• What the All Blacks Mean to Us

    The All Blacks have been, for more than a century, arguably the most successful International sports team in the world. But they are more than that; even for those Kiwis who are immune to the charms of rugby (and there are more than a few), the All Blacks are ambassadors for New Zealand and a symbol of how a small country can hold its own on the world stage.

    I have grown up, like most Kiwis of my age or younger, with an intense interest in how the All Blacks fare, especially against their main rivals. The All Blacks’ opening match against South Africa in the World Cup will take place before this article appears in print; as I write, I can only hope that they will win or at the very least acquit themselves well.

    When I was a boy, it was the Welsh who were the main challengers for the All Blacks’ crown. When the two teams met in 1953, as part of what was one of the then regular major tours of the UK by visiting teams, the Welsh enjoyed a winning record over the All Blacks, and they enhanced that record by winning again on this occasion. I had been allowed to get up in the middle of the night to listen to Winston McCarthy’s commentary on the match. I was distraught at the result.

    It was the last time Wales tasted victory over the All Blacks. Only Welsh octogenarians are old enough to have been alive at that moment and to have understood what had happened on that day. For most Welshmen, victory over the All Blacks is the stuff of fable.

    By the time a Rhodes Scholarship took me to the UK, the All Black legend had grown apace. It is my proud claim that throughout the 32 years I spent in the UK, pursuing – for most of the time – a political career, I never wavered in my support for the All Blacks. I remember being grilled by David Frost on one occasion; the famous interviewer insisted, on the eve of a rugby test between England and the All Blacks, on knowing which team I would support.

    I evaded the question for a while but was eventually compelled to admit on British national television that, having grown up in New Zealand, I had no choice but to support the All Blacks, even when they were playing the national team of the country of which I had aspirations to be Prime Minister.

    The All Blacks deserve that kind of loyalty and have done more than enough to repay it. They embody so much of what it means to be a New Zealander. They play hard and they play fair. They respect their opponents but they play with an indomitable will to win, and their levels of skill and commitment mean that they usually do.

    An All Black team is both an exemplar and a beneficiary of the bicultural and multicultural texture of our national life. It demonstrates many of the qualities that are essential to success in the wider aspects of life more generally – determination, effort, teamwork, camaraderie and courage. The All Blacks’ success has played a huge part in developing, in the early days especially, our sense of nationhood and the image we have enjoyed internationally.

    It would be easy to conclude this rehearsal of what the All Blacks have meant to so many New Zealanders without mentioning one of the most important of the gifts they have brought us. That gift is the pleasure of watching them play – and, most of the time, watching them win. It is the pleasure of seeing something inherently difficult being done very well – and of seeing, in a competitive environment, the side one supports and identifies with doing well and prevailing.

    As for the South African match, and the ones to follow, fingers crossed! My money is on the All Blacks.

    Bryan Gould
    17 September 2019

     

     

     

     

     

  • Parliament and the Executive

    The Brexit issue has certainly brought with it a series of apparently difficult constitutional issues, many of them concerning the respective roles of the executive and parliament. Most of them arise because of the unwillingness of MPs, despite their professions to the contrary, to be bound by a constitutional rarity – a referendum – and as a consequence their determination to use parliament to stand in the way of the executive’s commitment to give effect to the outcome of that referendum.

    No one can be surprised, therefore, that the issue is increasingly seen by the general public as a battle between the popular will, as manifested in the referendum result, and their elected representatives in parliament. That perception has been greatly helped by the Speaker, who seems determined to go out in a blaze of glory, and by his efforts to portray himself as the defender of parliament’s rights and therefore of democracy.

    The prorogation of parliament has of course been the issue that has attracted most attention and is most easily characterised as an assault on constitutional convention, despite the fact that parliament is, as a matter of course, always prorogued at this time of year. But of equal, if not greater, novelty and significance is another, and related, development.

    If there has been one step above all others that has “stymied” the government, it has been the passage of legislation that “instructs” the Prime Minister to seek an extension of the Brexit departure date from the EU. If there is any measure in the Brexit saga that breaks new constitutional ground it is this Act of Parliament.

    Parliament is of course able to pass any legislation it likes, but to use legislation to instruct a particular member of the executive to take a particular step is to see the legislature straying well and truly beyond its usual remit and into the realm of the executive. An Act of Parliament is a measure that almost always has a general application to at least a group, if not all, of the population as a whole, and its effect is usually to change the law for those affected.

    To assume the role of an executive body and to prescribe a particular executive act is at the very least a departure from the norm. It represents the interjection of parliament into the usual relationship between the executive and the electorate – one in which the elected government seeks to act on its undertakings to those who voted it into office.

    Speaker Bercow may use his best and long-practised persona as the defender of democracy to try to persuade people that parliament has behaved properly in this matter but there is no concealing the relative novelty and far-reaching extent of what it has tried to do in this instance.

    If we are to have a workable system of parliamentary government, it is of course essential that parliament should be able hold the executive to account at every turn – but that is very different from claiming the right and power to dictate to the executive that it must take a particular step – and nor should the fact that the step required is of great significance be taken as providing a shred of justification for this power grab by parliament.

    For those who are quick to condemn the executive’s attempts to deliver on its promises, and to complain about constitutional impropriety when it does so, a period of reflection on these issues may be in order.

    Bryan Gould
    13 September 2019

  • Corbyn and Brexit

    As the Brexit saga staggers on, the focus is naturally enough on the Prime Minister and his attempts to achieve Brexit “do or die”. But the role played by the Leader of the Opposition is of almost equal interest and complexity.

    The first problem for Jeremy Corbyn is that he seems unable, under the pressure of varying advice from different quarters, to decide on the stance he should take on Brexit. This is surprising, given that all the evidence suggests that he is a euro-sceptic from a long way back.

    My own impression of him in the days when we were both backbench Labour MPs was that he was, like most on the left of the party, suspicious of an arrangement that was manifestly dominated by bankers and bureaucrats and designed to serve the interests of big business and multinational corporations.

    And in more recent (and especially post-referendum) times, he can hardly have been unaware that it has been his own voters who were most grievously disadvantaged by the high food prices, and the threats to jobs, wage levels, housing, schools and health services, that came with EU membership.

    Even his much-touted internationalism surely does not preclude some recognition of the undoubted desire of ordinary citizens to live in a country in which they are masters of their own destiny.

    Be all this as it may, there is an even more impenetrable mystery at the heart of his current Brexit stance. How is it that he does not take the chance to press for resolving the Brexit impasse by going to the people? What Leader of the Opposition worth his salt would not leap at the chance of a general election, so as to submit the government’s record – on Brexit and everything else – to the judgment of the people?

    It beggars belief that Jeremy Corbyn would lead his troops into the division lobbies in order to negate the possibility of a general election that would offer a means not only of resolving the Brexit issue but also of replacing a government of which he has been so bitterly critical.

    The answer to these questions is surely, after a mere moment’s reflection, painfully clear. Jeremy Corbyn does not want an election at this juncture, because he fears that it would be primarily about Brexit, and that Labour, in the light of his own prevarications on the issue, would be soundly defeated.

    So much for the constant message from Remainers (including those who currently seem to have Corbyn’s ear) that Brexit must not come to pass before the people have a further opportunity to express an opinion.

    There is, however, an obvious escape route for Corbyn from this dilemma. He could re-affirm his earlier assurance that Labour will accept the referendum decision and deliver Brexit, thereby removing Brexit as the dividing line between the two major parties and as the potentially election-winning issue for Boris Johnson.

    Taking this step would not only make political sense. It would allow Corbyn to stay true to what I believe are his own instincts (and politicians are always more effective if they are seen to be sincere and not merely posturing) and to campaign successfully, with a clear mind and conscience, on holding a Tory government to account in respect of its whole record and not just Brexit.

    Bryan Gould
    10 September 2019

     

  • The Politics of Opposition

    For most of the time I was a British MP, my party was out of government – these were the Thatcher years, when it was hard for anyone else to get a look-in. As a front-bencher and shadow minister, I became familiar with the strategies required in a parliamentary democracy of being in opposition to a well-supported government.

    My colleagues and I settled quickly into the daily pattern of probing the day’s political developments for opportunities to embarrass the government, or at the very least to put it on the back foot. This meant a constant – and virtually daily – series of press conferences and media releases designed to keep the pressure on, with the twin objective of showing the government in a bad light and demonstrating that the opposition were on the ball and had policies that were superior to those of the government.

    The media rapidly came to expect and rely on this daily diet of political guerrilla warfare, and commentators sympathetic to our cause did their best to amplify and flesh out the points we tried to make; sometimes, our friends in the media did the job for us, by launching their own hit and run attacks on the government.

    But, after a while, we began to realise that were were getting nowhere with such tactics – and that the public seemed quickly to grow tired of our predictably critical responses to anything proposed by the government.

    The voters were inclined to let our efforts pass them by, dismissing them as just par for the course – “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” seemed to be the common response to our attacks. The harder we tried to land a blow on the government, the more they seemed to say that it was just more of the same.

    The bad news for today’s Opposition in New Zealand is that they seem to have reached a rather similar stalemate. Voters have become familiar with what they now see as the inevitable and expected riposte from an opposition spokesperson to any news item about a new government initiative.

    Even in instances where the government has proposed to remedy a long-standing default or deficiency, or to do something that is clearly long overdue in the general interest, an opposition spokesperson will pop up to say that it is “too little” or “too late” or “will cost too much” or “we would have done it better”.

    The lesson for politicians in opposition is that they must not be seen to be opposing just for the sake of it. They can all too easily be seen as bad-mouthing an idea or proposal, not because of its merits or otherwise but because of where it has come from.

    The lesson I and my colleagues learnt in Britain was that responding to the government in a more thoughtful and less partisan way was more likely to commend itself to the public – building the opposition’s image as responsible politicians and having the added advantage that, when effective critical points did need to be made, they were given more credence than they would have had if they were seen as just another stock standard and automatic response from an opposition determined to oppose, come what may.

    This conclusion may be a hard one to accept for Simon Bridges and his team, focused as they are on trying to get maximum exposure for a leader and a front-bench that has yet to make its number with the New Zealand public.

    But, it is in everyone’s interest that our parliamentary democracy, with all of its many strengths and virtues, should not be demeaned by a constant exhibition of the downsides of party politics at its worst. We all have an interest in good government – and that can sometimes mean that politicians should forbear from playing the party game if they – and we – can see that the government of the day is making a creditable effort to grapple with a long-standing problem or an important issue.

    Giving credit where it is due can be the best policy. Sometimes, less is more, and that is as true of opposition as it is of other good things.

    Bryan Gould
    9 September 2019

  • Democracy – I Don’t Think So

    So, those who “know best” have again done their worst. While constantly claiming to be the guardians of democracy and the constitution, and respecters of the 2016 referendum result, diehard Remainers (who have never brought themselves to believe that their advice could have been rejected) have striven might and main to prevent Brexit – whether with a deal or not – from happening.

    Not only have they used their votes in parliament to frustrate the will of the people – they have now gone further, and have removed from British negotiators with the EU the one bargaining chip available to them in their attempts to achieve a negotiated deal that would be acceptable. A no-deal Brexit has, as a consequence, become much more likely – even if later rather than sooner.

    By removing through legislative means the possibility of a no-deal exit, they have ensured that the EU will maintain its refusal to negotiate further. They have not only, in other words, deliberately sabotaged the outcome mandated by the referendum result; they have gone further and ensured that, even as we attempt to leave, the power of decision over the whole matter of Brexit remains with those whose control over us as EU members has already been found by the British people to be intolerable.

    Far from supporting British democracy, they have preferred to concede to an outside agency the power to decide how we should govern ourselves, irrespective of the declared preference of the British people. There can be no greater demonstration of their refusal to understand, let alone respect, the referendum result.

    They can have no complaint if the response of voters is to see the issue as one of parliament against the people – little wonder that they are not willing to have an election on the issue. There can be nothing that more thoroughly discredits the whole concept of a representative democracy than that the supposed “representatives” disclaim any responsibility to “represent” their constituents.

    The damage done by the last few weeks to our parliamentary democracy is incalculable. The whole concept of an arrogant “ruling class”, cloaking its pretensions to infallibility in a democratic pretence, has been greatly reinforced. We should not need reminding of what usually happens when the people lose faith in the good faith and readiness of those who govern them to serve their interests. Our rulers will have no one to blame but themselves if their short-sightedness and arrogance produce their inevitable outcomes.

    Bryan Gould
    5 September 2019