• Be On Your Guard

    So now we know. We heard it from the man himself. Christopher Luxon told us that he is “incredibly confident” that National’s calculations about their tax proposals are accurate – and “incredible” is exactly what they are.

    There is another small indication that the proposition is shonky. Did you notice that the benefit to taxpayers was constantly expressed in terms of a fortnightly sum, rather than the more usual weekly amount? The effort was made, in other words, to present a figure to the unwary that was twice as large as the real one – and that’s assuming that either could be believed.

    Slippery, eh?

  • Stuck On A Hook

    What can be done to help Chris Hipkins off a hook of his own making?

    “There will be no wealth tax while I am Prime Minister,” he said, and there he is stuck – even though his own senior lieutenants, his party membership, popular sentiment, economic prudence, social justice, and political advantage all point in the opposite direction.

    He is stuck, it seems, because he fears the damage to his reputation, as someone who can be trusted, if he changes his mind. It may be, however, that demonstrating the courage required to change his mind might actually enhance his reputation. The country might well respond positively to a leader who showed that he was big enough to see the bigger picture, and to serve the wider interest and not just his own reputation.

    He might also consider the example of the great English economist, John Maynard Keynes, who was criticised by a correspondent for changing his mind on a point of economic policy.

    “When the facts change, I change my mind,” wrote Keynes, “What do you do, Sir?”

  • Which Europe?

    In today’s Guardian, Will Hutton – an old friend with whom I have, sadly, now lost touch – repeats a common (and possibly deliberate) error; he insists on locating Brexit as part of a far-right resurgence in Europe; and, in so doing, he conflates (as so many do) Europe and the European Union.

    Those who supported Britain’s initial joining of the European Union have always ignored and misrepresented the initial resistance to the proposition – a resistance that had its origins not so much in right-wing or left-wing politics, as in straightforward economic calculation.

    It never made economic sense for the UK to accept an arrangement that destroyed our access to efficiently produced Commonwealth food and compelled us to pay twice over – as both consumers and taxpayers – for expensive European food and for the Common Agricultural Policy (or, in other terms, the Inefficient-French-Farming Outdoor Relief Fund); and, at the same time, jeopardised our preferential treatment in Commonwealth markets for our manufactured goods, while simultaneously opening our own market to tariff-free German manufactures.

    The entirely predictable outcome was that we gave up our one competitive advantage – our access to cheap food – and allowed our manufacturing industry to be decimated by efficiently produced German manufactures, all of which was compounded by errors in economic policy – principally by holding the value of sterling at an overvalued rate.

    It was no accident that de Gaulle (supported by Adenauer) barred UK accession until he could be sure that the twin pillars of the Common Agricultural Policy and free trade in manufactures were safely in place. The romantics amongst us, however, ignored the hard-headed facts and were seduced by the notion that they were “building Europe”.

    They failed to recognise, not only the economics, but also the politics. In post-war Europe, a defeated Germany, and a France that resented the fact that it owed its liberation to the “Anglophones”, were jointly fearful that the the UK would claim a preponderant role in re-building the war-torn western Europe. The initial formation of “the Common Market” was a deliberate Franco-German attempt to “cut Britain down to size”.

    I had a ringside view of all these forces at work, by virtue of working in the Foreign Office on post-war western Europe and then serving in the UK embassy in Brussels. Those who now lament the downsides of Brexit seem to have no understanding of the real reasons for the British disenchantment with “Europe”.

    I am happy to acknowledge, however, as an olive branch to an old friend, that there is a Europe to which the UK undeniably belongs and whose future matters greatly to us. The sooner we can shake free of the detritus of past mistakes, the better.

  • “The Boss” Complex

    Margaret Thatcher once said – famously, or, perhaps, notoriously, that – “there is no such thing as society”.

    Would-be political leaders from the political right – and, perhaps, especially the male ones – often share a similar view and, in addition, tend to suffer a major disadvantage. In their personal lives, they have usually been accustomed to telling people what to do and to having them “jump to it”. They have accordingly developed a somewhat mechanistic view of what life is about and of how society works; for them, individual people are merely “operatives” which must be pre-programmed so that they do what is required of them.

    Such operatives, they believe, are not individual humans, with their own human goals, their own sentiments and emotions, hopes and fears and ambitions, nor do they see any need to co-exist with their fellow-citizens and take account of their interests. Like pieces of equipment or machinery, they will each react automatically and predictably to whatever stimulus or instruction is applied to them by “the boss”.

    For this kind of political leader, leadership is not about taking people with you, but is simply a matter of issuing commands and instructions. The possibility that one person’s rights and interests might have to be tempered or modified to take account of the fact that we share our lives with others in society simply does not occur to them.

    Indeed, the very concept that we are all social animals, and that we must necessarily work together, is seen as “woke” (or whatever other pejorative term might be coined); hard-headed “individualism” is lauded as the correct approach, and society (like nature) is assumed to be “red in tooth and claw” – a place where everyone pursues their own self-interest and looks out for “number one”.

    These reflections come to mind in light of the evidence repeatedly provided that National leader, Christopher Luxon, has difficulty in relating to the ordinary citizens of our country. He constantly reveals his belief that getting things right and solving problems is just a matter of pressing the right buttons and that, once the right button is pressed, that will be enough to set in motion the relevant mechanism or process so that it automatically and predictably produces the desired outcomes.

    The deficiency of this approach is that it assumes that every such outcome has effect only in respect of the one agent or agents for whom it is intended and is finite in effect. It takes no account of the reality that – in society – a change for one person or some people has knock-on consequences for many others and will go on reverberating throughout society in perhaps many unforeseen ways. We all, in other words, inevitably interact with and are affected by each other.

    We see Luxon’s attitudes on such matters exemplified in his supposed solution to the problem of crime in our society. For him, crime must be restrained by increasing the penalties imposed on the perpetrators. In his mechanistic view, higher penalties are the right button, whatever their other downsides, such as their financial or social cost, (which he doesn’t bother to define or calculate); they will unerringly produce the desired outcome by deterring those who might otherwise go on a criminal rampage.

    It simply does not occur to him that crime is, in part at least, a social phenomenon – that it is not simply a matter of individual wrong-doing but reflects a range of varied responses to society’s failure to meet the needs and interests of all our citizens. A political leader who is accustomed to seeing himself as “the boss” will focus on issuing what he sees as the correct instruction and pressing the right button; he will then sit back, confident that the job is done and that the mechanism – whatever it may be – will do what is required of it; all that is needed is to set it in motion.

    Those experts, especially our judges, who understand crime as a social phenomenon and as a manifestation of a social malaise, will know that he will have to wait a long time. In the meantime, his mis-applied “remedy” will produce a number of further social ills. We cannot afford a leader with such a mechanistic view of how our society works – we are people, not machines.

  • What It Means To be A Kiwi

    When, in 1962, as a 23 year-old Rhodes Scholar, I boarded the Northern Star to sail to Britain where I was to study for a post-graduate law degree at Balliol College, Oxford, I took with me an LP (yes, we had those funny bits of vinyl in those days). It was a recording of the St Joseph’s Maori Girls Choir, singing Maori love songs and starring their lead singer Wiki Baker.

    Over the next few years, as I completed my degree and stayed on in the UK for a decade or three, I was surprised to discover that nothing made me feel more homesick, or more like a New Zealander, than listening to those beautifully sung Maori melodies. The only comparable emotional charge came from watching the All Blacks do the haka.

    I had a similar rush of affection for my homeland in the midst of the media coverage of the terrible mosque attack in Christchurch. The television news was showing a gathering of London-based Kiwis who were seeking comfort from each other at that dark time; I wasn’t really watching but I suddenly heard the strains of E Papa Waiari and Whakaaria Mai being sung.

    I was suddenly transported to be there with them – my compatriots – and once again I realised that the music had powerfully stirred me and I was again struck by the fact that it was Maori music that had reinforced for me my sense of my own identity. I recall being similarly moved by the performance of E Papa Waiari by Fiji at the One Love Concert in Tauranga in 2018, when the crowd joined in and would not let the music end.

    These experiences lead me to reflect on my cultural heritage and on what makes me a New Zealander. I am of mixed Scottish, Welsh and English descent and proud of it. My forefathers came to New Zealand in the very earliest days of European settlement. But I realise that I am, today, not just a Brit who has been transplanted 12,000 miles away. I am proudly from the Pacific and I am the product of a unique cultural environment. I feel that I understand and share the concepts of both tangata and whenua.

    My heritage is a doubly rich one, drawing not only on my British antecedents but also on the cultural environment into which I was born and in which I grew up and still live. Although, as far as I know, I have no Maori blood, I feel that, perhaps through osmosis, I have a particular response to and awareness of Maori culture – that I am a man of my time and place. It is that unique cultural hinterland that makes us Kiwis different.

    I would like to think that other pakeha New Zealanders may feel similarly. We are all entitled to feel that we are building something unique here in Aotearoa/New Zealand; we are not talking about integrating two cultures (that would do justice to neither of them), but recognising the debt that is owed by each to the other. The acknowledgement of that debt can, in my experience, produce a sense of enrichment and an aid to identifying exactly who we are.

    At a moment in our history when we are compelled to ask ourselves who we are, and how we should respond to those of different cultures in our midst, we should not only reinforce our commitment to welcoming diversity and treating each other with respect, whatever our cultural, ethnic and religious identities, but we should also think a little more deeply as to the answer we should give when we are asked “Who are you?” and “what is the future for New Zealand?”

    My answer is that a New Zealand identity should express the truth of the Maori whakatauki or proverbs, that “with your basket and my basket, the people will prosper” and that “we are all in the same canoe”.