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  1. Politics
8 May 2019

Meeting Bryan Gould, the leader Labour lost

Gould’s Euroscepticism now seems prophetic, but it blighted his promising career. 

By Matthew Engel

It could hardly be more remote from the hubbub of Westminster: almost five hours from Auckland and, my goodness, you need the directions.

It could hardly be more beautiful either. On a clifftop; sea and sky blue, sun golden; the breeze gently ruffling the pohutukawa trees. Just another summer’s day in what Captain Cook called the Bay of Plenty. And, insists the man of the house, the winters are better than the summers.

Bryan and Gill Gould, the folks who live on the cliff, sit on their veranda, doing the Guardian crossword, competitively at first and then collaboratively. Bryan is in the Kiwi pensioner leisure uniform of T-shirt, knee-length shorts and sandals; the pair of them could be modelling for a pension fund advert. 

He was 80 the week we met (reaching the milestone on 11 February), but you would never guess it. He blogs, writes columns for the New Zealand papers, enjoys wine with friends, gardens, and dotes on the grandchildren: three Poms, three Kiwis (when they all get together, they play mock rugby internationals). The only cloud in the sky was that Lachie, their beloved Westie, had terminal cancer.

The house itself is unpretentious but comfortable. The welcome is simple but warm: gazpacho, cheese, Gill’s home-made bread. They grow their own tea and coffee too, though not enough for self-sufficiency. Then Bryan points northward, out to sea, and says that the next landmass is Siberia. It’s true: you could head straight up the Pacific and hit Kamchatka. Well, that might be a harsh exile. But if a clifftop house in the Bay of Plenty constitutes exile, bring it on.

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The locals do have a vague idea who Gould is, or was. “He was almost prime minister of Britain, you know” he recently heard overheard someone saying at a party. This is technically true. In 1992 he was runner-up in a Labour leadership contest in the last parliament before they regained power. On the other hand, he was not a close second – he was absolutely mashed by John Smith.

And less than two years later, shortly before Smith himself died, Gould was gone from Britain, accepting a job as vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato, in Hamilton. When the first call came, he said no. “You did what?” said Gill, who had been running his office and had had quite enough. Sounded good to her. The university tried again; this time she answered the phone, and got them to send the details.

And so Gould came back to New Zealand, his birthplace. It was the right time: the university job was invigorating and challenging for a man who, as happened to many in his Labour generation, never had a crack at government. The Blair era lay ahead and his path might not have been upward. He was and still is that rare beast: an intellectual, left but not far left, wholehearted Eurosceptic.

In some ways, he is an old-fashioned figure, a son of empire. He went to university in Auckland then got a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford in 1962 and top marks in the Foreign Office exam two years later. He could have joined the New Zealand foreign ministry but took the main chance instead. It was the early 1960s and nationality in the old dominions was vague. “I always thought of myself as the inheritor of a British tradition,” Gould explained. “Kiwi Britannicus sum.”

He worked in London on plans to overcome de Gaulle’s veto on Britain’s entry to the European Community. Then he was posted to the Brussels Embassy, where Gill was a colleague until they got married – when she had to resign because that was the Foreign Office rule. She could have made a fine ambassador.

Meanwhile, Bryan’s views were taking shape. “It was clear to me that the Gaullist veto was to stop us interfering with the Franco-German deal. France would get agricultural policy and the status of joint leaders. Germany would get free trade for manufacturers and the status of joint leaders,” he said. “All of which required Britain to change its trading patterns and accept direct competition in our own markets, and I concluded that was not in Britain’s interests.”

For six years he taught law at Oxford, where he had a reputation for being able to explain the most complicated concepts. In October 1974 he entered the Commons, winning that perennial marginal seat, Southampton Test. Eloquent and telegenic, he impressed the hierarchy – until they discovered his views on Europe.

He got word very quickly that Roy Hattersley wanted him as his parliamentary private secretary (PPS) and Gould enhanced his profile by making a bold early anti-Common Market speech. “You must be making an impression if one of your own frontbenchers is interjecting,” said one admiring colleague. Unfortunately, the frontbencher was Hattersley.

Later, Alex Lyon, the number two at the Home Office, tapped Gould up to be his PPS. Lyon’s Europhile boss Roy Jenkins said no. Finally, Gould linked up with mainstream Labour’s licensed Euro-dissenter, Peter Shore, then the environment secretary, who was in many ways Gould’s mentor and role model: “Peter believed that patriotism should never be the sole property of the right.” But he managed to get sacked even from that cosy niche after joining a mini-rebellion in the Commons; he says the whips somehow overlooked the offence – but a journalist shopped him to the PM, Jim Callaghan.

In 1979 he understandably lost his seat, did four years as a reporter/presenter on the ITV current affairs programme TV Eye, and then came back for the safe seat of Dagenham. He quickly became a versatile and competent member of the shadow cabinet, and his reputation soared when handed a starring role in Neil Kinnock’s foredoomed but heroic 1987 campaign against Margaret Thatcher.

But still he alienated himself from the mainstream on Europe. “I always thought that what did happen would happen,” he said. “Manufacturing would be decimated. We lost our access to preferred markets. No other country in the world would ignore the Commonwealth, which has some of the world’s fastest-growing economies, in favour of Europe, which was only going to drive us backwards.”

There was, however, more to it than that. When Kinnock resigned after his ultimately doomed and less than heroic 1992 campaign, Gould tried simultaneously to become leader and deputy in the ensuing contests. Smith was bound to win and the resulting confusion killed the reasonable aspiration of becoming deputy leader.

He accepts he was wrong to try for both. “And I admit to an element of arrogance. I just believed if I could make the case, I could attract enough supporters, that the freshness of my opinions and the power of my arguments would prevail. I don’t think I made quite enough of the political differences between me and John.”

“I got on extremely well with him but I always regarded John as a machine politician. He was a product of the Scottish Labour Party, which was determined to push its own man. Neil had a similar benefit from the Welsh Labour Party. There wasn’t a huge advantage from the New Zealand Labour Party.”

In autumn 1992 he resigned from the shadow cabinet, less than a fortnight after Britain’s Black Wednesday exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism might have offered some vindication of his continuing support for a low pound. He feared that Smith would creep towards a common currency and he attacked the newly signed Maastricht Treaty as enshrining “a permanent victory by bankers over democrats”. And soon after that, still only 54, he chose the green, green grass of home over wilderness at Westminster. Austin Mitchell said that his views on Europe had turned him within Labour into a man “heckling a steamroller”.

From afar, now he has belatedly won (subject to contract), he looks askance at his new allies: “If Jacob Rees-Mogg is really that effete, he is automatically disqualified from office.” And he cannot quite swat away the suggestion that it is all too late for Brexit to help what he perceives as Britain’s economic problems. But he persists. “The EU is not Europe. Britain’s future lies in Europe as it always has done. But it behoves everyone on both sides of the Channel to make the relationship more fruitful.”

Gould would not have enjoyed the Blair years: “I always thought his real ambition was to be a pop star – he admired the rich and famous and aspired to join them. He had a great opportunity in the form of an unassailable parliamentary majority and then turned his back on it by embracing the vestiges of Thatcherism.”

One political obituary (in the Guardian) called Gould “Labour’s first moderniser”. There was also a reference to his “unreliable but always thought-provoking talents”. That might now seem even more apt: from afar, he admires Jeremy Corbyn, a shadowy figure in Gould’s day who, he says, has since revealed “real leadership qualities and a Bernie Sanders-type courage and charisma”.

He does have regrets. He wanted the chance to lead, to shape events. “I set myself a goal and I failed.”

“Only in a political sense,” cut in Gill.

“Well,” I said, as the cicadas whirred to make themselves heard above the birdsong, “I don’t imagine many people come away from here saying ‘poor Bryan’.”

He nodded reluctant assent: “I’ve had a very happy life.”