• 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







  1. Draco T Bastard says: December 22, 2016 at 6:04 amReply

    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.

    No it doesn’t because those non-tariff don’t barriers and such don’t need to be maintained.

    Instead, each nation sets a set of standards that must be met by another country before that nation will trade with it. In doing this each nation maintains full sovereignty, full democracy and free trade.

    The FTAs that we have ATM are far closer to forced trade as multinational companies get to force themselves upon unwilling peoples.


  2. trevor fisher says: December 22, 2016 at 3:26 pmReply

    the missing element in this debate is in reality the abolition of democratic procedure and checks and balances, and even the nominal adherence to truth in what the Oxford Dictionary has called the word of the year – Post Truth.

    The Brexit vote can only be maintained by the methods used to secure it – a major attack on the democratic process and a use of illicit methods by the right wing press and other institutions of the right. The killing of Jo Cox MP by a right wing lunatic may have been the action of an isolated individual, but the atmosphere has become like the Weimar republic in the UK south of Scotland.

    If Bryan Gould is to play a constructive part in maintaining democratic practices and institutions, he will ensure that the rule of law is maintained, the right of the Supreme Court to check government is defended, and the right of the opponents of BRexit to keep the debate going and reverse the decision through a second referendum.

    If Gould wants to know more how politicians like Farage are attacking groups like Hope Not Hate who are maintaining a critical stance on the well documented rise of racist and homophobic attacks, he should contact myself, Hope Not Hate or the trust set up by Jo Cox’s family to discuss what is actually happening in a hate filled and hysterical politics now taking the British right into new territory.

    Trevor Fisher

    • Bryan Gould says: December 23, 2016 at 11:17 pmReply

      You have obviously been convinced by propaganda from the Remain side. There is a perfectly legitimate and rational left-wing case for leaving the EU (not Europe) but the supposed organs of “the Left” have been so focused on maintaining that all Leave voters are racist and ignorant and dishonest that most people have not heard it, and are deluded into believing that they are justified in lumping together the views of pro-Brexiteers with the delusions of Jo Cox’s killer – a disgraceful slur. Bryan Gould