• The Outcome The EU Least Wants

    Theresa May’s resignation as British Prime Minister, whatever else it may signify and whatever the identity of her successor, undeniably brings closer the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.  Her most likely successor, Boris Johnson, has already indicated his readiness to implement Brexit, with or without a deal.

    That simple fact alone strongly suggests that the EU has made, and has continued to make, a serious misjudgment of the phenomenon that is Brexit.  Given that a no-deal Brexit is the outcome least wanted by the EU, we must assume that they continue to believe that another (and, to them, more acceptable) outcome is possible, and might be achieved in the aftermath of May’s failure.

    The outcome to the Brexit saga that would be more acceptable to the EU is, of course, that Brexit itself is forestalled and avoided.  But the prospect that Brexit can, or will, be abandoned exists only in the realms of fantasy – and it arises only because the EU has allowed itself to be systematically misled by the siren voices of those within the UK who continue to harbour (and work for) the delusion that the Brexit decision was a mistake from which the British people will in due course recover and resile.

    The subterranean (and largely unspoken) conversation that has taken place between British Remainers and the EU, has been conducted by a series of nods and winks.  The deal they have agreed and worked upon through that process of sign language is that the EU will make the process of exit as difficult as possible, in the hope that the difficulties of leaving will discredit the concept of Brexit itself, or at the least delay its implementation, thereby providing time and opportunity for Remainers at home to press for measures, such as a second referendum, that might offer the hope of reversing the decision taken in the referendum three years ago.

    It is a tragedy that the EU has allowed itself to miscalculate in this way.  Instead of accepting the definitive nature of the British people’s judgment on 40 years’ of Euro-membership, and focusing on the best way, in the post-referendum situation, of constructing the best possible future relationship with the UK, they have instead concentrated on demonstrating to British opinion just how intractable are the shackles that membership continues to impose.

    Any expectation, either within the EU or in Remainer opinion, that a second referendum would produce a different result fails to take account of the impatience with EU intransigence that is now felt, after the tribulations of recent months, by a large section of British opinion.  The Euro-elections, while of little importance in themselves, should at least  serve as an unmistakable  guide to the true state of that opinion.

    The triumph of the Brexit party, which didn’t exist a few weeks ago but has emerged as the largest party, and the loss of support suffered by the major parties should tell us (and the EU) all they and we need to know.  The Conservatives have been punished for failing to deliver Brexit, and Labour have similarly suffered for fudging their support for the Leave decision.  The proponents of a second referendum should not only recognise how damaging to democracy a second referendum would be but also how unlikely it is that the outcome would be anything other than a reinforcement of the original decision.

    The irony of the situation from the EU viewpoint is that their uncooperative stance is likely to produce the very result they least want.  But they have no one to blame but themselves – and the British Remainers.

  • Fast Food for the Fans?

    Have you ever noticed how little advertising there is on television for Mum’s home-cooking?

    And conversely, have you ever wondered why it is that the purveyors of fast food find it necessary to spend so much on advertising their wares?

    If their products are as good as they say they are, why do they need to buy so much expensive advertising time – very often using the time not so much to proclaim how good the products are for you, but trying to associate them with “fun” events like rugby matches, and placing their advertisements before and during such events.

    Their aim seems to be to persuade the public that an exciting and enjoyable sports event cannot be complete without a helping of their product. Sometimes, the effort to persuade us of this supposed truth reaches ludicrous proportions, as with the arrival by helicopter at a rugby ground of a make-believe “Colonel Sanders” who proceeds (apparently) to distribute lavish supplies of his product (for nothing, so its seems) “for the fans”.

    There are three literally fantastical elements to this pantomime. First, the implication that the arrival of the product is just what is needed to make the occasion complete, secondly, that it is something that happens accompanied by an aura of glamour, excitement and familiarity, and thirdly, that the product is in some sense or another cost-free. This latter representation is of course entirely false, since fast food is just about the most expensive way you can find to feed yourself and your family.

    Even the suggestion that a helping of the product will guarantee you a good time is misleading. The purchase of fast food is simply a retail transaction, as soulless as buying a pair of socks, notwithstanding the emotive catch phrase “I’m lovin’ it” that supports one such product. It is accompanied by none of the love and care that attends the preparation and consumption of food at home and in a family environment.

    Far from being an important element in an enjoyable social environment, research shows that buying and eating fast food is all too often an anti-social – often solitary – occupation.

    Chinese research shows that students who regularly rely on fast food are more likely than most to suffer from depression. This is not so much, one imagines, a consequence of the nutritional deficiencies of fast food, as of the fact that fast food is so often purchased by, and then consumed by, solitary individuals.

    And further research, closer to home, shows that one of the keys to a longer and healthier life is to avoid fast food.

    This suggests that the nutritional downsides of a diet heavy in fats, salt and sugar should not be overlooked. At a time when our medical and public health experts are increasingly concerned about the impact of fast foods on the health of young people, and particularly the role played by fast foods in the incidence of conditions like obesity and illnesses like diabetes, it is regrettable that some of those most vulnerable to the misleading images portrayed in television advertising are being exploited in this way.

    I am not suggesting that there is any case for regulating or outlawing such advertising. What I am seeking is that the advertisers themselves might be induced to change tack – perhaps a forlorn hope to expect that they might put aside their commercial interests for the sake of the general good. There is of course a legitimate case that could be made for occasionally buying fast food, especially when a hard-pressed Mum simply doesn’t have the time for the shopping and preparation that are needed to produce home-cooked meals.

    What I do hope is that, if the supposed glamour and feel-good aspect of fast foods can be stripped away, potential consumers will be able to see more clearly the ruthlessness with which they are being targeted by advertising of this kind and can see these products for what they are – an expensive short-cut to a quick and unhealthy meal, rather than a passport to a good time.

    Bryan Gould
    21 May 2019

  • The Parting of the Ways

    Perhaps it’s because of the sheer size – and therefore enormous potential – of their country, but Australians have always demonstrated a harder-edged nationalism than have Kiwis. And that tendency has become even more apparent in recent years, when they have begun to flex their muscles as, potentially, a regional, if not global, power.

    The consequence of this growing sense of importance on a wider stage has been bad news for the traditional trans-Tasman, Anzac-based, camaraderie. The relationship with New Zealand matters less than it did (something that can be established by numerous examples) and is one increasingly of big brother to little brother, with New Zealanders being tolerated only as a kind of Australian sub-species.

    This increasingly apparent nationalism – and the sense of “Australia first” and the dismissal of anything that is not “dinkum Aussie” that one sees today, and every day, most obviously on the sports field – is all the more surprising for a country that has been built on immigration and the welcoming (other than by the indigenous people) of people from distant lands.

    There is a strongly entrenched narrative that reinforcing the Australian identity is the route to an even brighter future and greater influence – and it is at least arguable that the unexpected election victory for the incumbent government was a further expression of the sentiment that electing that government was a further test of one’s “Australian-ness”.

    There was some speculation, prior to the election, that the death of Bob Hawke, the quintessential Aussie and former Labour premier, would work in favour of the Labour opposition; but the reverse may have been the case. The publicity surrounding Bob Hawke’s death may have redounded to the benefit of the party most clearly seen as “representing” (in the sense of being pat of the fabric of) today’s Australia.

    “Dinkum Aussies”, and perhaps especially, non-political ones, in other words, are expected to stick by their government, through thick and thin, just as they do with their sportsmen and sportswomen in times of adversity. Nationalism, in its various forms, has, after all, always been a characteristic of right-wing politics, so it should come as no surprise that a heightened sense of the Australian national identity should work in favour of an incumbent government of the right.

    The direction of travel and causation may not, either, have been entirely from nationalistic attitudes leading to right-wing political views, but rather in the reverse direction. Australians have always been less socially aware and responsive than Kiwis; it is no accident that the great New World advances in social policy were achieved in New Zealand, rather than across the Tasman.

    A fundamentally right-wing view of society may, in other words, have both generated and then benefited from a rising tide of nationalism. Whatever the truth of such speculation, the re-election of a National /Liberal government in Australia looks sure to be bad news for Kiwis, particularly for those who were unwise enough to cross the Tasman in search of a new start.

    The re-elected government is unlikely to change its unfair treatment of, and its withholding of the normal rights of citizenship from, those Kiwis, and Scott Morrison is himself closely identified with the shameful treatment of refugees for which Australia has become notorious – though Australians seem to find it perfectly acceptable.

    A further deterioration in trans-Tasman relations may be in store, but we should not blame any difficulties on political differences between the governments that have been elected most recently in the two countries. Both sides have become adept over the decades at managing and accommodating such differences in the wake of general elections producing governments of different colours on the two sides of the Tasman.

    The parting of the ways that has begun to emerge is more a function of changes in Australian attitudes – changes that are not, sadly, helpful to the Anzac spirit. We’ll just have to get used to the new normal – and to regret what we have lost.

    Bryan Gould
    20 May 2019

     

  • Defending Privilege

    “Business as usual” is always the catch-cry of those who are happy with the way things are. “Let’s not change anything” makes sense to those who are doing well and see no reason to run any risks in case that might disturb their care-free existence.

    That is precisely why the right-wing party in Britain calls itself the Conservatives – they have plenty to conserve and they don’t want anyone rocking the boat – especially if it’s a luxury yacht. The corollary is that they have little interest in, or sympathy for, those whose vessels are a little less seaworthy.

    The preservation of the status quo and resistance to change are the hallmarks of those who are fearful that their privileged status might be challenged – and, if it is challenged, they will respond with any weapon they can lay their hands on.

    The usual response is to assert that the privilege or advantage they enjoy has been earned and is a just reward for their superior abilities and efforts; it has not, they say, been gained at the expense of others, so any attempt to redress the imbalance between them and those others would not only be misplaced but unfair.

    The difficulty with this line of argument is that we know that privilege breeds privilege – and inequality. We know that it is not just a slogan but an economic fact. Research by Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz shows conclusively that one’s best chance of becoming well-off is to be born to rich parents.

    He also shows that we can choose, as a society, whether or not to tolerate a high degree of inequality. If we allow our politics to be dominated by defenders of the status quo (or, in other words, by “conservatives”) we will end up with a society in which privilege is endemic and entrenched and feeds on itself.

    It will also be a society that functions less well, that is riven by discontent and division, and that fails to use its resources (particularly human resources) fully and efficiently.

    The inefficient use of human resources in such a society arises in two ways and for two reasons. First, if privilege is the determining factor, then incompetent people will be promoted, by virtue of privilege, to positions for which they are not fitted – and our economic leaders will make a worse job of making important decisions that affect all of us.

    Secondly, if privilege is allowed free rein, then able people, with plenty to offer, will be held back and denied opportunities so that the rest of us are denied the full benefits of what they can contribute.

    If, however, we are disturbed by a growing disparity between the well-being of some parts of society and others, we might prefer political leaders who seek change and try to find better and fairer ways of cutting the cake – and making the cake bigger as well.

    Change will alway be uncomfortable for those for whom the status quo is acceptable and desirable. They will always reach for arguments that those seeking change are on the wrong track, or that the change is misconceived or won’t or can’t work, or that, even if it is brought about, it will produce outcomes that are not those intended.

    Those who see change as threatening their privilege will, in other words, always seek to defend that privilege, usually by attacking those who seek change – what else do you expect them to do?

    So, the next time you read or hear someone resisting change, pause to question their motives. Are they really opposed to change in general, and across the board, or are they really just defending privilege?

    And you should really be on your guard if you are told that those who are less privileged have missed out because they are lazy or greedy and can’t be bothered to get up in the morning – or that the fat cats got that way because of their inborn qualities and by thinking of others and working hard.

    Another tell-tale sign is when it is not change itself but those proposing change – change in the general interest and not for personal gain – who are attacked, for facing up to difficulties inevitably encountered in bringing that change about; the message seems to be that if change can’t be achieved painlessly or smoothly it should not be attempted.

    No one pretends that change is painless or that remedying past deficiencies does not carry a cost. But we should always be on our guard against those who, as a matter of course, attack proposed change on the ground that it is misconceived and that disturbing the status quo should always, and as a matter of principle, be resisted.

    Change can only be resisted by those who are satisfied that everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds – and guess who thinks like that?

    Bryan Gould
    15 May 2019

  • Is Donald Trump Really A Deal-Maker?

    As Donald Trump surveys the current state of his relationships with China, Iran and North Korea, with all of whom he has recently engaged in a somewhat confrontational way, even someone as resistant to self-doubt as the US President might conclude that his supposed expertise in doing deals might leave something to be desired.

    His imposition of tariffs on Chinese imports seems to have back-fired as American business (and the world economy) begin to count the cost; his tearing up of the deal with Iran to the effect that sanctions would be lifted in return for their renunciation of any ambitions to develop nuclear weapons has likewise led to a sharp increase in tension in the Middle East; and his much-touted agreement with North Korea has been met by a resumption of the testing of missiles with nuclear capability by Kim Jong Un.

    Someone with a little more self-knowledge than Donald Trump might be given pause for at least a moment by these responses to his efforts at what might laughingly be called diplomacy. It is clear that the author of The Art of the Deal has much to learn about international diplomacy – that the tactics of threat and bluster and waiting to see who blinks first may or may not work in private business but have a poor record in the sphere of international relations.

    Even in private business, there must be major question marks over such high-risk tactics, if the story told by his tax returns over more than a decade is to be believed. Those tax returns show that, rather than the successful businessman he claims to be, he actually lost more than a billion dollars over the period (with the convenient result that he paid no tax).

    It is not just the obvious damage that has been inflicted on the American economy and on wider American interests that must be entered into the balance sheet in evaluating Trump’s initiatives in international relations. What must also be taken into account are the lost opportunities, flowing from Trump’s refusal to accept a leadership (or any) role on issues like climate change and even on specific issues like requiring the social media companies to take a more responsible approach to the publication of hate speech. And that is to say nothing of his bewildering apparent subservience to Putin’s Russia and his readiness to alienate his Nato allies.

    It is one thing to take chances with one’s own money – as the record shows that Trump is more than prepared to do. It is quite another knowingly to take risks with the nation’s interests. His willingness to do so is persuasive evidence that it is not the nation’s interests that are his prime concern.

    Rather, it is his chances of re-election that are top of his agenda. He seems to calculate that if he can posture as an American hero – Captain America, no less – the voters of “his base” will applaud and flock to his banner. He must also calculate that, provided he can dominate the message they receive, “his base” will not bother to worry about the true cost to American interests of his diplomatic failures.

    As for world peace and stability, these are even further down the list of priorities – if they feature at all. Trump’s focus is entirely on issues much closer to home.

    Bryan Gould
    14 May 2019