• Democracy is the Missing Element

    Simon Wren-Lewis, with whom I usually have little difficulty in agreeing, has published a blog in recent days in which he explains why, in his (and others’) views, it is impossible to play a full part in the global economy – in other words, to enjoy free trade – while maintaining the full powers of self-government that one would usually expect in a mature and democratic nation state.

    He links this point to the Brexit vote, in order to suggest that the obligations that must be accepted in return for free trade (or – in the Brexit case – access to the single market) must necessarily entail a diminution in the powers of self-government.

    He is of course right to say that free trade often requires individual governments to make concessions concerning domestic policy, if only because the maintenance of various non-tariff barriers, such as subsidies and other preferences given to domestic producers, will run counter to the goals that are sought through free trade. But such concessions are a fairly normal incident of trade relations and would not usually be considered, when approved by a democratically elected government, as implying a substantial derogation from national sovereignty.

    It should be conceded straightaway that there are modern versions of supposed free trade that do indeed collide rather directly with the normal concept of self-government.  The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and its Asia-Pacific equivalent (the TPPA) both masquerade as free trade deals but represent in fact major additions to the powers of international corporations at the expense of elected governments.

    That is why they have been opposed by so many – and Simon Wren-Lewis is right to signal, by implication at least, the incompatibility between such arrangements and the usual principles of democratic self-government. Faced with that choice, most informed citizens seem so far to prefer self-government.

    But are the concessions negotiated as a matter of course between sovereign governments really incompatible with the concept of self-government?  National governments, even the most powerful, are of course necessarily constrained by all kinds of limitations, including the demands made by other countries.  That is the nature of the real world.

    But there is a world of difference between that situation – analogous, as Wren-Lewis points out, to how relations between individuals are managed – and the proposition that governments should not just negotiate (after careful consideration of their own interests, as individuals would do), but should hand over in its entirety to a completely different (and unelected) authority the power to decide for them, in advance and en bloc, what concessions should be made, and what interests should be sacrificed to those concessions.

    It is the by-passing of elected governments that is, after all, at the heart of the objections to the TTIP and the TPPA – and it is clear that voters in Britain (and in other countries like New Zealand) are in no doubt that the power to decide what concessions should be made, in return for what benefits, should remain with their elected governments and should be exercised on a case-by-case basis.

    It is also clear that the same distinction was an important factor when voters came to make up their minds as to whether they were happy to see the EU exercise the powers that had hitherto been exercised by their own elected governments.  The issue was not, in other words, whether or not concessions should be made in return for free trade, but who should make them and whose interests should they represent.  Would the decision-makers, above all, consult and reflect the views of voters who had been confident in their belief that they had elected governments to protect their interests?

    No country is more experienced than the UK in negotiating the unavoidable give-and-take of international diplomacy and economic relations.  We do not need reminding that such negotiations require commitment and careful judgment.  That is why the constant efforts from some quarters to undermine our negotiating position in the forthcoming Brexit talks by urging that it should be abandoned or reversed give comfort to those we are to negotiate with and are potentially so damaging to our interests.

    Simon Wren-Lewis has done us a favour – perhaps inadvertently – by reminding us that the important decisions that have to be made if we are to secure our objectives – in trade, as in other spheres – could be inimical to democracy and self-government, unless decided by a government elected for the task.

    He may not quite have grasped, however, that those who voted for Brexit got there before him.  The import of their decision is that important issues need to be decided by democratic institutions – and in particular by elected governments.  The first requirement is, in other words, that the proper democratic framework exists; it is only when that democratic process is in place that we can use it to consider and approve the concessions that might be made to other interests in our name.

    We don’t resolve these issues by first conceding to undemocratic institutions, like the EU, the power to decide issues which are properly the preserve of elected governments.  The democratic process should not be seen as an inevitable and acceptable casualty of free trade arrangements but as the only mechanism by which the concessions needed to secure them are made acceptable.

    Bryan Gould

    21 December 2016






  • What Lies Behind the Brexit Vote?

    I am proud to be a sixth-generation New Zealander.  But I am also gratefully aware of my British heritage.

    All eight of the families of my great grandparents came to New Zealand, from England, Scotland and Wales, and had settled here by the mid-nineteenth century.  I had the pleasure of returning to the UK as a student and spending a substantial part of my working life there.

    My involvement in British politics meant that I took more than a passing interest in the referendum on whether the UK should remain in the European Un ion.  I was surprised, but pleased, at the result, but I have been even more surprised – and less pleased – at the reaction to that result, not least the reaction of some prestigious organs of opinion whose opinions I normally respect.

    To hear it the way they tell it, one would think that the vote in favour of Brexit was a calamity brought about as the consequence of the bigotry (not to say racism) and ignorance of those who knew no better.  Their task now, it seems, is to show them the error of their ways, and find some way of reversing or overriding what was a democratic decision.

    There is no recognition of the perfectly rational considerations that might have led many voters to say of the EU “enough is enough”.  For many citizens, British and European, membership of the EU has meant joining an economic zone specifically created to allow powerful corporations to bypass elected governments and to achieve what they want by dealing directly with unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.

    For Britain specifically, it has meant a massive trade deficit, particularly in manufactured goods – a deficit that has decimated British manufacturing, destroyed jobs, especially in the regions, and made it impossible for the British economy to grow for fear that the deficit will get worse.

    For many workers, it has also meant an unstoppable inflow of cheap labour from Eastern Europe – a tap that cannot be turned off.  To express concern at this might look like racism from the leafy suburbs of southern England, but it looks rather different to those whose jobs are at risk, whose wages are undercut, and whose housing, schools and hospitals are put under pressure.

    Yes, the Brexit vote may have been partly a protest on the part of those who felt that their interests had been ignored.  But there is more to it than that.

    Many of those most likely to bewail the Brexit vote do so from a position of assumed cultural superiority.  Outside the EU, it seems, they will suffer a deprivation not endured by lesser mortals; they will be denied access to European culture, food, holidays – a loss that may not matter to others but is important to them.

    The paradox is that this manifestation of supposed superiority is entirely misplaced.  There is nothing that – whether in or out of the EU – can deny the centuries-old British involvement in or access to Continental Europe.  Britain has always been historically, geographically, culturally, economically and in every other way a part of Europe and has often played a crucial part in its affairs – something for which Europe has been at times very grateful.  The question is not – whether Europe, but what kind of Europe.

    And on that issue, it may well be that the instincts of the Brexiteers are more reliable and culturally authentic than those who profess themselves to be the most committed “Europeans”.

    The British have always feared and opposed the emergence of a dominant European power.  The Spanish launched their armada and were defeated by Francis Drake; Napoleon made his attempt at European domination and was stopped at Trafalgar and Waterloo; and the Germans had two cracks at it last century and it took two world wars to halt them.

    It may not be appropriate in polite company these days to recall these aspects of past British involvement in Europe.  But these events leave their imprint – and the British preference for a Europe at peace with itself but not subject to domination by any one power remains a strong element in the British cultural identity.

    The British have always valued their independence – and, translated into modern terms, that means the value attached to self-government and democracy.  That is the element that, in their keenness to emphasise their “Europeanness”, is overlooked and misunderstood by the Brexit critics.

    Much of the impetus behind the decision to leave the EU came, in other words, from that long-standing British commitment to running their own affairs, without interference from Continental powers.  They wanted to regain “control” – perhaps an abstract concept but one that mattered to many Brexit voters.

    Those who condemn those voters for their ignorance and bigotry might ask themselves whether it is not the critics who reveal their ignorance.  Even at 12,000 miles distance, I fancy that I understand what those voters were seeking to achieve.  The drive to achieve and retain the right to self-government is not to be derided; it has served both Britain and Europe very well in the long history they share.

    Bryan Gould

    19 December 2016


  • We Failed the Brexit Test

    It might have been thought that the decision made by the British people in the recent referendum that they wished to leave the EU would have drawn a line under that issue, and that we would now be addressing the many new challenges and opportunities that are now before us.  But, such is the arrogance of those who were sure they knew best that it now appears that the referendum was not so much an exercise in democracy and for determining the will of the British people as a means of testing whether their fellow citizens were really up to it.

    There was, in other words, only one right answer, and the failure to produce it means that the test must either be treated as a nullity or it must be taken again (and possibly again and again) until the right answer is reached.

    This determination to treat the referendum as an examination that has been failed has led one of the candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party to choose as one of the main planks in his platform a commitment to provide a second opportunity to achieve a pass mark.  And, in the expectation that such an opportunity will arise, a huge effort is being made to ensure that the delinquents who got it wrong and voted to leave must be re-educated and shown the error of their ways.

    So, we are subjected to endless stories designed to show how mistaken the decision to leave really was.  Even the most improbable link between the Brexit decision and some real or supposed misfortune is triumphantly reportedly; headlines along the lines of “Brexit Means My Ingrowing Toenails Will Get Worse” are now commonplace in the pages of such as The Guardian.

    There are, in addition to those whose superior brainpower and knowledge of the world enabled them to reach the right answer, others who are outraged by what they see as an irresponsible offence against civilised values.  For them, the Brexit decision was a denial of their European identity and a bar to their ability to enjoy European food, music, art and travel – as if those pleasures were dependent on a particular trading arrangement, and were not part of our European involvement and identity since time immemorial.

    Then there are those who profess to have been morally offended by what they see as the false prospectus which produced the Brexit decision.  Yet, in the chorus of condemnation that has greeted Brexit “lies”, there is little reference to what was surely the biggest lie of the campaign – the warning by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, no less, that Brexit would mean a £30 billion hole in the government’s finances and would necessitate an emergency budget.

    Many of those apparently angered by the democratic decision reached in the Brexit vote seem to believe that their particular sensibilities entitle them to ignore rational argument and the practical realities that membership of the EU has meant for so many of their fellow-citizens.  Indeed, the offence supposedly committed against those sensibilities should be treated, it seems, as just that – an offence for which they and we must be punished.  The greater the alleged penalties to be suffered for Brexit, in other words, the more satisfied the referendum losers are that justice has been done.

    They are even able to welcome the presence of an appropriately stern prosecuting counsel – not to say hanging judge – in the person of Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the European Commission.  This unelected official presumes to threaten retribution for the British people’s daring to reclaim some degree of self-government.  It is a measure of how little understanding there is of such issues in some quarters that Juncker’s autocratic (and probably illegal) ban on discussions taking place between British and EU officials is not recognised as a striking example of the democratic deficit which continues to handicap European integration and to alienate British opinion.

    There is, of course, a post-Brexit reality that demands all of our attention.  It is already clear that the dire predictions of calamity have not been realised – and even the most persistent of the supposed downsides, the weakness of sterling, has meant for those with the wit to see it, a boost to British competitiveness of which the inflow of tourists is just one immediate manifestation.

    Instead of looking back to an EU membership which constrained us in a straitjacket of austerity and the priority given to corporate interests and that precluded us from taking up economic opportunities on our own account, we should now be striking out for a new and dynamic approach to economic and trading policy.  The qualities that served us so well as a self-governing democracy over such a long period can now be brought to bear – as soon as we are no longer distracted by the prospect of going backwards rather than forwards.

    Bryan Gould

    13 September 2016



  • Putting Labour Together Again

    The challenge manufactured by the Parliamentary Labour Party to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership seems destined to prove an exercise in futility and impotence.  Nothing more clearly demonstrates, in both its motivation and impracticality, the gulf that has been allowed – and in some cases encouraged – to develop between Labour MPs and the party in the country.

    But when it reaches its inevitable conclusion, what then?  When the warring parties return to their encampments to lick their respective wounds, does the Labour party limp on, broken-backed and riven by division and ill-feeling, until a general election puts the whole enterprise out of its misery?  And what, in the meantime, about all those who have looked to the Labour Party to protect their interests and to bring about change in a system that has so thoroughly betrayed them?

    One thing is certain.  There is no future in returning to the status quo ante.  One or other, or preferably both, of the combatants has to undergo an “agonising re-appraisal” in the interests of learning lessons and learning to work together.

    On the face of it, that duty does not lie immediately on the victor.  Corbyn and his supporters may feel that, having seen off a challenge that was born of a misplaced incredulity that the PLP could be defied by the party’s membership, any rapprochement is the responsibility of those who so thoroughly misread the situation.

    But that would be a mistake.  Those who claim and are entrusted with the leadership of the party must shoulder the responsibilities of leadership, among the principal of which is the mounting of a unified and effective effort to win the next election.

    The newly confirmed leader, however, is entitled to expect a significant shift in the attitude of his parliamentary colleagues.  The dead end that has been reached is the outcome of a policy of confrontation can no longer be sustained.  The Corbyn leadership is there for the foreseeable future.  The task now, surely, is no longer to undermine it – hitherto the preferred strategy of many – but to strengthen it and to use those strengths to win an election.

    The first duty of those who mounted the challenge is to understand what has happened.  Jeremy Corbyn became, and will have been endorsed as, leader because he dared to break free from a stultifying orthodoxy which had imprisoned Labour, without their even knowing it, in an intellectual framework that precluded any real departure from neo-liberal politics and neo-classical economics.  His central assertion, which can be regarded as not only important in its own right but as a surrogate for a much wider rejection of orthodoxy, is that we do not need to accept austerity as a suppose answer to our economic problems.

    There is no reason why those who criticise him so bitterly should not have shown similar courage.  It is their timidity, and – in many cases – their keenness to assure voters that they would be just as tough as the Tories, that has left them so far out of touch with Labour voters and with a leader they do not support.  Talk of splits, breakaways and court cases (whose limitations and impropriety in such matters has already been demonstrated) is simply to compound the deeply damaging mistakes they have already made.

    There is some evidence that the penny is beginning to drop.  Even the chosen candidate of the parliamentary rebels has shown that he understands the appeal and the relevance of what Corbyn has been saying.  Owen Smith has embraced alternatives to austerity and policies for growth, full employment and a more competitive productive sector – and while there might be some raised eyebrows at the genuineness of this somewhat belated conversion, the road to Damascus is the right road to take.  If Smith can take that stance, why can’t his supporters?

    If Corbyn’s critics can be brought to understand his appeal to party members but nevertheless lament what they see as his personal deficiencies, then the remedy is surely to help him make good those deficiencies by offering him the support that he needs.  The right response from the PLP to the likely result of the leadership election, in other words, is not one of sullen resentment and the withholding of support, but of using the party’s total and combined talents to offer a real alternative to a perpetual Tory government.

    A Corbyn leadership supported by the strongest possible Shadow Cabinet would be a very different proposition from one undermined by those ready to brief continuously against him.  His supposed unelectability looms large in the minds of his critics rather than in any hard evidence; the recent emergence of a substantial Tory poll lead is no more than the classic response to the emergence of a new Prime Minister, helped along by constant reports of Labour dissension.

    A parliamentary party ready to unite behind its leader (and what other constructive response is there?) would in turn invite and deserve a considered response from Corbyn.  He has had time to understand the difference between the freedom enjoyed by the long-time defender of often minority causes and the responsibility accepted by the builder of a team ready to form a government.  He will now have the chance to show that he is ready to complete that transition.

    Bryan Gould

    31 July 2016


  • How Did It Come to This?

    It is easy to conclude, as we watch Labour’s internecine warfare, that we are witnessing the party’s death throes.  There seems to be no escape route, no compromise solution, that will achieve a resolution of the bitter dispute between the parliamentary party and a leader who was voted into office by the membership but is regarded as anathema by his parliamentary colleagues and accordingly refuses to vacate the leadership.  Such is the depth of that schism, and of the ill-feeling it has engendered, that a parting of the ways seems the only possible outcome.

    The question usually debated is as to who is responsible for the party’s current plight.  But if a split is to be avoided, either after or in the absence of a coup by the parliamentary party, a more fundamental question has to be asked and answered – how did it come to this?   How did such a division emerge between those who are supposed to be working for the same objective – the election of a Labour government?  Or, to put it more tendentiously, how did Labour MPs become so divorced from the wishes and ambitions of those they claim to represent?  Both, or perhaps better to say all, parties to the dispute need to think about the answer to these questions about the roots of the dispute.

    The answers from all quarters will of course be coloured by the failure to win the last two general elections and what are seen as the dismal prospects of winning the next, whenever it might arrive.  But we need to go back further – right back to 1979 and further – if we are to understand what has really happened.

    The first point to register is that an enquiry that takes us all the way back to the advent of Mrs Thatcher and to the origins of what we can now confidently describe as the 40 year-long neo-liberal revolution will mean little to anyone under the age of about 50.  Only someone born before about 1970 can understand the extent of the change that was ushered in by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and that had been prefigured in the writings of Hayek and Nozick and Milton Friedman.

    That change meant a huge transformation in the politics of most western countries.  It meant that government was no longer seen as the bringer of hope and succour, as the guarantor of a shared understanding of what membership of society implied by way of decent standards of living, and health, housing and education.

    “There is no such thing as society,” Mrs Thatcher famously declared.  We were instead to repose our confidence in the “free” market.  That market was infallible and was not to be second-guessed.  Government intervention in its workings could only be counter-productive.   For most of our current politicians, the society in which they have grown up implicitly accepted these propositions.

    Even on the left, these nostrums proved seductive, especially when society as a whole seemed supportive of them and when accepting them seemed to offer the only way to electoral success.  New Labour was a clear manifestation of this acceptance; the role of the left was thought to require only a more competent and compassionate human face to be worn by what were – if not eternal – at least verities for our time.

    That is the world in which most members of the PLP have grown up and fashioned their politics.  By definition, they seem themselves as the vanguard, the thinkers and the professionals in the party.  They are convinced that they know better, and their experience of the electoral and parliamentary battle convinces them that this is so.

    What they do not seem to know, however, is the extent to which their views have been conditioned by the neo-liberal revolution, unannounced, that has taken place around them for the past 40 years.  It has, after all, created the world they know.  They are unaware, not only of this, but of the fact that for many Labour voters, the harsh realities of the “free” market have not produced an appreciation of its supposed virtues but a sense that no one understands or cares about the losses they have suffered as a result of its ministrations.

    They are also unaware that, just as the way to neo-liberalism was cleared by an intellectual revolution which became visible only when the politicians got into the act, so there is a new revolution under way – a reaction against the increasingly evident deficiencies of a society that has undervalued its democracy and allowed it to be subverted by those who have used the “free” market to deliver an unfair and widening imbalance in power and influence.  Their task now, surely, is not to bemoan that counter-revolution but to give it practical help and political effect.

    So, what does this analysis mean for Labour’s current troubles?  It means that the blame cannot be placed on someone who, without necessarily being ideally cast for the role, has found himself as the chosen spokesman for those who have been neglected – even by their self-proclaimed champions – for far too long and who now recognise the possibility that the longstanding neo-liberal orthodoxy, that has harmed them so much, can be brought to an end.  The PLP must ask itself how it has missed the opportunity and responsibility to help that process along.

    Bryan Gould

    16 July 2016.