• A Post-Brexit Europe

    In the 1960s, after I had graduated with a first-class Oxford postgraduate law degree, I joined the British Foreign Office as the top entrant of my year. There, I worked for a couple of years on European affairs and was eventually posted to the Embassy in Brussels.

    After this exposure to the realities of what was then an emerging “Europe”, I concluded that joining the Common Market would be against Britain’s interests – but when I expressed this view on entering the House of Commons in 1974, I was immediately labelled as an “anti-European”.

    I had to grin and bear this ridiculous label – all the more ridiculous, so it seemed to me, when I thought of my love for European art, music, literature, architecture and food, and the enjoyable holidays I had spent in France and Italy and Portugal, and recalled that my wife and I had met, fallen in love and married in Brussels, and that our son was born there.

    That experience has led me to what to some may seem a surprising conclusion – that, far from being the promised land of European cooperation, the European Union is in fact the major obstacle to a fruitful and rewarding relationship between the UK and Europe.

    The fact is that a full and proper recognition of what each has to offer the other – and especially what Europe has to offer us – has been obstructed by all the baggage that has come with it. To limit the possible forms our relationship could take to membership of the EU is to accept the whole unwieldy and uncompromising super-structure built by those intent on, despite early assurances to the contrary, creating a single European state.

    It has meant accepting as the foundation stone of “Europe” a Franco-German deal that, from the outset, was inimical to our interests. It has meant accepting economic policies designed to serve the interests of multinational corporations and reflecting the neo-liberal convictions of German bankers. It has meant recognising the European Court of Justice as our supreme court, able to over-rule our own courts and strike down laws passed by our own parliament, and thereby removing from us one of the essential powers of a sovereign state.

    It has meant being unable to control and protect our own borders, and unable to restrict the inflow of foreign workers. It has meant being unable to regulate our own trade relationships, denying us access to efficiently produced food and raw materials from around the world and leaving us powerless to defend British manufacturing against powerful competition from the Continent. It has meant paying a substantial annual subscription for the privilege of belonging.

    Little wonder, then, that the “Europe” we were commited to was rejected in the 2016 referendum. But there is a corollary that promises a much brighter future for UK-EU cooperation.

    With Brexit achieved and behind us, the way will then be clear to build a much more beneficial relationship for both parties. We can then give proper recognition to what has always been true – that we are historically, geographically, economically, politically, culturally and militarily part of Europe – a Europe that is not narrowly defined by the EU.

    With the obstacles to cooperation removed, we can then, as a sovereign state, make a fresh start and build a mutually acceptable and rewarding relationship with our friends across that narrow body of water we call the Channel.

    We can, as one sovereign entity with another, negotiate in good faith a sensible trading relationship that serves both our interests. We can focus on, and extend, what I like to call “functional” cooperation – that is, working together on issues where we can both gain from sharing our expertise. In matters of developing technology, research, communications, education, foreign policy, military preparedness, there is everything to be said for working together.

    We can each bring to the relationship our own particular strengths. From the British side, this would mean deploying in the common interest the expertise as a financial centre developed by the City of London – there would seem to be no point, post-Brexit, in the EU trying to set up a comparable capability of its own, when it is already available on its doorstep and has experience of working in both interests.

    If we can cast aside pre-conceptions and have the breadth of vision to recognise the possibilities, in other words, a new golden age for European cooperation is possible. We can each strengthen our “European-ness” in a cultural sense, and enjoy what each can offer. Brexit should certainly not be the end of European cooperation; it may well be the launching pad for a much closer and more fulfilling partnership.

    Bryan Gould
    13 August 2019

     

     

  • A No-Deal Brexit

    What an extraordinarily depressing experience it is to be compelled to watch, at 12,000 miles distance, the contortions and machinations of the British political class as they set about their determined attempt to overturn the decision taken by the British people that they wish to leave the European Union.

    The pages of publications like the Guardian are replete with articles by “constitutional experts”, exploring the various arcane ways in which so-called “democrats” could manipulate constitutional and parliamentary rules and practice so as to frustrate the will of the people by preventing a “no deal” Brexit— and all this supposedly in the name of democracy!

    Let us be quite clear. The rearguard campaign to prevent a “no-deal” Brexit is merely a smokescreen for the real objective, which is to frustrate any Brexit at all and, in effect, overturn the referendum outcome. Despite protestations that they are committed to giving effect to the referendum, the Remainers’ actions tell a different story.

    They calculate that, if the EU can be persuaded not to budge on negotiations for a deal, there will be sufficient opposition to a “no-deal” Brexit to mean that parliament will find a way to stop it.

    The contempt they show for democracy is exceeded only by their arrogance – their conviction that they alone know best – and by their readiness to demonstrate that their true allegiance is not to British democracy and self-government but to the “ideal” of European union – and, in the interests of that ideal, that they are prepared to collaborate with the EU to ensure that no acceptable deal for Brexit is available.

    Let us again be clear. A “no-deal” Brexit arises as a possibility at this stage only because the EU, in pursuance of their unspoken arrangement with Remainers, refuses to talk to, let alone negotiate with, a British government committed to withdrawal – a dramatic illustration of the extent to which, when we cannot even secure a position as a valid interlocutor on the issue of our own decision to withdraw, EU membership continues to mean a status of vassalage for the UK.

    The EU are encouraged in this unreasonable intransigence by the continued efforts from Remainers to convince them that the battle to overturn the referendum result is not over and could yet be won if a deal is placed beyond reach. Defeated in the referendum and professing to abide by its outcome, they nevertheless demonstrate continually – and particularly to the EU – their determination at whatever cost to make it as difficult as possible.

    What are the British people to make of this demonstration of contempt for them by their supposed leaders? For many, the sense that they are not being listened to – which, many believe, lay behind the referendum result – will simply have been confirmed.

    Their confidence in democratic institutions and in their leaders will be further undermined. Their sense of being mere pawns, manipulated under a cloak of democracy in the interests of the political class, will have been validated.

    What else are they to think, when so much effort is devoted by politicians to frustrating their wishes, and when what should be a reasonably straightforward proposition, that our EU membership should end, seems to be beyond our institutions to deliver and is not something that the EU is even prepared to discuss with those primarily involved?

    Whatever we may think of a Boris Johnson government, there must be some sympathy with its position that terminating our EU membership, in its essence, must surely be something that is within the remit and power of the UK government – deal or no deal.

    Whether or not there is a “deal” is as much the responsibility of the EU as it is of the UK. In the absence of any EU willingness to negotiate a deal, it cannot be the case that the UK is locked in – prisoners who cannot escape. A “no-deal” Brexit, when and if it happens, will have been engineered, not by Leavers, but by the absence of any alternative, brought about as a consequence of the Remainers’ collaboration with the EU to prevent an acceptable deal being agreed.

    Bryan Gould
    9 August 2019

     

     

  • The British Trump – I Don’t Think So

    A British newspaper last week published a photograph of the Queen meeting Boris Johnson and attached a caption which had the Queen saying, with the recollection no doubt of Donald Trump’s visit fresh in her mind, “I thought you had gone back to America.”

    They were not alone in purporting to see similarities between the US President and the new British leader. But how accurate is such a judgment?

    I have not had the pleasure of meeting Donald Trump but I do know Boris a little. Our paths crossed first when he was the political correspondent of the Daily Telegraph – indeed, when I left British politics in 1994, he came out to my house and was the last journalist to interview me on the eve of my departure for New Zealand.

    And we ran Into each other again last year at Florence airport when we were both bumped off our return flight to the UK – and we took the chance of a chat about the political situation and, in particular, Brexit, on which subject we have always agreed.

    There are of course superficial similarities between the two leaders. Both are larger than life and both sport extravagant coiffures, and neither is afraid of courting controversy. But that is about where the parallels end.

    If the list of similarities is a short one, the list of differences is good deal longer. Boris Johnson is an educated man – an Oxford classicist and graduate no less – and has a great deal of political experience, having been a political journalist and then Mayor of London and member of parliament. He has a good understanding of the value of democracy and the rule of law, and he is not a serial liar.

    Johnson may not, as they say, be “short of a bob or two”, but he is not preoccupied with his own financial and business affairs. His personal life, and marriage history, have both been a bit messy at times, not least quite recently, but he has never faced accusations of molesting or assaulting women or treating them with disrespect.

    Johnson has vowed to stand up for Britain, especially on the Brexit issue, but he has not found it necessary to set one group against another in his own country or to denigrate other countries. He is undeniably right-wing but the breadth of his political experience at least provides him with an insight into the lives of the less fortunate and into the downsides of free-market policies – and that might even lead him, while Prime Minister, to moderate those policies.

    Even in terms of their foibles and and weaknesses, there are significant differences. Johnson deliberately courts the image of someone who is a bit shambolic and likely to go off the rails because he know that this helps people to relate to him – as they laugh at him, they also warm to him. But behind the buffoon’s facade, there is a sharp and calculating political brain.

    Trump, on the other hand, cannot bear to be laughed at, and takes umbrage at anything that smacks of disrespect for his office. His self-importance and insistence on the trappings of power are deadly serious. In his case, the buffoon we see is not an act but is the real person.

    Despite these differences between them, however, we are bound to see repeated examinations on both sides of the Atlantic of their supposed simIlarities. The British media hostile to Boris will try to use the issue as a stick with which to beat him, since any association with or similarity to Trump will not play well in Britain.

    And Trump-supporting American media will try to build the story that the two leaders are blood brothers, in an attempt to demonstrate that Trump is more mainstream than he actually is, and that his peccadilloes are to be excused because they are not unique to him but can be found elsewhere.

    I remain confident that Boris Johnson, whatever his other weaknesses, will not see Donald Trump as a model to be followed. My slight acquaintance with him leads me to hope that at least one of the leaders of what used to be called “the free world” knows what he is doing.

    Bryan Gould
    27 July 2019

     

     

     

     

  • Off The Fence – In The Right Direction

    Jeremy Corbyn, we are told, is being advised – not least by his deputy (as well as by some of his would-be successors) – that he must come “off the fence” on the Brexit issue if he wants to bolster Labour’s chances in a general election.

    Those offering this advice clearly have in mind that he should declare himself and the Labour party as supporting the Remain option – positioning themselves, in other words, amongst those who would defy the decision taken by the British people in a democratic vote on this centrally important issue.

    How sensible and well-founded is this advice? The first point to make is that such a step would represent for Corbyn, even if the advice were both well-intentioned and well-founded, a reversal of his own personal convictions and, as such, would signal his willingness to put electoral considerations above principle – hardly an approach that would commend itself to large numbers of his own supporters and voters who rightly expect more from someone who presents himself as a conviction politician.

    That in itself would lead him, one hopes, to reject such advice. But, of equal significance, it is highly doubtful that the recommended course of action would produce the electoral benefits claimed for it.

    Jeremy Corbyn, more than any of those tendering such advice, understands very well why so many Labour voters voted Leave. They had had enough of being ignored, of no one listening to their catalogue of complaints about EU membership, of their day-by-day experience of lost jobs and pressure on their housing, on health and other public services, of their sense of having ceded the power of self-government to a foreign entity.

    He understands how mistaken is the vision peddled by Remainers of the EU as a socialist nirvana, how incompatible is this idealised version of the EU with the reality of one dominated by unelected bankers and bureaucrats, and committed to serving the interests of multinational corporations and neo-liberal doctrines.

    He knows that this perception on the part of so many voters (and especially so many potential and actual Labour voters) that the EU serves the interests of the few could only be magnified by any proposal that the referendum result should be over-ridden.

    Yes, there is an argument from the viewpoint of seeking electoral advantage for coming off the fence – but the direction of the dismounting should surely be towards a greater and more clear-cut commitment to giving effect to the Leave vote.

    It is surely the case that Labour’s (and Corbyn’s) ambivalence on the issue has handed huge gains to Labour’s competitors from all parts of the Brexit spectrum. Labour voters – both actual and potential – who value democracy and self-government and who agree with or at least respect the referendum decision have been tempted by the certainty of the Brexit party’s position, while those of the Remain persuasion, who would like to see Labour taking a more pro-EU stance have not been convinced by Corbyn’s shilly-shallying but have transferred their allegiance to the Liberals and Greens.

    The net result of Corbyn’s stance so far is to have re-shaped the political landscape – and against Labour’s interests. It has handed the Tories the opportunity to replace an unpopular and ineffectual leader with someone of much greater popular appeal and to provide him with a ready-made campaigning issue – support for democracy and standing up for Britain’s interests – which will be hard to counter in a forthcoming general election campaign.

    Jeremy Corbyn should, in other words, ignore the siren voices which offer a mistaken vision of electoral success if only he would reverse direction by committing Labour to the Remain cause and proclaiming that the referendum majority got it wrong.

    Such a course of action could only compound Labour’s problems. The best course would be to stay true to Labour’s basic values of democracy and self-government, and to give priority to the many not the few.

    Bryan Gould
    4 July 2019

  • Europe – Left and Right

    The Labour Party has always been an uncomfortable alliance between those on the one hand who are content to seek a politics that declines to accept the infallibility of market-driven outcomes and accordingly seeks to achieve greater social justice within a market-based framework, and those on the other hand whose purpose is a socialist reformation of the market economy and, consequently, of society as a whole.

    The two attitudes manage on the whole to co-exist but the fault line between them is always there. The first group is usually in favour of centrist politics and advocates for policies that will not “frighten the horses”and that will, as they see it, appeal to uncommitted opinion and thereby maximise the chances of being elected to power.

    The second group believe that a full-blooded socialist programme has a good chance, when properly explained and campaigned on, of appealing to majority opinion, and of then providing a secure platform for bringing about genuine and long-lasting reform.

    On the whole, it is usually the first group that prevails, on account of its supposedly greater sensitivity to ,and expertise with regard to, electoral issues. When that is not the case, and the leadership passes into the hands of the second group, the reaction of the first group is invariably to make life as difficult as possible for the leadership, in the attempt to ensure that the party does not veer too far to the left.

    Over recent decades, the litmus test for identifying the two groups has often been attitudes towards “Europe” – a term often used to describe the particular trading, banking and bureaucratic
    organisation created on the Continent under joint Franco-German leadership, and currently known as the European Union. The first group is in favour of British involvement in “Europe”, (it seems to go with the territory), and along with other bien pensants, regards support for it as an indicator of correctness and virtue; the second group is more cautious and critical.

    The first group (and its supporters in the media) have become accustomed to identifying both supporters and opponents, by ascertaining attitudes to “Europe”. It is not a surprise, therefore, to find that – with “Europe” dominating British politics – common cause has been found by those who fear that the Labour party’s current leadership is veering too far left and those who want to see a more pro-“European” disposition on the part of that leadership.

    Nor is it a surprise that those who want to replace the current leadership by one that is more centrist should have hit upon “Europe” as the issue on which to try to define their differences with that leadership. It is no accident that those who might be tempted to launch a coup against the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn should, having failed in earlier attempts to unseat him, have chosen “Europe” as the issue with which to make a renewed attempt to embarrass him and to make clear their differences with him.

    Such a conflation of separate issues is unfortunate and should be rejected by those who want to see an effective force on the left of British politics. Alternatively, the argument should be turned on its head, and an adherence to “Europe” should be recognised as the hallmark of those who don’t have the stomach for a fully-fledged critique of, and counter-response to, the neo-liberal inheritance bequeathed to the party by New Labour.

    In any event, the time has surely come for a long-delayed and proper recognition of the usually disputed and neglected left case for looking askance at “Europe” as a supposed bastion of progressive policy. The corollary of that case is that an effective campaign on British soil for a party of the left surely requires an acknowledgment that a “Europe” of bankers, bureaucrats and multi-nationals does not offer any support for the prospect of socialist reform at home.

    It is Jeremy Corbyn’s instinctive understanding of that truth that attracts the censure and hostility of his critics and that is the pretext for the latest challenge to his leadership.

    Bryan Gould
    3 June 2019