• Holding Their Noses

    Politicians, as we know, are not the most popular people in our society and most people, by extension, would no doubt rate political parties as of little value to us. But they would be wrong – political parties are vitally important aspects of our parliamentary democracy.

    Without political parties, a parliament would comprise no more than a collection of disorganised individuals, lacking any ability to work together in an agreed and organised fashion. Without political parties, we would have no idea of who might form a government or of how to recognise an alternative, that is, a government in waiting.

    Political parties enable people of like mind to come together and to identify the elements of a programme to put before the voting public. Political parties have, beyond anything that individuals alone could muster, the organisation and resources to engage expert help, to understand the latest research, to engage with special interest groups, to take a wider view and to devise new solutions to old problems.

    It is no exaggeration to say that parliamentary government as we know it could not operate without political parties – a truth that is an important part of the case for the public funding of political parties.

    But this is not to say that a political system that depends on political parties is free of fault or defect. The basis on which individuals join a political party and on which some of them seek to enter parliament as representatives of that party is that they are prepared – in most cases, at any rate – to subordinate their individual interests and views to those of the party. They will be content to do so because they are satisfied that they have a better chance of getting their views accepted and passed into law by operating as part of their party rather than as a single individual – and they will calculate that, since they can enthusiastically support the bulk of their party’s programme, it is on balance worth doing, even if it means forgoing their own position on a particular issue.

    There will be very few parliamentarians, however, who have never struggled with the conflict between what they think as an individual and what is the decided policy of their party. Most MPs, and this is certainly true in my own case, will have, at some point or another, found it necessary to “defy the whip” on an issue on which their view differs from that of their party and is one on which they feel strongly or that involves what is, for them, a matter of principle.

    The party whips will, in most such cases, be forgiving of such lapses in party discipline and, in truth, the cohesion and continued functioning of the party system would be at risk if discipline were imposed too severely.

    Indeed, it could be argued that the system as a whole depends on the occasional willingness of individual MPs to break ranks and stay true to what they believe, irrespective of what their party demands of them.

    We can see such a situation unfolding before our eyes as the impeachment of Donald Trump proceeds. The American system is not a parliamentary one, but in the case of an impeachment trial, senators – like MPs – have to choose whether to cast their votes in accordance with the requirements of their party or whether to follow their own individual consciences.

    The signs are that the President will be able to avoid removal from office because his fellow members and supporters of the Republican Party will hold their noses, grit their teeth and close their eyes, and serve the interests (as they see them) of their party rather than of the country as a whole.

    The evidence for the President’s unfitness for office surely becomes more overwhelming by the day. Those of us who are citizens of the world and who are privileged to live in a democratic country are, one would hope, entitled to expect that Republican senators will recognise not only their responsibilities to their own country but also to world peace, and will place them ahead of any duty they owe to their political party. Sadly, it seems likely that they will get their priorities wrong.

    Bryan Gould
    27 January 2020

  • Politics Not Economics

    As Keynes’ biographer, Professor Robert Skidelsky, says in the British Sunday papers, “it is not surprising that the old Keynesian tool kit is being ransacked” in response to the global economic crisis. After decades of being assured that “there is no alternative”, and that Keynesian economics is a dead duck, we now find that Keynesian remedies are all the rage. Without government intervention to bail out failed banks, measures of counter-cyclical demand management, and the resurgence of fiscal policy, the world would be facing an even grimmer future than it currently is.

    But we need not wait long for the failed nostrums of recent orthodoxy to re-surface. Already, the George Bush’s of this world are trying to re-write history. The crisis, they say, was not caused by the failure to regulate the “free” market. There is nothing wrong, they maintain, with the basic model of unregulated capitalism. All that is needed, once the current crisis is overcome, is a little tweaking here and there before business as usual is resumed.

    These apologists for our current travails make it clear that the measures that their failures have made necessary are absolute anathema to them. According to them, the best thing that can now happen is that decisions on major economic issues should be returned as soon as possible to those who are accustomed to taking them – that is, to those who made these catastrophic mistakes in the first place.

    What all this shows is that the response demanded by the crisis is as much a political one as it is economic. The economics are pretty straightforward, as Keynes himself would have argued. In his view, economics was not an arcane science but largely a matter of common sense. It does not require a genius to understand that short-term markets are inherently unstable and, without proper regulation, will topple over into disaster. Nor do we need to look far for the obvious (even if – to some – unpalatable) remedies for the financial meltdown and the imminent global recession.

    What we do need to understand is that what creates a crisis of the kind that now engulfs us is not economics but politics. The triumph of the global “free” market which has dominated the world over the last three decades has been a political triumph. It has reflected the dominance of those who believe that governments (for which read the views and interests of ordinary people) should be kept away from the levers of power, and that the tiny minority who control and benefit most from the economic process are the only people competent to direct it.

    This band of greedy oligarchs have used their economic power to persuade themselves and most others that we will all be better off if they are in no way restrained – and if they cannot persuade, they have used that same economic power to override any opposition. The so-called “economic” arguments in favour of “free” markets are no more than a fig leaf for this self-serving doctrine of self-aggrandisement.

    It is that political stance that must now be challenged if we are to learn the real lessons of the current crisis and defend ourselves against a repetition of the disaster that has now overtaken us. What we must understand is that what has happened is not the consequence of some technical failure in economic management. It has happened because we allowed democratic forms of government to be sidelined and subverted by the economic power of a minority.

    The uncomfortable truth is that democracy and “free” markets are incompatible. The whole point of democratic government is that it uses the legitimacy of the democratic mandate to diffuse power throughout society rather than allow it to accumulate – as any player of Monopoly understands – in just a few hands. It deliberately uses the political power of the majority to offset what would otherwise be the overwhelming economic power of the dominant market players.

    If governments accept, as they have done, that the “free” market cannot be challenged, they abandon in effect their whole raison d’etre. Democracy is then merely a sham. The dice must then be allowed to lie where they fall, and no amount of cosmetic tinkering at the margins will conceal the fact that power has passed to that handful of people who control the global economy.

    The challenges facing the world are now so great – the threat to our environment, the huge imbalances between rich and poor, the energy crisis – that they dwarf even the economic power of the high priests of the global economy. If the current crisis is to be overcome successfully, it must set us on a new course, not just to restore prosperity for the already well-off, but to confront these global challenges before it is too late – and that is a task not just for the economists but for the politicians – and all of us – as well.

    Bryan Gould

    24 November 2008

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 26 November.