• The Truth about Brexit, As seen from New Zealand

    It is very hard, at 12,000 miles distance, for Kiwis to get a good handle on the Brexit issue – particularly if their source of information is a newspaper like The Guardian, the self-appointed standard-bearer of the Remainers’ cause.

    You would be hard put to find a Guardian front page over recent months that did not carry at least a couple of anti-Brexit stories, predictions of Brexit disaster, and exhortations to Remainers to campaign to reverse or sidestep the referendum decision.

    Those unwise enough to be guided by this unbalanced coverage would conclude that Brexiteers were misled by lies and propaganda, were motivated by bigotry and racism, and are already repenting in large numbers their earlier decision.

    There is no hint of the many perfectly rational considerations that led Brexiteers to vote as they did, or of the fact that recent polls show that opinion since the referendum has moved to confirm further the Brexit decision.  Guardian readers are instead encouraged to believe that the only rational position to take is to stick with “Europe”, come what may.

    Sharp-eyed readers will immediately recognise the quotation marks around “Europe”.  For the Remainers, “Europe” is equated with the European Union.  How, it is asked, can Britain turn its back on “Europe”?

    The European Union, though, is not “Europe” but a particular political and economic construct which represents only a fragment of what Europe really means, both to Britain and to every other European country.

    The Common Market itself was merely a trade deal, originally struck between France and Germany – admittedly, with the high-minded and worthwhile purpose of binding the two countries together so that they would not plunge Europe into yet another world war.

    The deal itself may have been high-minded but it was also hard-headed; it represented a trade-off between the French interest in protecting their inefficient agriculture, and the German interest in tariff-free trade for their relatively efficient manufacturing industry.

    The former goal was secured by the hugely expensive Common Agricultural Policy and the latter by the commitment to industrial free trade within a customs union.

    The British were allowed to join only once these goals were set in concrete.  The Common Market could not have been more inimical to British interests.  It required the British to give up significant competitive advantages; first, their access to efficiently produced Commonwealth food which made possible a cheap food policy at home – and therefore lower industrial costs – and, secondly, their preferential markets in Commonwealth countries for relatively expensive British manufactures.

    And so it proved in practice.  British taxpayers found themselves subsidising inefficient French farmers, British consumers had to pay higher food prices and therefore required higher wages just to stand still, and British manufacturers and their workforces faced lost output and jobs as they were outgunned in their own market and in Europe by the post-war revival of German industry.

    By the time the referendum opportunity came, voters were fed up with high food prices, with lost jobs, with a trade deficit that threatened the destruction of British manufacturing, and with the seemingly unstoppable inflow of cheap labour from Eastern Europe.

    Most of all, they wanted to regain control over their own affairs – to reclaim the self-government and democracy that their forefathers had fought for, often against the threat posed by European despots.

    These were all sensible sentiments, underpinned – as the Guardian and other organs of received wisdom would have it – by the sense ordinary people had that their concerns were simply brushed aside by those who not only “know better” but were “doing better”.

    On this view, the Brexiteers were motivated by ignorance and grievance, and had failed to understand the argument.  The way to remedy these failings, it is asserted, is to “listen to them more”, but that mysteriously seems to mean that it is the Brexiteers – best described, it seems, as cretins and bigots – who should listen more carefully so that they can be enlightened as to how they got it wrong.

    We in New Zealand at least have the chance to make up our own minds.  We shouldn’t have much trouble in understanding why our British cousins prefer to run their own affairs and why, having made an important decision, they should want to stick to it.

     

    Bryan Gould

    16 April 2017

     

     

  • Religious Fervour Can Be A Bad Guide

    When Tony Blair first came to my attention, and I brought him on to the Front Bench as a promising young MP, he gave no sign of religious fervour.  Like many others, therefore, I was surprised when he later revealed the strength of his religious beliefs, and the part they seem to have played in some of the more momentous decisions he took, not least over the decision to invade Iraq.

    Some of his critics have claimed that his religious faith takes a particular form, in that he suffers a Messiah complex that impels him to see himself as the central figure in any great issue of the day.  If that is so, then he seems to be at it again, with his announcement that he is prepared to offer himself as the saviour of the remain campaign, and ready to lead the lost tribes back to the EU’s promised land.

    The immediate response to his easy assumption that his renewed intervention will prove decisive is to wonder why it should be any different this time.  His persuasive skills seemed less than fully effective the first time round, during the referendum campaign; there were even those who feared that his endorsement of the remain campaign might actually have been counter-productive.

    My purpose, however, is not to speculate as to whether or not there will be another round at some future date, and – if so – what part Tony Blair might play in it, but rather, to point up an impact he is sure to have on the critical situation faced by the British people right here and now.

    As we are constantly told, the Brexit vote will require a prolonged and difficult negotiation between the UK and our former partners in the EU.  Much will depend on the attitudes taken by the negotiators on either side as to whether Europe – whose fortunes are supposedly so dear to the hearts of so many remainers – will emerge in good order, with relations in good shape, and with a constructive future before it.  Each party will nevertheless, no doubt, strive might and main in the search for an advantage.

    In these respects, the stance of our European partners will matter just as much as our own and, on that score, the omens are not promising.  The prevailing attitude of leading EU figures seems to be that the UK must be made to pay a price for our temerity in deciding our own future and that there will be no easy deal or constructive relationship as the former partners ride off separately into the sunset.

    This attitude is usually explained and excused by its supporters as a necessary piece of self-protection, for fear that otherwise others might also be tempted to leave the club – so much for any thought that lessons might be learnt so that the future health of European cooperation might take priority over the immediate and particular requirements of the cabal that currently runs the EU.

    But what this certainly means is that the EU negotiators will be looking intently for anything that could be exploited in the negotiations – for any weakening of the British position or any lessening of their resolve.  Any suggestion from within the UK that the Brexit decision might be reversed or that opinion is moving in favour of remain will be meat and drink to those engaged, from the other side of the table, in trying to nail us to the worst possible deal.

    Never mind that the polls seem to suggest that any movement in opinion since the referendum has been to confirm the Brexit decision.  When a former Prime Minister proclaims his readiness to lead an uprising in favour of reversing Brexit, the EU negotiators are bound to sit up and take notice and to redouble their efforts.

    There is, in other words, an unfortunate shared interest between the EU at the negotiating table and the remainers at home.  Both want the UK to end up with a bad deal, both pour encourager les autres in Europe, on the one hand, and to persuade British voters to re-consider on the other.  The sad truth for remainers is that some of their leading champions are not only campaigning to negate a democratic decision at home but are acting against our national interests in a crucial negotiation abroad.

    It is in that precise context that Tony Blair’s intervention should be seen.  Whether deliberately or carelessly, he seems happy to give comfort to those who would do us down, and to increase the chances that the UK and the EU will part on bad terms, following a bad-tempered negotiation, and to their common disadvantage.

    Religious fervour can be a dangerous and uncaring guide and taskmaster.  When our self-proclaimed leaders take sides, it’s good to know whose side they are on.

    Bryan Gould

    20 February 2017.

  • Who’s for Paella?

    Amidst all the wailing and tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth on the part of those who bemoan the UK’s decision to set its own course with Brexit, how many of those who regret the apparent breach with “Europe” have paused to consider the real identity of the “Europe” they seem to hold so dear?

    To hear the way they tell it, the “Europe” they long for and feel such affinity with is the fons et origo of all that is good about our culture and civilisation.  “Outside” this “Europe”, we will apparently be cut off from, and disqualified from enjoying, European food, art, music, literature and architecture – no more than a few lonely offshore islands, devoid of anything approaching  European culture and unable to claim to have contributed anything to it.

    I recall seeing during the referendum campaign a Facebook posting, from an emotional remainer, of an attractive picture of a paella, with the caption “And they say we should leave Europe!”  Oh, the sophistication of the argument!  No wonder mere plebs had trouble following it.

    The truth is, of course, that British involvement in Europe has been with us for centuries – a multi-way traffic of great value to all parties, a continuing contribution from all sides to the continuing warp and woof of the fabric of European civilisation, and of particular value at critical moments in our common history when British intervention has been especially significant.  As part of that Europe, Britain is not about to leave and British involvement is unlikely to cease any time soon.

    The “Europe” whose loss so many appear to fear is not, in other words, the Europe of which we have been a part for centuries, but the European Union or EU – a quite different animal that is merely an economic arrangement, originally framed on the basis of a Franco-German deal to put together a Common Agricultural Policy to suit inefficient French agriculture and free trade in manufactures to suit efficient German industry.  This different animal has unfortunately grown to display an increasingly mangy appearance.

    Yes, it is true that the original impetus towards what became the European Union was the noble and commendable aim of saving Europe from yet another re-run of the German attempt to dominate the continent by military force.  But so self-congratulatory has been the legend created around this deal that it is virtually no longer possible to identify or even remark upon what has been the actual, and unfortunate, outcome.  The “European ideal” precludes, it seems, a discussion of anything so indelicate.

    When the Second World War ended, the victors were determined to avoid the mistakes made after the First World War, and went to great lengths to welcome Germany back into the comity of civilised nations; and they eventually went further, by ensuring that the divided nation was reunited so that the full weight of a united Germany’s economic success could be brought to bear.

    The deal the Germans were offered under the EU was that they should restrain themselves from future adventures on the condition that they would be free to exert such economic power as they could muster.  The Germans magnanimously accepted the arrangement.

    We need speculate for only a moment as to the different Europe we would all now live in if victors and vanquished had swapped identities.  Fortunately for us, it was the far-sighted victors of 1945 who ensured that, with the exception of regrettable episodes of great violence and cruelty, as in the Balkans, Europe has enjoyed substantial peace and prosperity in the post-war period.

    The outcome of their efforts, however, has not been quite what they had presumably foreseen or intended – a Europe at ease with itself.  Instead, they have brought about a thorough-going German hegemony – a greater German economy calling the economic shots across Europe – without a shot being fired.

    No student of today’s European Union could or should fail to notice the German domination of the European polity.  Some – like the Greeks and other weaker economies – have had particularly good reason to take note.

    It is German economic dominance that dictates policy to EU countries and institutions – and, for the Greeks, the consequences have been disastrous.

    Encouraged by the apparent security of euro membership to borrow, the Greeks found themselves unable to repay when the debts were called in.  Successive bail-outs have allowed them to ward off forced departure from the euro zone and bankruptcy, but the savage cuts demanded by the creditors have created emergency levels of poverty and unemployment and have so weakened and reduced the size of the Greek economy as to make it impossible for them to service or repay the borrowings.

    The usual remedy of devaluation for such a plight is simply not available to the Greeks, for as long as they are part of the euro – and the masters of the euro are determined to allow no backsliding.  All potential escape routes are closed, and the Greeks have been hung out to dry.

    The Germans accept no responsibility for their initial eagerness to lend and they continue to rack up huge trade surpluses which by definition must be matched by deficits on the part of smaller and less developed economies.  But the Germans insist that there can be no debt relief.

    The only options offered the Greeks are further “structural reforms” – a euphemism for “free-market” measures designed to increase privatisation and provide opportunities to bargain-hunters – and further reductions in social costs such as pensions which have already been cruelly slashed below survival level.

    The “Europe” in which Greece – and other weaker economies, especially in Eastern Europe – find themselves struggling to survive is the same “Europe” as we are invited to lament.  It is a Europe prepared to inflict the most draconian of austerity measures on some of its most defenceless citizens, in the interests of a pitiless application of financial orthodoxy and at the behest of its dominant economic power whose self-defined interests are given priority over all else.

    Perhaps it’s time we cast off our rose-tinted spectacles.  Let’s just enjoy the paella.

    Bryan Gould

    7 February 2017

     

     

     

  • Trump and Brexit Are Quite Different Phenomena

    One particularly welcome aspect of the House of Commons vote to pass the Bill to trigger the Article 50 process is the rebuff it represents to the relentless campaign, in some quarters, and in the Guardian in particular, to equate and conflate support for Brexit with support for Donald Trump.  Trump’s justified unpopularity – in Europe as a whole and in Britain in particular – has proved to be for some a welcome and ever-ready stick with which to beat Brexiteers.

    It seems to be an article of faith for some that it is impossible to support Brexit without supporting Trump; this contention takes its place as part of a wider (and equally determined, if unsupported) charge that there can be no legitimate grounds for supporting Brexit.  A vote for Brexit, it is maintained, can be explained only as an expression of bigotry and ignorance – hence, it is argued, the unavoidable identification with Trump and his supporters.

    The contention that no one could support Brexit without supporting Trump (a fiction of which I and many others are living refutations) can be maintained only by a resolute refusal to recognise the legitimacy of many of the rational objections that can be made to EU membership.

    It also requires that no acknowledgment can be allowed of those voices, particularly from the left, who argue that the EU is not “Europe” but a particular economic arrangement – one which entrenches “free-market” precepts and operates against the interests of the UK and of the British working class in particular, as well as of working people across Europe.  The stubborn refusal to hear those voices means that those arguing for Brexit on rational and pro-Europe grounds have struggled to be heard – and the debate is all the poorer for that.

    It is one thing to choose not to share the reservations that others hold; but to deny that they exist, or so thoroughly to misrepresent them, is to do no one any favours.  It leaves those who support EU membership bereft of any proper understanding of, and therefore too ready to dismiss, the real concerns of many of their fellow citizens; and it leaves unaddressed all those real concerns – about the UK’s perennial trade deficit, our manufacturing decline, the almost non-existent net productive investment, the unstoppable inflow of cheap labour from Eastern Europe, and above all the perceived sense of the loss of self-government and the weakening of our democracy – with the result that those who express such concerns, but are then ignored or dismissed, are left with an unappealing option.

    If their legitimate and practical concerns are over-ridden – one might say “trumped” – by the “finer sensibilities” of those who lament the supposed breach with Europe (and its food, wine, music, literature and other cultural glories), where else have they to go, if their concerns are to be heard, but to a Trump or a Farage – and they are then excoriated all over again, de haut en bas, by their supposed betters.

    It is to be hoped that the Commons vote, and the inevitability now of the Article 50 process and the consequent negotiation, will allow a shift of focus – away from constantly assessing, and campaigning for, the chances of somehow reversing the referendum result, and towards a sensible strategy for achieving the best possible outcomes of a Brexit for both Britain and Europe.

    We might now look for a better balanced public and parliamentary debate – one that does not unnecessarily exacerbate existing divisions but allows us to come together in pursuit of a sensible arrangement that meets the interests of all parties; and, with an enhanced appreciation on the part of our interlocutors in the EU that the UK will indeed leave and that the die is now cast, they will, one hopes, no longer be misled by doubts about the British firmness of purpose, so that the negotiations can proceed on the part of both parties on a realistic basis.

    We might also hope that we will no longer be encumbered by false trails and unjustified insults.  The new President of the United States can, sadly, be left to pursue his own lonely furrow.

    Bryan Gould

    2 February 2017

     

     

     

  • Who’s to Blame?

    The Bank of England’s chief economist, Andrew Haldane, has had the good grace to admit that the Bank’s forecast of the likely economic consequences of Brexit – that consumption, employment, share values and economic activity in general would fall – was, at least in the short term, mistaken.  The British economy, since the Brexit referendum, has prospered and has out-performed most other developed economies.

    In making his mea culpa, he acknowledged that the error had further weakened confidence in the economics profession, but it is not only economists who must shoulder the blame.  There was no shortage of establishment voices – business leaders, media commentators and politicians in particular – who issued similar ill-founded warnings; remember George Osborne’s need for an “emergency budget” in the event of a decision in favour of Brexit?

    In reality, Andrew Haldane did no more than concede the truth of what had already become apparent.  But the interesting aspect of his admission is not the fact that he made it, but the explanation for the error that he offered.

    The experts, it seems, did not take into account the “irrational behaviour” of those who live in the real economy, rather than in one of those economic models so beloved of economists.  If only people had reacted to Brexit as the experts thought they should, the forecast would have passed with flying colours.

    Let us pass over for the moment the irony that what was supposed to be an admission of error on the part of those who claim to know best became the vehicle for, yet again, shifting the blame for the error on to those who were supposedly too stupid to listen to what the experts told them and to know what was expected of them.

    It is nevertheless worth pausing for a moment to unpick the convoluted logic employed by Andrew Haldane to explain what went wrong and presumably endorsed by those many others who are used to being taken very seriously on important matters.

    The starting point, it seems, is that those who know best were agreed that Brexit would be an economic disaster.  At this stage of the argument, facts and rational analysis were apparently not needed to validate this position.  It was enough that they said that it was so – and they were then able to construct a whole supposedly “economic” forecast on the basis of this rickety and insubstantial foundation.

    It was then assumed that this consensus on the part of the important people – those who just knew, whatever the arguments, that we must belong to a particular economic arrangement called the European Union (not the “Europe” to which we have belonged from time immemorial) – would be listened to and acted upon.  It therefore followed that, in the event of a pro-Brexit vote, the British people would be so alarmed that they would lose all confidence in their economic future, and their reaction would produce such a downturn in economic activity as to validate the initial projection as to what would happen.

    This circular process, where it was not the prediction itself but the response to the prediction that was at issue, was no more than an exercise in picking oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.  The British people, however, failed to react according to the script.

    Perhaps they were not impressed by a perennial deficit in our trade with “Europe” in manufactured goods, or by an unstoppable inflow from “Europe” of cheap labour, or by the prospect of further concessions to meet the interests of major corporations at the expense of working people.

    Perhaps they sensed that they had lost what has long been an essential part of the British heritage – the power to govern ourselves – and that it had been lost to a hegemonic continental power which, parading as “Europe”, was in reality a direct successor to many earlier attempts to establish just such a hegemony.

    Whatever the explanation, the fact is that they have so far reacted positively to Brexit when the experts said that they would pull in their horns.  The lesson we should learn is that experts are valuable when they deploy their expertise accurately – but postulating an a priori position and then seeking to validate it retrospectively on the basis that – true or false – people will believe it and act upon it is not expertise but charlatanry.

    Bryan Gould

    7 January 2017