• 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

  • To Impeach Or Not?

    To impeach or not to impeach? I understand why some of those who are justifiably aghast at Trump’s behaviour over recent days might still counsel against impeaching him for a second time.

    To impeach him, they argue, would run the risk of making him a martyr in the eyes of his supporters and would divide the country still further. As to the latter argument, the country is surely already divided between those who would countenance and support the Trumpian version of fascism and those who are appalled by it. If such a division exists, why try to hide or bury it? It should be brought out into the open so that everyone can understand what is at stake.

    Nor should we overlook the powerful arguments in favour of impeachment. In the case of someone who has made a lifelong art form of avoiding the consequences of his actions, it is surely essential that he is made, in the case of his egregious betrayals of his office and of the people he is meant to serve, to face up to them now.

    The charge sheet could hardly, after all, be more serious. To take only the two most recent and appalling, there is first his attempted bullying and threatening of a senior public official to compel him to falsify an election count and to “find” thousands of votes for Trump that were never cast – it is hard to imagine a clearer instance of corruption and of damage to the electoral process.

    And secondly, there is his clear incitement of insurrection when he assembled his supporters and urged them, knowing that many had come armed for the purpose, to “march on the Capitol” and to “be strong” and “not weak”.

    It is surely incumbent on any self-respecting democracy to make clear its rejection of such criminal acts; to allow Trump to go uncensored and unpunished after such heinous behaviour would be to signal that American citizens cared little for their democracy. Impeachment would be seen as a formal and definitive condemnation by the people of Trump’s actions.

    There are other reasons, as well, for believing that impeachment would provide some chance of repairing the damage that has been caused. The process that impeachment requires would give Republican Senators, in particular, the chance to make their positions clear. Those who would rightly condemn him would be able to demonstrate that they had the courage to follow through on that conviction; this who were reluctant to break ranks would have to stand up and be counted.

    And for the Republican Party as a whole, it would provide the chance to break the stranglehold that Trump has had on them and allow for a return to a more normal two-party and democratic contest for popular support.

    But perhaps the clinching argument is that impeachment would mean that we had seen the last of Trump as a viable political actor. He would lose the various advantages and immunities normally enjoyed by a former President and he would be disqualified from again seeking public office.

    We could all then awake, as from a bad dream, and say goodbye to a disgraced President, quite literally, for “good”.

    Bryan Gould
    10 January 2021

  • Telling It Like It Is

    In a recent column I wrote for local newspapers, I ventured to suggest that Donald Trump – in addition to being a liar and a cheat, and sexist and racist – was a fascist in the making and would probably try, if he were to lose the election, to defy the democratic will of the people. The column was deemed to be too extreme by my editor who declined to publish it on the ground that it would offend some of his Trump-supporting readers who might write letters to him to complain. So much for a free and courageous press! Our failure to agree on the issue led to my no longer writing my column for his paper.

    Yet all the signs were there. Trump had, after all, prepared the ground by predicting – from weeks out – that the election would be rigged and by declining to undertake to respect the result if he lost. He has, since the election, done all he can to foment dissent and suspicion, and has constantly declared, without any evidence, that the result was dishonestly achieved. Such is his self-obsession that, for him, the only evidence required that a vote cast against him was illegitimate is that it was not cast for him. His fragile ego cannot bear, it seems, to see himself cast as a “loser”.

    In maintaining this fiction in the face of endless rebuffs in the courts, he has suborned not only the democratic process but also many of his Republican colleagues whose fear of being accused of disloyalty has led them to become parties to his conspiracy against the people. The willingness of his “base” to believe whatever he tells them has been encouraged by the support offered to his fantasies by those Republican leaders.

    We saw today the (quite literally) shocking outcome of this self-deception and cowardice on the part of American politicians and media. Who could believe what they were seeing as the bastion of American democracy was besieged and invaded by violent hordes of Trump supporters, intent on putting a stop to the democratic process by which Congress certifies the result of a presidential election. And – even more surprising – this violent invasion was carried out – not at the behest of some revolutionary would-be tyrant – but to serve the interests of, and egged on by, the President himself.

    How the USA’s opponents and critics must have laughed and sneered. How her friends and allies must have despaired. And how much we should regret the unwillingness of our own media to allow it to be told like it is; we might one day need those media to speak out in the face of challenges to our own democratic processes.

    Bryan Gould
    7 January 2021