• 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

  • Can We Be Pro-Brexit and Progressive?

    Jeff Sparrow in the Guardian (2 January) allows a thoughtful article to be vitiated by an error familiar to all readers of that esteemed organ – a mindless lumping together of those who voted for Donald Trump on the one hand and for Brexit on the other, and branding them all as bigoted and racist.  “Progressives”, on the other hand, (defined by implication as those who voted for neither Trump nor Brexit) now need, he argues, to recapture the agenda so as to help the benighted souls who were led astray by the hateful doctrines of the right.

    One of the reasons for the failure of the “progressives”, he says, is that they did not register the genuine and understandable grievances of so many who felt that they had been ill-served by the democracy in whose name so much had been promised.  The left, he says, needs to re-discover the concept of progress, so as to turn that dissatisfaction into more constructive channels.

    One can only say “hear, hear” to that – but some of us were there long before him.  We represent a body of opinion whose existence is virtually ignored and denied by mainstream media – so obsessed are they by the need to stereotype both those who agree with them over Brexit and those who don’t.

    We have the temerity to assert that the issue of Brexit or not should have been analysed from the outset in the terms advanced by Jeff Sparrow – that the question should have been all along as to whether the way we organise our affairs (and that necessarily includes EU membership) has been fully serving the interests of ordinary people.

    Instead, the debate has been dominated – and still is – by those who insist on a convenient polarisation.  According to them, ranged on one side are those who are said to have the good sense and purity of spirit to recognise the nobility of the European ideal – not to say the attractions of European culture, food, music – and for whom the day-to-day challenges for some of their fellow-citizens of making a living and bringing up a family are a mere distraction.

    On the other side are those who have been encouraged by right-wing demagogues to attribute the harsh realities of their lives to malign forces unleashed by our European involvement, so that the political choices we make domestically are exonerated.

    There is no room in this polarised debate for those who argue that the good times enjoyed by a minority over recent years – by virtue of a globalised economy (of which the EU is a subset) – have been bought at the cost of an increasingly difficult struggle for many others, and that the economic and social consequences for those others of EU membership cannot be absolved from responsibility for their plight.

    There is, in other words, a “progressive” analysis of EU membership which does not rely on the ignorance and prejudice exploited by the right, but which does not shrink, either, from an analysis of the EU that identifies some of its inherently anti-democratic, pro-capitalist and “free-market” characteristics.

    It is, of course, precisely those characteristics that have manifested themselves in the lives of so many pro-Brexit voters.  We cannot expect those voters to overlook the impact of those characteristics in favour of the “finer sensibilities” of those who have done well, when that impact includes the decimation of British manufacturing and a perennial trade deficit which together have led directly to the loss of jobs and a more general job insecurity, an inflow of cheap labour which has further threatened job security and wage levels, and a sense that democratic control over their lives has been lost or is at least ineffective.

    These impacts are not accidental, but eminently foreseeable – and therefore intended.  The EU is consciously an “intervention-free” zone, deliberately created to hand power to unelected bureaucrats so that market forces and powerful corporations are allowed free rein without intervention from elected governments.  There can be nothing less “progressive” than to overlook this in the name of the “European ideal” and then to castigate those who register and bewail what they have lost – democracy and self-government – as bigots and ignoramuses.

    If we are really to embark on a new progressive agenda, as we surely must, we must have the courage to identify what is and has been wrong and therefore must be changed. It is not an auspicious start to characterise the “progressive” stance as that held by those who have all along prioritised their own sense of intellectual and cultural superiority over any attempt to grapple with the real and practical issues – not least as a consequence of EU membership -confronting so many of our fellow-citizens.

    There are many who abhor all that Trump and his British equivalents stand for and who nevertheless understand that EU membership has served primarily the interests of the haves, not the have-nots.  If we really want to re-establish the “progressive” agenda, we could do with less castigating and more listening.

    Bryan Gould

    3 January 2017.



  • 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