• 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

     

     

     

  • 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.

  • Forty Years Since the Advent of Thatcherism

    On Friday next, the 3rd of May, it will be 40 years since Margaret Thatcher won the British general election of 1979 and became the UK’s first woman Prime Minister.

    For her devoted followers, it will be an opportunity to celebrate, marking – as they see it – the dawning of a new era. For most of the rest of us, however, it will be seen in retrospect as the date that ushered in what is today called “neo-liberalism” – the belief that government should have only a limited role, that individuals should be free – and encouraged – to pursue exclusively their own interests, irrespective of the damage that might be caused to others and to our environment, that there is no place for Keynesian demand management, that trade unions are incompatible with a free market, and – famously, as Mrs Thatcher had it – that “there is no such thing as society.”

    Whatever the merits or otherwise of these tenets, we should be careful not to elevate “Maggie” Thatcher to the status of world-changing pioneer and innovator. The truth is that her role in bringing about the neo-liberal revolution was that of time-server and hand-maiden rather than heroine and prime-mover. The doctrines she made her own were on the whole the product of other people’s thinking.

    Her senior colleagues in her own party – Keith Joseph and Nicholas Ridley, for example – were more important thinkers than she was and had done much to prepare the ground before 1979. And Friedrich Hayek was probably the most important single contributor to the acceptance of the doctrine that – as Ronald Reagan was proclaiming in the USA at the same time – “government is not the solution to the problem – government is the problem.”

    Where Mrs Thatcher came into her own is that her very limitations as a thinker made it easy for her to drive through the programme that others had devised for her. She was not assailed by the doubts that might have given pause to a more thoughtful person. Her strength was her strength – the simple force of her personality that allowed her to dominate a male Cabinet – best exemplified by a Spitting Image skit of the time when Thatcher and her Cabinet were dining in a restaurant and the waiter asked Thatcher what she wanted. “I’ll have the steak”, she said. “And the vegetables?” the waiter enquired. “They’ll have the steak as well,” Thatcher replied.

    Whether the ideas were hers or not, however, her supporters will maintain that their implementation made a huge difference – and a difference for the better. Even today, her supporters will argue that her tenure as Prime Minister heralded a national revival and reversed what would otherwise have been a national decline.

    Sadly, these romantic notions have no foundation. Her espousal of monetarism, her removal of exchange controls (in partnership with Reagan), her disregard of manufacturing industry, and (despite her antipathy to the idea) her inability to resist and reverse British membership of what became the EU, all intensified and hastened the decline of British manufacturing and left the country ill-equipped to face an uncertain future.

    On the wider canvas of the world as a whole, her contribution was equally negative. Her collaboration with Ronald Reagan (hardly an intellectual giant) helped to convince onlookers that neo-liberalism was the way of the future and that it could not, and should not, be resisted. Their joint decision to remove exchange controls was a major step – indeed, the major step – towards a global economy – one in which global corporations no longer needed to pay any heed to elected governments, but could insist on getting what they wanted by simply threatening to move their investments elsewhere, to regimes that offered lower costs and rules and regulations that were less effective to protect local workers.

    In New Zealand, Rogernomics and the “mother of all Budgets” were the direct progeny of those Thatcherite certainties – the distant echo of those certainties still influences our politics today and serves to inhibit the ambitions of reforming governments.

    Even as a standard-bearer for feminism, she was a disappointment, She apparently espoused what R.H.Tawney called “the tadpole” philosophy; when she finally made it to the lily pad as a frog, after all the other tadpoles had fallen victim to predation, she croaked “There’s nothing wrong with this system – I made it!”

    Yes, we should mark and understand the significance of the forty year anniversary – but whether it is something to be celebrated is much more open to question.

    Bryan Gould
    28 April 2019
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  • The Need for “Fair Governance”.

    Why Democracy and Self-Government Are Crucial for Any Brexit Trade Deal

    When I entered the House of Commons following the October 1974 election, I made my maiden speech on the subject of housing – it had been the topic most consistently raised with me at the free legal advice service I had provided in Southampton as the Labour candidate for Southampton Test.

    But shortly after that, I made a speech on the topic that most concerned me. It was on the constitutional implications of our Common Market membership, and I argued, on the basis of the constitutional law I had taught in the Oxford law degree course, that the Common Market would significantly diminish British parliamentary sovereignty.

    The speech went well, to the extent that it provoked interventions from our own front bench, contesting what I had to say – and I was gratified that Norman Buchan (who had also been in the Chamber and who became a good friend) went about telling colleagues that they must “listen to Bryan Gould on the subject of sovereignty”.

    But I learnt a further lesson from that episode. While I may have been reasonably comfortable with the term “sovereignty”, for many of my colleagues it meant little. It had a fusty tone to it, and seemed more suited to the nineteenth century and the works of A.V. Dicey and Walter Bagehot, than to the exigencies of the modern day.

    From then on, I tried to explore the issue in terms of democracy and self-government. These were concepts that my colleagues could understand and embrace – and if even the newest country or former colony could see that self-government was the essential condition of the independence that was sought, how could it be dismissed by the British, with their long history, as being of no account? And for the left, democracy and self-government fitted in easily as essential elements in a socialist programme.

    As the Brexit process works its way to a conclusion, these elements remain at the heart of what might constitute a solution. It seems likely that – as an outcome of the May/Corbyn talks – there will be considerable interest in an arrangement that would see the UK remain as part of a customs union – which would inevitably also mean an acceptance of many elements of the single market. It might be hoped that this would avoid some of the complexities of an Irish backstop or of an extended transition period, and point the way to the longer-term trading arrangement which would benefit all parties.

    But such a proposition would immediately raise for the British issues of democracy and self- government – or, if you prefer, of governance and sovereignty. Those issues would not directly arise if the exit process produced a clean break; the UK would then be in the same position as any other sovereign country, free to negotiate trade deals with the EU and to walk away from them if they were not satisfactory.

    It is sometimes argued that even a free trade agreement would necessarily involve some loss of independence, so what would be the big deal if such a consequence arose from the customs union and single market? But this is to misunderstand the essential difference between a FTA and what would be involved in belonging to the customs union and the single market.

    Yes, a trade agreement, like a contract voluntarily entered into by a private individual, commits the parties to a certain course of action and to that extent closes off some options for the duration of the contract – but that is very different from entrusting to another entity the ongoing power to decide for us what obligations might or might not be undertaken in the future.

    If a significant loss to democracy and self-government is to be avoided, the outcome apparently being considered, in other words, could only work for the UK if some concept of “fair governance” or pooled sovereignty were to be jointly adopted by the EU and the UK. What are the chances of that being agreed?

    There is little evidence, whatever encouraging noises may be made, that the EU will be ready to see any derogation from its usual rules as to who has the power to regulate and decide tariff levels, permissible state aids and so on. It is hard to see that the EU would re-vamp the Treaties to allow the UK an equal voice with the 27 ongoing member states. The UK would therefore struggle to have any significant influence over matters decided by the other twenty seven.

    A further complicating factor is that the euro-zone is increasingly moving towards becoming one economic entity which will at some point vote and decide such matters with a single voice. Given the fact that the EU’s governance gives each eurozone state votes and voice, the aggregate impact of this means any divergence of view or interest between those states and the UK acting on its own could not easily be resolved.

    Would that matter? Yes, without governance rights in any such arrangement, a British government would lose control over many of the most important factors governing British trade and economic development. This loss would extend further than the obvious consequences.

    In respect of fixing tariffs, for example, it would not just be a matter of fixing (or raising) tariffs to keep out non-EU competition. A British government would also be denied the power to reduce tariffs, if it so wished, so as to encourage the import of essential non-EU goods, such as medicines, construction materials and other products that might benefit investment in British industry.

    As a result, if a solution involving UK “membership” of the customs union and elements of the single market is to be sought, it will depend on the readiness of the EU to embrace some new mechanic for “fair governance” or pooled sovereignty to prevent the UK from being unfairly prejudiced by significant decisions over which, in practical terms, it would have no say. Without a fair say, its so-called membership would not end up as a magnifier nor provide an attractive trading arrangement, but would instead restrict UK interests and suppress UK growth and opportunities.

    It remains to be seen whether the EU is prepared to accept fair governance as a possibility for the sake of avoiding a “no deal” exit. Without some assurance on this, the proposed solution should be rejected.

    Bryan Gould
    4 April 2019