• Jacinda For A British Readership

    I was recently asked by the Fabian Society in the UK to write a piece about our Prime Minister for their annual publication. Here is the piece that has now been published.

    Jacinda Ardern is the most popular leader New Zealand has ever had. She established her domestic popularity and her international reputation by virtue of the calmness, decisiveness and empathy she brought to bear in enabling New Zealand to withstand and confront the coronavirus epidemic with more success than any other country.

    This success – remarkable for a young woman with no previous experience of government – came on the back of her similarly sure-footed handling of the murderous attack by an Australian terrorist on Christchurch mosques, and her empathetic reaction to the loss of life when a volcano erupted in the Bay of Plenty.

    She proved herself in each of these scenarios to be a leader who could be trusted, not least because she was a brilliant communicator. Her televised daily press conferences and grilling by the media in the early stages of the coronavirus outbreak were master classes in how to build public trust and understanding.

    Her “team of five million” were prepared to follow her to the ends of the earth (which is where most of the rest of the world would place her anyway). As the plaudits began to roll in from around the world, New Zealand enjoyed the experience of becoming – for once – the cynosure of all eyes.

    The reward for her efforts came in the general election in late 2020. An electorate that might have been expected to punish a government that had imposed on them all the economic disruption and uncertainty of successive lockdowns reacted instead with gratitude and affection. Ardern’s Labour government became the first to secure, under New Zealand’s proportional representation system, an outright majority in parliament without any need to seek coalition partners.

    During the campaign, I lost count of those whom I knew to be lifelong supporters of the right-wing opposition National party, who said no more to me than “she’s done a good job” and who then felt it unnecessary to elaborate further on their intention to vote for her.

    Her crushing victory undoubtedly owed much to her ability to unite the country and to render party differences beside the point. But that could prove to be far from an unalloyed benefit.

    Some of her critics on the left – and there are some – fear that her success in attracting support from the centre-right could mean that she has become their prisoner. New Zealand’s short three-year parliamentary term means that there is precious little time to enact a truly transformative programme and to carry the country with it. The critics fear that, rather than risk losing the support she has gained from those who would not normally vote Labour, she might soft-pedal on the need for change.

    It is not that Jacinda – she is one of those politicians who is best identified and widely known by her first name alone – lacks ambition for what her government might achieve. She has been clear in setting her goals – combatting climate change, reducing child poverty, solving the housing crisis by building more houses. Her critics doubt, however, her ability to achieve these goals, given that she has boxed herself in through her pledge, given under pressure from the opposition during the campaign, not to introduce a capital gains tax.

    The critics say, not without reason, that there is no solution to growing inequality without taxing the rich. Her defenders might respond by pointing to the unexpectedly positive performance by the New Zealand economy as it bounces back from lockdown – an outcome much helped by the quantitative easing put in place by the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson. As a result, the prospects for increased government spending are surprisingly bright.

    Time will tell – but it would be a brave person who would bet against an extended term in government for a leader who reads and represents the New Zealand psyche so well. Jacinda Ardern has discovered and demonstrated that politics is not just about “the economy, stupid”, but is also about emotion, empathy and personality; the key word in Ardern’s politics is “kindness”. She has created a new version of left-wing politics which distinguishes itself from its right-wing opponents not only through sheer competence and what it thinks, but through what it feels as well – its sympathy with, and regard and respect for, all of our fellow-citizens.

    Bryan Gould
    25 February 2021

  • Jacinda’s Decision

    I recall being amused, as a newly elected MP, at a story, possibly apocryphal, of another newcomer to Parliament who had been very excited at being invited for the first time to appear on a national news programme. He was told, so the story goes, that “the fee is fifty pounds”, and his response was instantaneous. “My cheque is in the post,” he is supposed to have said.

    I was reminded of this story by the furore following the Prime Minster’s decision to give Mike Hosking the push. The petulant reaction of Hosking himself was only to be expected – the sound of ego being deflated is always unpleasant.

    What was less expected was the plethora of comments to the effect that Jacinda’s decision was somehow undemocratic – as though she somehow had a duty, as an elected politician, to appear on a particular – or any – news programme simply because she was invited to do so. Those commentators seem to have overlooked the fact that she was doing no more than responding to an invitation to appear on the Hosking programme and, as with any invitation, she had the option of accepting or declining.

    The Hosking broadcast is after all a commercial undertaking and the Prime Minister is a major potential selling point. She has no obligation to add to the profits of Hosking’s employers.

    If she had announced a decision to do no more media interviews at all, the reaction of her critics might have had some basis. But no one can accuse the PM of avoiding public scrutiny; there is probably no politician worldwide who has been as available to the public as Jacinda Ardern has been.

    So, the supposed “issue” comes down to this. Is she obliged to appear on a programme simply because the interviewer asks her to do so? Is she not entitled to exercise her own judgment as to whether it would be worth her time and effort?

    In the case of the Hosking programme, it is not hard to see why the minuses might have outweighed the pluses. She might have concluded that the real point and purpose of the interview was not to enlighten its listeners but to cast her in the most unfavourable light possible. Mike Hosking has after all built a career on parading his own opinions and prejudices week in, week out, and he has not bothered to hide them, least of all since Jacinda’s decision to opt out; it is not surprising that the PM might conclude that he could pursue his own purposes for the time being without her help.

    So, it comes to this. The Prime Minister has decided that she need not put up with, and can do without, Mike Hosking. He, on the other hand, does not seem so confident that he can do without her.

    Bryan Gould
    9 March 2021

  • Party Games

    As I rose for the first time to speak from the Despatch Box in the House of Commons, I had the comfort of seeing that the Despatch Box had on it the inscription “A Gift from the People of New Zealand”. But I was also a little daunted, like so many before me, at the prospect of speaking to the serried ranks of hostile faces and the equally hostile noises confronting me – so close that I could almost touch them.

    I recalled the famous advice tendered by Harold Macmillan to a young front-bencher on a similar occasion, when he had confessed to a certain apprehension at facing, for the first time, his “enemies” at such close quarters and in such numbers. “Don’t worry,” Macmillan had said, “those are your opponents. Your enemies are behind you.”

    The story makes the point that politics is, in some senses, the best of all competitions. It is partly a team game, party against party – but it is at the same time an individual game; within each team, there are dozens of ambitious individuals, each vying against the others for advantage and preference.

    Now that I am only a spectator, I still find interest in detecting how these individual games are being played. They tend to be played wth the greatest energy when the party concerned is in opposition; this is because a party in government will constantly offer, on an almost day-by-day basis, as it launches new initiatives, opportunities for individual members of the party opposite to make an attack.

    Even the newest arrival can score brownie points by discomforting a minister opposite, with a well-timed and accurate sortie – and doing so is a fail-safe way of attracting attention and support from one’s colleagues. That support is hugely necessary and valuable when it comes to internal party ballots on issues like leadership contests and the pecking order for ministerial positions.

    That is why the careful student of politics will have noticed that any new government initiative will always be met by a comment – usually hostile – from an opposition spokesperson. The comment may or may not be to the point, but it is not what is said that counts. The purpose is often simply to get one’s name into the public eye and ear, and to register with one’s colleagues (and the party leader) that it has been made – that way lies promotion.

    The next time, dear reader, that you hear such a comment being made, you should reflect on the possibility that it may have little to do with the subject, or with the fortunes of the political party of which the commenter is a member, and much more to do with the internal games being played against each other by the individual members of that party.

    It is also possible to discern patterns – the same names will often crop up repeatedly, and that is particularly true when the party leadership may not be entirely secure or settled. There is nothing like the prospect of a leadership contest to stimulate a frenzy of activity from hopeful potential candidates.

    You will gather from all this that a certain cynicism is useful and appropriate when assessing the course of a public debate on a particular issue. Not all is always what it seems – politics in a parliamentary democracy is a game played by a range of participants for a variety of different reasons – and often their own.

    Bryan Gould
    21 February 2021

  • The EU Was Always Anti-British

    When the Second World War came to an end, the British heaved a sigh of relief and satisfaction and looked forward to receiving the gratitude of a Europe that had been rescued from Nazi tyranny.  But gratitude proved to be, perhaps not entirely surprisingly, in short supply.

    The Germans and Italians had, after all, suffered a humiliating defeat – and Gaullist France felt humiliated for a different reason; they resented the fact that they had had to depend on the British  to recover their freedom.  And these former enemies could find common cause in cutting the British down to size.  These anti-British sentiments proved to be significant to the future development of Europe and strongly influenced the form taken by that development.

    It seemed to escape British notice that the early stages of European integration were deliberately undertaken by the French and Germans bilaterally, and in such a way as to exclude the British, and that they adopted policies that were deliberately and directly inimical to British interests.  The Common Agricultural Policy, if foisted on the British, would inevitably disrupt and eventually destroy traditional British trading patterns, particularly those with the Commonwealth, and free trade in manufactures would suit a renascent German industry, benefiting as it was from the Marshall Plan.

    These attitudes continued to be manifested throughout the period of the Gaullist veto on British membership and – once membership was eventually achieved – stymied unsuccessful British attempts to achieve a European regime more suited to take account of British interests; and continued through to the obstacles placed in the way of the decision to terminate British membership and of the attempts to agree a sensible post-Brexit trading relationship.  The fundamental European attitude to such issues was essentially one of resentment at any suggestion of British exceptionalism and a conviction that European and British interests could never be expected to converge.

    The British never adapted themselves to the fact that the basic stance – even raison d’être – of the EU was anti-British.  The EU’s current stance on the availability of coronavirus vaccines and their attempt to weaponise that issue by linking it to the Brexit deal on the border between the EU and Northern Ireland is just another instance of inherent EU attitudes – that “Europe” must always come first, and that British interests will always diverge and must always therefore be disregarded and rejected with hostility.

    What this means is that the European future will remain gravely disadvantaged by anti-British sentiment which will continue to prejudice the chances of a sensible and productive relationship between the two neighbours.  After more than half a century, it is time for the British to understand that the “Europe” that some in the UK still seem to hanker for never existed.  If a new Europe is to take shape, it will have to give proper weight to everyone’s interests.

    Bryan Gould
    1 February 2021

  • Biden’s Choice

    Joe Biden seems to be everything that Donald Trump was not – decent, straightforward, considerate of others, mindful of his responsibilities – but none of that means that he has an easy path ahead of him. The pandemic still rages, American standing in the world is grievously low, and the economy is flat on its back, to mention only the most immediate problems – and that is to say nothing of the fractured country bequeathed to him by his predecessor.

    Trump did not create, but he certainly gave succour to, and drew support from, a section of American society that is usually hidden from view and that we have seen, in the past, only in glimpses. We saw them, in horrifying close-up, in the shameful assault on the seat of democracy a couple of weeks ago. We saw the far-right militia groups, the neo-fascists, the white supremacists, the conspiracy theorists in all their ugliness and preparedness to use violence; and the bad news for the new President and for America is that, whatever the outcome of the election, they are still there.

    Joe Biden rightly calls for unity and for people to come together; his problem, though, is that it is hard to see what accommodation a functioning democracy can reach with these outliers. These people have been a part of American society for decades and more; they are the price America is now paying, and evidently must continue to pay, for slavery – an institution on which so much of America’s early development and present-day achievement has been based.

    These are the people who continue to see their lifestyles and prosperity depending on their ability to disregard and disrespect – and to claim superiority as a birthright over – the descendants of those innocents who were long ago seized and uprooted from their homelands and transported to a “new life” of slavery in a foreign land. The ending of slavery and the defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War has not meant, for those who yearn for the old ways, an acceptance of a future of unity and equality but, rather, a dogged re-assertion of their own superiority and of the practice of repression.

    What is the new administration to do? To press on with reform and with creating a free and equal society is to risk driving the outliers further into their lagers and ghettoes, convincing them that their only way out is either violence or electing another Trump.

    But Biden has no option. He cannot allow his presidency to be derailed by compromising with his opponents and critics in a futile attempt to bring them back into the democratic fold. His choice is a stark one – he must choose either to build a new America, in which a new set of democratic values is accepted as the norm, or to subside into an old one. He must not allow himself to be held to ransom by those who would deny the very principles on which his election victory was based. It is the non-democrats who must move. Americans need to decide who they are.

    Bryan Gould
    22 January 2021