• Corbyn and Brexit

    As the Brexit saga staggers on, the focus is naturally enough on the Prime Minister and his attempts to achieve Brexit “do or die”. But the role played by the Leader of the Opposition is of almost equal interest and complexity.

    The first problem for Jeremy Corbyn is that he seems unable, under the pressure of varying advice from different quarters, to decide on the stance he should take on Brexit. This is surprising, given that all the evidence suggests that he is a euro-sceptic from a long way back.

    My own impression of him in the days when we were both backbench Labour MPs was that he was, like most on the left of the party, suspicious of an arrangement that was manifestly dominated by bankers and bureaucrats and designed to serve the interests of big business and multinational corporations.

    And in more recent (and especially post-referendum) times, he can hardly have been unaware that it has been his own voters who were most grievously disadvantaged by the high food prices, and the threats to jobs, wage levels, housing, schools and health services, that came with EU membership.

    Even his much-touted internationalism surely does not preclude some recognition of the undoubted desire of ordinary citizens to live in a country in which they are masters of their own destiny.

    Be all this as it may, there is an even more impenetrable mystery at the heart of his current Brexit stance. How is it that he does not take the chance to press for resolving the Brexit impasse by going to the people? What Leader of the Opposition worth his salt would not leap at the chance of a general election, so as to submit the government’s record – on Brexit and everything else – to the judgment of the people?

    It beggars belief that Jeremy Corbyn would lead his troops into the division lobbies in order to negate the possibility of a general election that would offer a means not only of resolving the Brexit issue but also of replacing a government of which he has been so bitterly critical.

    The answer to these questions is surely, after a mere moment’s reflection, painfully clear. Jeremy Corbyn does not want an election at this juncture, because he fears that it would be primarily about Brexit, and that Labour, in the light of his own prevarications on the issue, would be soundly defeated.

    So much for the constant message from Remainers (including those who currently seem to have Corbyn’s ear) that Brexit must not come to pass before the people have a further opportunity to express an opinion.

    There is, however, an obvious escape route for Corbyn from this dilemma. He could re-affirm his earlier assurance that Labour will accept the referendum decision and deliver Brexit, thereby removing Brexit as the dividing line between the two major parties and as the potentially election-winning issue for Boris Johnson.

    Taking this step would not only make political sense. It would allow Corbyn to stay true to what I believe are his own instincts (and politicians are always more effective if they are seen to be sincere and not merely posturing) and to campaign successfully, with a clear mind and conscience, on holding a Tory government to account in respect of its whole record and not just Brexit.

    Bryan Gould
    10 September 2019

     

  • The Politics of Opposition

    For most of the time I was a British MP, my party was out of government – these were the Thatcher years, when it was hard for anyone else to get a look-in. As a front-bencher and shadow minister, I became familiar with the strategies required in a parliamentary democracy of being in opposition to a well-supported government.

    My colleagues and I settled quickly into the daily pattern of probing the day’s political developments for opportunities to embarrass the government, or at the very least to put it on the back foot. This meant a constant – and virtually daily – series of press conferences and media releases designed to keep the pressure on, with the twin objective of showing the government in a bad light and demonstrating that the opposition were on the ball and had policies that were superior to those of the government.

    The media rapidly came to expect and rely on this daily diet of political guerrilla warfare, and commentators sympathetic to our cause did their best to amplify and flesh out the points we tried to make; sometimes, our friends in the media did the job for us, by launching their own hit and run attacks on the government.

    But, after a while, we began to realise that were were getting nowhere with such tactics – and that the public seemed quickly to grow tired of our predictably critical responses to anything proposed by the government.

    The voters were inclined to let our efforts pass them by, dismissing them as just par for the course – “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” seemed to be the common response to our attacks. The harder we tried to land a blow on the government, the more they seemed to say that it was just more of the same.

    The bad news for today’s Opposition in New Zealand is that they seem to have reached a rather similar stalemate. Voters have become familiar with what they now see as the inevitable and expected riposte from an opposition spokesperson to any news item about a new government initiative.

    Even in instances where the government has proposed to remedy a long-standing default or deficiency, or to do something that is clearly long overdue in the general interest, an opposition spokesperson will pop up to say that it is “too little” or “too late” or “will cost too much” or “we would have done it better”.

    The lesson for politicians in opposition is that they must not be seen to be opposing just for the sake of it. They can all too easily be seen as bad-mouthing an idea or proposal, not because of its merits or otherwise but because of where it has come from.

    The lesson I and my colleagues learnt in Britain was that responding to the government in a more thoughtful and less partisan way was more likely to commend itself to the public – building the opposition’s image as responsible politicians and having the added advantage that, when effective critical points did need to be made, they were given more credence than they would have had if they were seen as just another stock standard and automatic response from an opposition determined to oppose, come what may.

    This conclusion may be a hard one to accept for Simon Bridges and his team, focused as they are on trying to get maximum exposure for a leader and a front-bench that has yet to make its number with the New Zealand public.

    But, it is in everyone’s interest that our parliamentary democracy, with all of its many strengths and virtues, should not be demeaned by a constant exhibition of the downsides of party politics at its worst. We all have an interest in good government – and that can sometimes mean that politicians should forbear from playing the party game if they – and we – can see that the government of the day is making a creditable effort to grapple with a long-standing problem or an important issue.

    Giving credit where it is due can be the best policy. Sometimes, less is more, and that is as true of opposition as it is of other good things.

    Bryan Gould
    9 September 2019

  • Democracy – I Don’t Think So

    So, those who “know best” have again done their worst. While constantly claiming to be the guardians of democracy and the constitution, and respecters of the 2016 referendum result, diehard Remainers (who have never brought themselves to believe that their advice could have been rejected) have striven might and main to prevent Brexit – whether with a deal or not – from happening.

    Not only have they used their votes in parliament to frustrate the will of the people – they have now gone further, and have removed from British negotiators with the EU the one bargaining chip available to them in their attempts to achieve a negotiated deal that would be acceptable. A no-deal Brexit has, as a consequence, become much more likely – even if later rather than sooner.

    By removing through legislative means the possibility of a no-deal exit, they have ensured that the EU will maintain its refusal to negotiate further. They have not only, in other words, deliberately sabotaged the outcome mandated by the referendum result; they have gone further and ensured that, even as we attempt to leave, the power of decision over the whole matter of Brexit remains with those whose control over us as EU members has already been found by the British people to be intolerable.

    Far from supporting British democracy, they have preferred to concede to an outside agency the power to decide how we should govern ourselves, irrespective of the declared preference of the British people. There can be no greater demonstration of their refusal to understand, let alone respect, the referendum result.

    They can have no complaint if the response of voters is to see the issue as one of parliament against the people – little wonder that they are not willing to have an election on the issue. There can be nothing that more thoroughly discredits the whole concept of a representative democracy than that the supposed “representatives” disclaim any responsibility to “represent” their constituents.

    The damage done by the last few weeks to our parliamentary democracy is incalculable. The whole concept of an arrogant “ruling class”, cloaking its pretensions to infallibility in a democratic pretence, has been greatly reinforced. We should not need reminding of what usually happens when the people lose faith in the good faith and readiness of those who govern them to serve their interests. Our rulers will have no one to blame but themselves if their short-sightedness and arrogance produce their inevitable outcomes.

    Bryan Gould
    5 September 2019

  • Where Money Comes From

    Most people would say, no doubt, that they have a pretty good idea of what money is. They live with the reality of money every day. It is what is needed to buy the necessities of life and to maintain a decent standard of living.

    You get money, they would say, by earning wages or selling something or getting a return on an investment or borrowing. There is no mystery about money; it just is – a constant part of the environment, like land or air or water.

    But they don’t usually stop to ask where money comes from or who decides how much money there should be in circulation or what society as a whole should do with it. Most would say, if pressed for an answer to those questions, that the government has a role of some sort – but that would only be part of the answer.

    The truth is a little more complicated, and surprising. The government does not make the decisions that matter on money. The institutions that have the biggest say on money matters are the banks.

    It is the commercial banks the are responsible for creating virtually all the money in circulation in our economy. And the amazing aspect of this is that they create the money literally out of nothing.

    They create money when they lend to their customers, usually on mortgage. What they lend is not actual money; it is merely a book entry by which they credit your account by the amount of the mortgage. They then charge you interest on the loan they have created.

    All very interesting, you might say, but does it matter? Well, yes.

    It matters because the amount of money in circulation has a big impact on our economy. For example, if too much money is created, we are likely to see a rise in inflation. And yet decisions on these issues are being taken in the commercial interests of privately owned banks, not in the public interest – and, in our case, the billions of profit made by those banks are then shipped back across the Tasman to their Australian owners and lost to New Zealand.

    The only intervention made in the public interest is by the Reserve Bank which attempts, with only limited success, to influence the amount of new money created by controlling its price through setting interest rates. They calculate that if borrowing is made more expensive, people will be less wiling to take out loans.

    But there is a further problem about the money created by the banks. Created and lent as it largely is on mortgage, it flows almost entirely into the housing market and thereby pushes up the price of housing – and it leaves a large proportion of the population in debt. At the same time, it fails to reach the places in the economy where it is most needed – to fund productive investment in the skills, technology, infrastructure and capacity essential to a modern economy.

    There is an increasing realisation that this is no way to build a strong economy. I have the honour to be the patron of a campaigning organisation called Positive Money, which is part of a worldwide network of bodies dedicated to reforming our monetary systems.

    Later this week, on Thursday, Positive Money will present a petition bearing over 5000 signatures to parliament. It calls on the Finance and Expenditure Select Committee to conduct an inquiry into our present monetary policy arrangements, and recommends that the Reserve Bank should have the sole right to issue money, so that the current system is replaced with something that serves our interests better.

    It is surely time that our politicians recognised their responsibilities and took back from the commercial banks the monopoly power they currently enjoy to create virtually all of our money. We might then get some much-needed investment in the things that really matter

    Bryan Gould
    4 September 2019

  • Sharing our Lives With Brodie

    My wife and I have had dogs for the whole of our 52 years of married life – and that has meant sharing our lives with our little furry friends. Because we usually spend a good part of our evenings watching television, it also means that our dogs have learned to become devotees of the screen as well – and our new puppy, our little West Highland White terrier, Brodie, is no exception.

    He seems to enjoy watching sport (which is fortunate for all concerned, since we watch a good deal of it), and rugby in particular, and he is a great fan of the All Blacks – he gets especially excited if his namesake scores a try!

    But what really spins his wheels is if he sees another animal, most of all another dog, on the screen. Despite the fact that we are convinced that he is unusually intelligent (what dog owners do not believe that about their pets?), he seems to think that what he has seen on the screen must be hiding behind the television set – or has somehow managed miraculously to escape on to the deck outside – and so what ensues is a good deal of barking and dashing around and jumping up on the screen in what is always a fruitless attempt to bring the interloper to account for itself.

    Brodie is very sociable and likes nothing better than to meet other dogs for real, so his reaction is not a hostile one, but rather, we think, an expression of excitement and pleasure – he is hoping to meet a playmate or to make a new acquaintance.

    His reaction is most marked when it is a dog that makes an appearance, but he reacts to any (apparently) living creature in a similar way – cats and horses are particular favourites, but even fish or insects or cartoon characters will do.

    It is only when one has spent some time watching television with someone like Brodie that one realises how often animals – and especially dogs – appear on the screen. Dramas, soaps and documentaries will often find a role for a dog. And advertisers have grasped that a dog can help to persuade viewers to engage with whatever it is they are trying to sell and it is amazing how many ads feature a dog – so even the commercial breaks can be the occasion for a Brodie explosion of excitement.

    We have got used to having our viewing (and listening) interrupted in this way and are reasonably tolerant of the fact that it is the critical moment of action or dialogue that is most often drowned out or obliterated by Brodie’s performance.

    But the whole experience leads me to reflect on the interaction we have with our pets, and on the value that it brings, especially to children, in teaching us that we share our lives with other living creatures. Small children are just like puppies – in both cases, their initial perception of the world is that they are at its centre and that it was made just for them. Whereas puppies grow up naturally to reach a different view, however, children need help to do so.

    The growing up process is essentially one in which the realisation gradually dawns on them that the world does not revolve around them, but is actually inhabited by a myriad of other people and creatures, all with similarly strong clams on its goodies. Good parents are the ones that aid this process, and having a pet in the family can help. Maturity is the state reached by those who grow up to understand the importance of the fact that we share the world with others and that our own interests do not and should not always take precedence.

    So, my wife and I accept that, in addition to all the pleasure that Brodie brings us, the love and affection, the companionship, the long walks together, he also teaches us about life – that it is worth putting up with having to clear away his mess, with having our socks and underwear chewed up, with having our television viewing disrupted. It is a price worth paying for sharing our lives with another – and delightful – little creature.

    Bryan Gould
    23 August 2019