overseas.  In recent times, we can think of multiple examples – President Putin and Crimea, the Ukraine and Syria, for instance, or George W. Bush and Tony Blair in Iraq.

    In Trump’s case, the need for such a diversion seems to be becoming more and more pressing.  If it is not rattling a nuclear sabre at North Korea one day, it is Venezuela – Venezuela! – being threatened with a military intervention the next.

    Paradoxically, one might think, such behaviour is more likely in a democracy, where public opinion matters, than in a dictatorship.  It becomes especially predictable and probable if the democratic leader in question is single-mindedly obsessed with his popularity with the voters – or lack of it.

    Again, Donald Trump’s exemplification of the syndrome offers little cause for comfort and compounds the dangers.  In Trump, we have a President (and supposed leader of the “free world”) who is unusually, not to say dangerously, narcissistic and living in a fantasy world, and who accordingly sees everything through the lens of his own self-interest and self-image, whether real or imagined.

    As we get to see more and more of the American President, it becomes increasingly clear that every issue and every potential decision is assessed according to how he believes it will impact on his image with the voters.  And more than that – it is not enough for him to be approved; he has to be the biggest and best, the strongest and bravest, “ever”.

    He seems obsessed with the military power at his disposal – and, at a time when his poll ratings have dipped disastrously, it is not surprising, given his personality, that he should see his readiness to threaten and use military power as providing a route back to the popularity he believes he enjoyed when he was elected with “the biggest majority ever”.

    Again, the paradox is that Trump’s fascination with the possible use of his nuclear arsenal, which he hopes will show him to be a strong leader, is a sign of weakness rather than strength.  A leader obsessed with his poll ratings loses strength rather than gains it.  Trump is now in a position where he dare not disappoint any group (and particularly any group who supported him at election time), however disreputable their views; he has, in effect, become their prisoner.

    We have seen an example just this week, where Trump avoided any direct criticism of the part played specifically by the Ku Klux Klan and their far-right allies in the civil disorder that broke out in Charlottesville.  Rather than condemn them, he preferred instead to lament –and even that was belated – the violence displayed “on many sides”.  It was a demonstration of weakness and a refusal to face the facts that earned him a contemptuous implied rebuke from his wife, but it was driven by his fear of losing support from a group of right-wing extremists that see him as “their man”.

    Many commentators have expressed their concern that a man of such “disordered mind, unstable personality and stunning ignorance” (according to Peter Wehrner, a veteran of three Republican administrations) should have his finger on the nuclear trigger.  There will be many around the world who share that concern.

    No one doubts that North Korea in particular poses a particularly difficult problem, not just to the United States but to the world as a whole, not least because Kim Jong-un and the North Korean military (who are the real power behind the throne) have institutionalised Trumpian attitudes in their own policies.  The North Korean problem needs to be handled with firmness and the combined pressure that can be applied by calm heads around the globe.  But the dangers North Korea represents can only be compounded many times over by the inflammatory language used by Donald Trump.

    None of us can feel comfortable when the shots are being called by a leader who sees everything, including the risk of nuclear catastrophe, in terms of whether or not his own image and his prospects of re-election will be advanced or hindered.

    And, as to Venezuela, one can only marvel that this small and disturbed country, struggling with its own internal issues, should have found itself apparently in the Trump firing line.  If Venezuela, who next?

    There is nothing more dangerous than a weak man trying to appear strong – particularly when that weak man is looking for opportunities to demonstrate how strong he is and has been unwisely entrusted with the ability to start a nuclear war.

    Bryan Gould

    13 August 2017