Friday 19 July 2024

Trump’s Adopted Son.

Waiting In The Wings: For truly, if Trump is America’s un-assassinated Caesar, then J.D. Vance is America’s Octavian, the Republic’s youthful undertaker – and its first Emperor.

DONALD TRUMP’S SELECTION of James D. Vance as his running-mate bodes ill for the American republic. A fervent supporter of Viktor Orban, the “illiberal” prime minister of Hungary, Vance’s respect for the United States Constitution should be considered pro-forma – at best.

A vocal critic of Trump when the reality TV-show maestro’s wholesale derangement of the American party system first became apparent in 2016, Vance has since reconciled himself, to the point of sycophancy, with Trump’s more-or-less complete takeover of the Republican Party.

Trump, himself, gleefully acknowledged his former critic’s transformation by informing his followers that “J.D. is kissing my ass he wants my support so bad”. Vance’s osculatory efforts proved sufficiently energetic, however, to secure him Trump’s endorsement in the race to become the Republican Party’s candidate for Ohio’s second Senate seat in 2022. At the age of just 38, he had joined the highest ranks of the American political system.

Which, given Vance’s humble origins, was extraordinary. He’d been raised in Appalachia, that mountainous region of the United States whose exploited and poverty-stricken inhabitants are still called “hillbillies”. The victim of violent and dysfunctional parenting, Vance (then called Bowman) was mostly raised by his hillbilly grandparents.

As is so often the case with individuals reared in such dangerous environments, Vance developed an acute sensitivity to who possessed the power to hurt him, and who might be persuaded to do him good. It was the rawest sort of political education, but it has undoubtedly served him well.

Highly intelligent and good with words, Vance finally extricated himself from the poverty, drug addiction and suicidal despair of rural Ohio by joining the United States Marine Corps. Impressed by his writing talents, his superiors sent him to Iraq as a military journalist, and then helped him earn a Batchelor’s degree in Political Science. After that it was Yale Law and a job with the libertarian tech-lord Peter Thiel.

Impressive enough, as CVs go, but what lifted Vance far above the merely self-improving was his best-selling memoir “Hillbilly Elegy”. Vance’s timing could not have been better. His book appeared at precisely the moment America’s elites were attempting to make sense of Donald Trump’s defeat of Hilary Clinton.

“Hillbilly Elegy” turned Vance into the “deplorable whisperer”. Someone who was able to translate the angst and the anger of White working-class America in ways that enlightened – but did not threaten – ruling-class America. In the process, Vance successfully persuaded a great many extremely powerful people to do him an extraordinary amount of good.

Vance had once referred to Trump as “America’s Hitler”. But, as the now Republican Vice-Presidential nominee has spent the last eighteen months demonstrating, that disturbing characterisation should be interpreted as a description – not a condemnation.

If, as now seems certain, Trump wins the presidency in November, then Vance will find himself just a heartbeat away from becoming something even more alarming than America’s Hitler. Because, as the rest of the world needs to get its head around, urgently, the Republican candidate for Vice-President stands much further to the right than his master. Yes, Vance, like Trump, is an economic nationalist and a right-wing populist, but he also draws his inspiration from the aforesaid Orban, as well as, crucially, from the planet’s most powerful authoritarian president, Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s unwavering purpose is to protect Mother Russia from what he sees as the degenerate culture of the West. Vance and his ilk are equally determined to purge American society of the rampant degeneracy to which, in their minds, it has already succumbed.

Ronald Reagan described the USA as “a shining city upon a hill”. For the American far-right, however, the only shining city capable of inspiring today’s corrupted world is Moscow. If Trump becomes President, and Vance’s diplomatic advice is heeded, then the Ukrainian nation is doomed.

Students of Imperial Rome should have little difficulty in recognising the forces at play in this ruthless political drama. The ambitious aristocrat who executes an end-run around his political rivals by playing upon the fears and resentments of the impoverished masses. The demagogue’s enemies who bend every sinew to securing his downfall. The hero’s precautionary adoption of a brilliant but cynical young politician as his successor.

For truly, if Trump is America’s un-assassinated Caesar, then J.D. Vance is America’s Octavian, the Republic’s youthful undertaker – and its first Emperor.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 July 2024.

Thursday 18 July 2024

Gut Reactions.

Trump Writes His Own Story: Would the “mainstream” media even try to reflect the horrified reaction of the MAGA crowd to the pop-pop-pop of the would-be assassin’s rifle, and Trump going down? Could it even grasp the sheer elation of the rally-goers seeing their champion rise up and punch the air, still alive, and still telling them to fight-fight-fight!

AS ANGRY TRUMP SUPPORTERS filed out of the Butler showgrounds, many paused to hurl abuse at the media pack. As they vented their anger upon the assembled “mainstream” journalists, I couldn’t help recalling the behaviour of an even angrier crowd as it filed out of Hamilton’s Rugby Park on Saturday, 25 July 1981.

Tens-of-thousands of Waikato Rugby fans had turned out to watch their team take on the Springboks. When the actions of anti-tour protesters caused the game to be called off they were furious. The abuse they hurled at the broadcasting box, along with unopened cans of beer, reflected their instinctive grasp of the media’s power to shape political perceptions. The Rugby fans knew in their gut that what had just happened would be reported to the advantage of the anti-tour activists, and to the disparagement of New Zealanders like themselves – hence their fury.

When he learned, through friends and media reports, of the violence that had swept through Hamilton following the cancellation of the Waikato-Springboks match, the eminent, Austrian-born, left-wing economist, Wolfgang Rosenberg, who lectured at the University of Canterbury, observed that it reminded him of Kristallnacht (generally translated as “night of broken glass”) when, on 9-10 November 1938, Hitler’s Nazi regime attacked Germany’s Jews, burned their synagogues, and smashed the windows of their businesses.

News of Rosenberg’s dramatic comparison swept through the ranks of the anti-tour movement, further lifting its morale, and conferring a powerful historical dignity upon what had been a frightening and painful (albeit non-fatal) political experience. Rosenberg’s comparison did something else. Wittingly or unwittingly, this refugee from 1930s Austria had compared pro-tour New Zealanders to the Nazis who perpetrated Kristallnacht. A struggle against the importation of South African racism had been upgraded to a struggle against fascism.

Liberal journalists found it almost impossible to resist this significant redefinition of the moral issues at stake in the already deeply divisive Springbok Tour. The principal inspirers of the anti-tour movement were no longer the stubborn Ces Blazey, Chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, and his chief political enabler, Prime Minister Rob Muldoon. Now they were fighting the good fight against the fearsome shadow of Hitlerism itself. Those who supported the Tour ceased to be simply misguided, and became, instead, the representatives of a much darker system of belief.

In taking on this Manichean aspect, the most significant factor in the Police decision to call off the Waikato-Springbok game faded rapidly from public consciousness. Commissioner of Police, Bob Walton, had been made aware that a stolen light-aircraft, piloted by an anti-tour activist, was en route to Rugby Park, and that if the game was not called off, the plane would be flown into the main stand – killing and injuring hundreds of human-beings.

This was a terrorist threat, pure and simple, and Walton could not be sure that the pilot was bluffing. The likelihood that the man at the aircraft’s controls would actually carry out his threat may have been low, but it wasn’t zero. And if the Police Commissioner made the wrong call he would be guilty of failing to prevent an unprecedented national calamity. Not surprisingly, Walton ordered the game’s cancellation and the evacuation of the stadium.

It is worth pausing and reflecting upon this extraordinary incident. In the years after 1981, the pilot of the aircraft became something of a folk hero. He had presented the Police with a bluff which they could not possibly call. The game was abandoned, the plane landed safely, and nobody in the stands was hurt – win/win. But, paying the blackmailer does not render extortion any the less reprehensible. Walton capitulated because there were hundreds of helpless men, women, and children being threatened with death, and he was not morally entitled to gamble with their lives.

Since 1981, the anti-tour movement has sought refuge in the age-old argument that the end justifies the means. But when the means encompasses turning human lives into bargaining chips there can be no justification. It doesn’t matter that the pilot, an RNZAF veteran, would never have carried out his threat. Walton didn’t know that, and the man flying the plane wasn’t about to tell him. He needed the Police Commissioner to be terrified of what he might do, and he used that terror to secure his political objective. That is the definition of terrorism.

The crowd filing out of Rugby Park did not know about the stolen plane, but they knew that what was happening was being transmitted all around the world. The rest of the planet would not see terrorism in the game’s cancellation – only the heroism of the protesters and the murderous rage of the crowd in the stands. Nelson Mandela, himself, would later describe the effect of the Waikato cancellation as “like the sun coming out”.

“Hamilton” is still presented as a great moral victory – the greatest of the ’81 Tour. But, on the day, the embittered Rugby fans knew in their gut that the people and the technology in the broadcasting box were absolutely central to the anti-apartheid movement’s victory – and to their own defeat. That’s why, in lieu of anything more effective, they hurled their beer-cans skyward.

As Trump’s supporters made their way out of the Butler showgrounds, and past the media box, they, like those Hamiltonians of 43 years ago, would have understood that the story that all but a handful of the journalists present at the event, and their networks, would tell would never be their story. It would not capture the horror of the pop-pop-pop of the would-be assassin’s rifle, and Trump going down. Nor would it reflect the sheer elation of seeing their champion rise up and punch the air, still alive, and still telling them to fight-fight-fight!

Oh sure, there is always social media – and Fox News – but what “X”, TikTok and Instagram deliver, and what Fox broadcasts, will never carry the same weight as the media messages directed at college-educated Americans. Just as the wholesome movies made in the Evangelical Christian studios are never as good as the movies made in Hollywood, the Right’s media content will never be accepted as anything more compelling than “misinformation”.

Even when the people in the MAGA caps make a deliberate personal choice to abandon the “lying media” and its “fake news”, a still, small voice continues to insist that the alt-reality they’ve just embraced will always be dismissed by the people with the good jobs and the big houses as “deplorable”.

The high-and-mighty said it to these “deplorables’” ancestors in the Middle Ages, and they’re still saying it today:

“Losers ye are, and losers ye shall remain.”

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project substack on Monday, 15 July 2024.

Dodging Bullets.

Fight! Fight! Fight! Had the assassin’s bullet found its mark and killed Donald Trump, America’s descent into widespread and murderous violence – possibly spiralling-down into civil war – would have been immediate and quite possibly irreparable. The American Republic, upon whose survival liberty and democracy continue to depend, is certainly not out of danger, not yet. But, in Butler, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, 13 July 2024, the USA also dodged a bullet.

HE’S UNSTOPPABLE NOW. The photographic images transmitted across the planet mere minutes after the attempted assassination of Donald Trump in Butler, Pennsylvania, USA, are already icons. The former President, blood on his face, raises his clenched fist above his head in a gesture of fierce defiance, as the stars-and-stripes billows theatrically behind him. Together, these elements constitute a tableau that leaves absolutely no room for doubt. Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States.

In a nation that still believes in a God that blesses America, the message taken from this deadly incident is easily intuited. Had the path of the assassin’s bullet deviated by even an inch, the Republican candidate’s head would have exploded, live, on national television. Instead, the bullet nicked his ear. Another rally-goer was not so fortunate, fatally struck by the shooter who had so very nearly killed the former President, and who, just seconds later, was shot to death by Secret Service snipers. Half of America will now be firmly convinced that the Almighty’s plans for Donald J. Trump are beyond the power of mere mortals to alter.

In the hours and days following the attempted assassination, the merest of these mortals will be the incumbent President of the United States, Joe Biden. Impressively fired-up before a hugely responsive rally of Democratic supporters in Detroit, Michigan, just 24 hours before the shooting, Biden had called Trump a “loser”. But losers do not dodge bullets. Losers do not create instant and iconic campaign posters a minute after being shot. Losers do not have the presence of mind to gesture defiantly to the crowd even as their Secret Service detail is bundling them into an armoured people-carrier. No, Donald Trump may be the person who was fired-at on 13 July 2024, but it was Joe Biden who got fired.

This shocking event has made the Democratic Party’s dilemma even more acute. The contrast between the two candidates, already skewed dangerously in Trump’s favour, is now untenable. Biden looks old. He has the tentative shuffle of the frail elderly. Deprived of his teleprompter, the look of incipient panic in his eyes is painful to observe. Overwhelmingly, politically engaged “progressive” Americans have come to the same conclusion: “We love you, Joe, but it’s time to go.” Now, they have no choice.

In the years following the American Civil War, the triumphant Republican Party won election after election by waving “the bloody flag” that flew over that unparallelled American tragedy. Over the next four months, the Republicans have only to re-play “the bloody footage” of 13 July.

At the time of writing, the full identity of the shooter and his political affiliations – if any – remain unknown. But, if the profiles of previous presidential assassins are anything to go by, then he is likely to be an embittered individual, in the play of whose life Fate has repeatedly refused to assign him a meaningful role. By killing the President, the assassin seeks to become the hero of a new and deadly drama of his own devising.

Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, the actor John Wilkes Booth, unable to win genuine renown on the battlefield, fighting for his beloved Confederacy, and, perhaps, sensing that the hated leader of the Union had already won admittance to the company of the immortals, sought vengeance, and a darkly kindred immortality, by shooting Lincoln dead with a Derringer in Ford’s theatre.

Lee Harvey Oswald was a left-wing extremist who, like so many American leftists, found his fellow citizens’ indifference to the political causes that moved him so reprehensible that he determined to punish them by taking the life of the young President so much of the nation admired and loved. Marksmanship was one of Oswald’s few personal accomplishments, and unlike Trump’s would-be assassin, he didn’t miss.

There will be many Americans who received the news of Trump’s attempted assassination without surprise. For many years now the polarisation of American society has been growing increasingly perilous. Inevitably, if enough people at the margins of political discourse become convinced that there is nothing to be gained by communicating conventionally with opponents they have come to regard as irredeemably evil, then the prospect of communicating with one’s enemies “by other means” acquires an ever-greater salience.

This is what makes the identity of the sniper seen scrabbling up the roof of the building overlooking Trump’s enclosure at the Butler agricultural showgrounds so potentially explosive. If the man shot dead by Secret Service counter-snipers turns out to be an “Antifa” (anti-fascist) extremist with an online history of violent anti-Trump rhetoric, then the baying of the Right’s attack-dogs will be deafening. Fox News will declare the entire American Left guilty by association.

In response, the Democratic Party will likely tack aggressively to starboard, leaving its “progressive” wing alone and unprotected. One-time darling of the Democratic Socialists of America, New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, might find her re-election chances in free-fall. It is unlikely that political aspirants proudly asserting their radical left-wing credentials would continue to attract the same level of enthusiastic journalistic support.

But, if the assassin turns out to be a right-wing extremist, then it’s the conspiracy theorists of the Left who will go hog-wild. (What even the extreme Right would have to gain by eliminating conservative America’s most effective champion since Ronald Reagan is not exactly clear – but then, if extremists acted rationally they wouldn’t be extremists, would they?)

Certainly, it is easy to picture the nuttier sort of leftist arguing that the shooter was a fanatical anti-abortionist who believed that Trump had “gone soft” on the rights of the unborn child. Handed a rifle with defective sights by the conspirators, and told that he would be permitted to flee the scene by “God’s people”, who would then spirit him out of the country, the “patsy” assassin, having missed his target, would instantly be shot to pieces by the Secret Service. The political consequences would be pure gold for these MAGA conspirators. Trump, bloodied but unbowed, would roll on implacably to a landslide victory.

The only aspect of the assassination attempt at Butler, Pennsylvania, that lends even the tiniest skerrick of credibility to this sort of wild speculation is the undeniable fact that somebody, hauling an AR-15 automatic rifle, was able to get on the roof of a building offering a clear shot at the former President of the United States without being confronted by a heavily-armed and body-armoured “Hawkeye” from the USSS’s tactical squad. It is Close Protection 101 that all potential “sniper’s perches” must be reconnoitred, located, and neutralised. The assassin, clearly visible to multiple witnesses on the ground, should never have made it as far as the building, let alone onto the roof. The deadly attack at Butler must, therefore, constitute the most egregious failure of the US Secret Service since Dallas.

Whatever the true story turns out to be regarding the attempt on Donald Trump’s life, its most crucial element is that it was just that, an attempt. Had the assassin’s bullet found its mark and killed the “deplorables’” champion, America’s descent into widespread and murderous violence – possibly spiralling-down into civil war – would have been immediate and quite possibly irreparable. The American Republic, upon whose survival liberty and democracy continue to depend, is certainly not out of danger, not yet. But, in Butler, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, 13 July 2024, the USA also dodged a bullet.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 15 July 2024.

Wednesday 17 July 2024

The Enemies Of Sunshine And Space.

Our Houses? The Urban Density debate is a horrible combination of intergenerational avarice and envy, fuelled by the grim certainty that none of the generations coming up after them will ever have it as good as the Boomers. To say that this situation rankles among those born after 1965 is to massively understate their distress. As far as those fated to grow up in the Twenty-First Century are concerned, it is NOT “OK Boomer” – not okay at all.

IT’S A POLITICAL MYSTERY, this alliance between the Left and well-connected property developers. The Right’s covert dealings with commercial greed-heads has for long been a disreputable feature of its brand. The Left, to its credit, still has to work at corruption. Doing the wrong thing doesn’t come naturally … yet. So, what is it that the Left is telling itself as it lines up behind National’s Chris Bishop? What good thing do they believe themselves to be doing?

When this question is put to them, there’s a certain kind of leftist that will reassure you that increasing urban density is the fastest and most effective way of getting homeless people housed. Constructing high-rise apartments along key public transport corridors will provide affordable accommodation to young workers and students – liberating them for the cold, damp, poorly-ventilated and inadequately maintained properties currently providing landlords with a handsome return on their investment.

With a considerably steelier glint in their eye, these same leftists will tell you that the only people steadfastly refusing to see the wisdom of Bishop’s policy are the selfish Baby-Boomers who long ago purchased what were then cheap and nasty old villas, “did them up”, and watched their value skyrocket to dizzying heights.

Some of these Boomers (many of them card-carrying leftists) sold at the top of the market, pocketing huge and tax-free capital gains, which they then invested in a one, two, many rental properties, becoming fully paid-up members of the landlord class. These “investors” aren’t all that keen on urban density. Flooding the rental market with affordable rental accommodation, a policy which could hardly fail to exert an unhelpful downward pressure on their rents, is not what they were expecting.

These are the sort of Boomers who ask themselves the question made famous by the lead characters in the 1980s classic movie “The Big Chill”: “How did revolutionaries like us get to be so rich?”

Then there are the Boomers who’ve spent their lives immersed in the lyrics of Graham Nash’s “Our House”, with its “two cats in the yard”, open fires, and flower arrangements. These Boomers’ do indeed dwell in, “a very, very, very fine house” and they’re not about to let it be caught in the shadow of a six-storey apartment block lacking even one stained-glass window – let alone a decorative finial.

The feelings these Boomers have for property developers (and their little helpers in local government) bear close resemblance to the feelings they once had for supporters of the 1981 Springbok Tour and members of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. As far as they’re concerned, the urban density brigade aren’t leftists, they’re vandals. “Progressives” may deride such people as “Nimby” (Not In My Backyard) naysayers, but in their own eyes they’re heroic defenders of “precious local heritage”.

It’s a horrible combination of intergenerational avarice and envy, fuelled by the grim certainty that none of the generations coming up after them will ever have it as good as the Boomers. To say that this situation rankles among those born after 1965 is to massively understate their distress. As far as those fated to grow up in the Twenty-First Century are concerned, it is NOT “OK Boomer” – not okay at all.

The Devil himself could hardly have devised a scenario more likely to mobilise all seven of the deadly sins. Nor was there any shortage of property investors and developers willing to audition for the roles of Lucifer’s demonic minions. With so much envy and resentment to play upon, all those interested in making outrageous profits had to do was whisper “New Urbanism” in the ears of ambitious Gen-X lobbyists, who would, in turn, pass the concept on to ambitious Millennial politicians who’d never met a Boomer city father whose retreating back did not look better than his aggressive front. “Go to Europe,” they would say, “look at what’s happening there. Ask all these selfish Boomer Nimbys how many Frenchmen and women, how many Germans, live in detached bungalows!”

Wrong question. Frenchmen and women, Germans, and a plethora of other nationalities, live in apartments because only aristocrats, tycoons, and football players get to live in stand-alone dwellings surrounded by lawns and trees. When your population is numbered in the tens-of-millions, it’s difficult to organise your citizens’ accommodation in any other way. But ask those same apartment-dwelling Europeans, Americans and Asians if they would like to live in a stand-alone dwelling surrounded by lawns and trees, and you will elicit a very different response.

If the population of the British Isles was just 5 million, how many of its citizens would prefer to go “up”, as opposed to “out”? Even when the British population numbered in excess of 40 million, those on the left of politics were far more interested in spreading ordinary people out than they were in stacking them up. Indeed, it is strange that the disciples of New Urbanism speak so infrequently about the spacious planned communities of yesteryear. Genuine leftists would be talking a lot less about empowering developers to increase urban density, and a lot more about central and local government designing and building green cities and new towns.

Instead we are invited to accept and grow accustomed to this unholy alliance between right-wing greed-heads and left-wing Boomer-haters. Chris Bishop can make a bonfire of building codes and regulations, and rather than condemn his neoliberal recklessness, Labour and Green politicians turn up with additional jerry-cans of gasoline. Architects and construction firms warn that the Housing Minister’s policies will produce nothing but slums, crime and mental illness. The Left has nothing to say.

It really is remarkable. Housing New Zealand, after six years of fits and starts, finally hits its stride and builds thousands of new state houses annually. What happens? The new Coalition Government commissions a dodgy dossier damning Housing New Zealand, and uses it to justify an abrupt shutting-off of affordable housing supply – just as it was surging. In its place Bishop issues a slumlords’ charter. To the windfall tax-cuts his government has already delivered to the landlord class (which includes two-thirds of New Zealand’s parliamentarians) he now adds every conceivable incentive for the greedy and the tasteless to do their worst.

Bishop has staked his career on collapsing the price of houses and opening the way for the younger generation to reclaim the dream of home ownership. One can only imagine the response of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand and the big Aussie mortgage-holders if this promise is fulfilled. The international credit-rating agencies have already warned the Coalition Government that a collapse in house prices would set the entire New Zealand economy on fire. What will those who insist that Bishop is onto a winning strategy say then?

How painful it must be for genuine socialists to witness the political heirs of the left-wing politicians who designed, funded and built thousands of very, very, very fine houses, having so little to say about the deliberate re-creation of the oppressive “urban density” from which so many of poor New Zealanders, with their government’s assistance, broke free in the 1930s and 40s. How sad that so many on the Left, which used to be about sunshine and space, are throwing in their lot with those who see no profit in either commodity.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project substack on Monday, 8 July 2024.

Britain's Devastating Electoral Slip.

Slip-Sliding Away: Labour may now enjoy a dominant position in Britain’s political landscape, but only by virtue of not being swallowed by it.

THE BRITISH LABOUR PARTY’S “landslide victory” is nothing of the sort. As most people understand the term, a landslide election victory is one in which the incumbent government, or its challenger, by the sheer force of its political appeal, sweeps its opponents from the field. Like the victims of a real landslide, the victims of an electoral landslide are buried by the decisive mass and unstoppable momentum of the voters’ mandate.

This is NOT what happened in the United Kingdom on 4 July 2024.

A much better way of describing what happened to the Conservative Government of Rishi Sunak is to utilise that very Kiwi word “slip”. The ground upon which the Tories had erected their political dominance simply slipped away from under them. Undermined by years of economic austerity and ideological polarisation, and jolted by politically irrecoverable corruption and incompetence. One minute the Conservatives were there, and the next minute they were gone, leaving Labour perched precariously on the slip’s edge. Labour may now enjoy a dominant position in Britain’s political landscape, but only by virtue of not being swallowed by it.

The raw numbers say it all. In 2019, the British Labour Party experienced its worst electoral defeat since 1935, attracting just 32.1 percent of the popular vote. At around sunrise on Friday 5 July 2024, when all the votes had been counted, the British Labour Party’s share of the popular vote had risen to 33.7 percent. But, thanks to the extraordinary unfairness of the UK’s First-Past-the-Post (FPP) electoral system, Labour’s one third of the vote had left it in possession of two thirds of the seats in the House of Commons.

Sir Keir Starmer is not the UK’s new Prime Minister because he won a landslide victory, but because the Conservative Party, quite simply, collapsed.

A Labour victory by default does not, however, satisfy the British Establishment’s requirement that UK governments be presented as positive expressions of the voters’ will – rather than a by-product of their bitter disillusionment and disgust. Uniformly, the British media have employed the landslide metaphor to legitimate Labour’s huge parliamentary majority. The British people have been told that they have handed their new government a decisive mandate, and that it is now their duty to let Starmer and his colleagues get on with the job.

Exactly what that job is is difficult to express with any clarity. It is important to bear in mind that the now governing party is not the Labour Party of Clement Attlee, or Harold Wilson, or even the “New Labour Party” of Tony Blair. What the British people have elected, wittingly or unwittingly, is “Changed Labour” – a political party which, according to its leader, is “unburdened by doctrine”. In the light of Starmer’s extraordinary admission, the only job which the Prime Minister and his new “Cabinet of all the talents” will be temperamentally equipped to get on with is the preservation of the status quo – which is a godawful mess.

As he sets out to clean up the mess that is contemporary Britain, Starmer has made it very clear to whatever remains of Labour’s beleaguered socialist factions, and even to the lack-lustre social-democrats of Blair’s New Labour, that he intends to be guided by the principle of “country before party”. This determination to lead a government that is at once non-ideological and unaccountable has raised no discernible hackles. Indeed, when openly enunciated by Starmer on Election Night these sentiments drew loud cheers from his audience of Labour activists. The acclamation of Starmer’s youthful supporters would appear to confirm the party’s full and final surrender to the political logic of technocracy. “Changed Labour” is an understatement.

But can a government of technocratic professionals possibly hope to win the support of the two-thirds of British voters who cast their ballots for other parties? Starmer may be reasonably confident of the Liberal Democrats’ backing in the years to come, ditto the Greens’. Not that he will need it. Not when his majority is greater than the seat tally of the Lib-Dems and Greens combined. It would be advantageous, however, if Starmer could point to a clear “progressive” majority across the UK, one that was broadly supportive of his government’s direction of travel. Fortunately, the combined vote share of the three progressive parties comes to 52 percent – a narrow majority, but a majority nonetheless.

Ranged against Starmer and his allies will be the 38 percent of voters who cast their ballots for the Conservatives (23.7 percent) and the UK Reform Party (14.3 percent). Of the two, it is Reform, Brexiteer Nigel Farage’s latest political vehicle, that constitutes the gravest threat to Starmer and his “changed” Labour Party. In spite of their leader’s claims, not all of Labour’s 411 MPs are unburdened by doctrine. Indeed, a great many of them hold rigidly ideological positions on immigration, gender, race, and the Israel-Gaza War. Farage and his colleagues (all four of them) will highlight the perceived extremism of Labour’s “identity politics” to drive a wedge into those same working-class constituencies that fell to the blandishments of Boris Johnson in 2019. Constituencies in which Reform polled impressively in 2024.

Farage has made no secret of his intention to “come after” Labour voters. He is confident that Starmer’s commitment to unscrambling a chaotic status quo, without upsetting the City of London and/or the Bank of England, can only result in the dangerous disillusionment of those many millions of Britons hopeful of being governed better, and with more compassion, by Labour than they were by the Tories. Though he doesn’t look like a fan of The Who, Farage’s message to the British working-class will be: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

And what of the biggest losers, the Tories? Down an astonishing 251 seats, reduced to a diehard rump of 121 MPs, and having lost nearly all their best and brightest leaders (and Liz Truss) in the “slip”. Where does the world’s most successful political party go now? And who will lead it there?

Looking back through the long career of the Conservative Party, it is clear that its remarkable ability to navigate the turbulent seas of British history is attributable largely to a clutch of colourful and proudly unorthodox navigators. Robert Peel, who broke his party to feed his people. Benjamin Disraeli, who, in forging “one nation” Toryism, bequeathed his party an enormously successful electoral formula. Stanley Baldwin, the successful industrialist whose death duties did for a feckless aristocracy more effectively than any cloth-cap socialist’s general strike. Winston Churchill, the narcissistic, grandiloquent turncoat who saved his country from fascism. Margaret Thatcher, who dared to unleash the atavism that lies in Toryism’s dark heart.

That person may not yet be seated in the House of Commons. But if and when the latest saviour of Conservatism finally takes their seat on the Opposition benches, they will be recognizable principally by how fully they embody the sentiments of G.K. Chesterton’s remarkable poem “The Secret People”:

We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.

This essay was originally posted on the website on Monday, 8 July 2024.

Tuesday 16 July 2024

Closer Than You Think: Ageing Boomers, Laurie & Les, Talk Politics.

Redefining Our Terms: “When an angry majority is demanding change, defending the status-quo is an extremist position.”

“WHAT’S THIS?”, asked Laurie, eyeing suspiciously the two glasses of red wine deposited in front of him.

“A nice drop of red. I thought you’d be keen to celebrate the French Far-Right’s victory with the appropriate tipple. And with Labour poised to reclaim Number Ten, after 14 long years of Tory rule, I thought red was the appropriate colour.”

“What? This is French?” Laurie sniffed the wine and swirled it around his glass with professional aplomb.”

“Well, no, not exactly. I asked Hannah behind the bar if the pub ran to a good Bordeaux, and she gave me one of her you-cannot-be-that-stupid stares.

“Does this place look like it runs to a good Bordeaux, Les? Or does it look like the sort of place that will offer you a nice Central Otago Pinot Noir and expect you to like it?”

Laurie took a tentative sip. “Not too bad. Not too bad at all. Thanks, Les.”

Laurie lifted his glass. “Here’s to Marine Le Pen and her toy-boy. And confusion to Emmanuel Macron’s centrists and the not-as-popular-as-the-National-Rally Left.”

Les saluted his friend with his own glass. “And here’s to Sir Keir Starmer – may he surprise us all!”

“That’s not very likely though, is it Les? Not when Starmer stands further to the right than Tony Blair.”

“I know, I know. The man makes a concrete block look animated. But that is what it takes these days to wring an endorsement out of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times. Britons simply refuse to elect Labour leaders who promise anything more radical than a warmed-over status quo. And, even then, the Tories need to have well-and-truly outstayed their welcome. Tony Blair may have led Labour to a landslide victory in 1997, but it had been an excruciating 18 years between drinks.”

“Do you think Starmer’s winning margin will outstrip even Blair’s 1997 majority?”

“It might, yeah. But, in practical terms, it hardly matters. Rishi Sunak is doing his best to spook the voters with talk of a Labour ‘super-majority’ – as if the British Parliament operates according to the same rules as the Indian Parliament, where two-thirds of the legislators can change the Constitution.”

“But the UK doesn’t have a written constitution.”

“Congratulations, Laurie! You know more about the British political system than the present British Prime Minister!”

“I’ll tell you something else I know. It’s well past time that all you smug lefties stopped labelling parties like the National Rally and the Alternative For Germany ‘Far Right’.”

“Awh, come on, mate. What else are they?”

“Well, the National Rally is the most popular political party in France, and the AfD is the second most popular party in Germany.

“So, if you’re going to use the metaphor of a spectrum, then anything you call “far” has to be located at its extremes, and it has to be small.

“When Marine Le Pen’s father – who was, unquestionably, an extremist – was the leader of the National Front, back in the 1970s and 80s, he attracted barely 1 percent of the presidential vote. Clearly, the French people agreed that the Front belonged on the fringes of their politics.

“But, that is no longer true – is it? Otherwise, 34 percent of French voters would not have marked their ballots for the National Rally. A political movement that attracts over a third of the electorate is not ‘far’ anything. It is proof that the ideological and electoral preferences of the population have undergone a decisive shift.

“For goodness sake, in Germany the AfD is currently attracting more support than the governing Social-Democrats. Those we used to locate at the extremes are advancing steadily towards the centre-ground. They’re not far away from the majority’s comfort-zone anymore. In fact, they’re a lot closer to it than you lefties think.”

“Jeez, Laurie. Hitler’s Nazi’s topped-out in 1932 with 37 percent of the popular vote. Are you seriously trying to convince me that Nazism wasn’t a movement of the Far Right?”

“What I’m telling you, Les, is that when the political environment changes to the point where a party that once attracted less than 5 percent voter support is now gathering-up more than a third of the electorate, then the time has come for a major redefinition of political terms.

“When an angry majority is demanding change, defending the status-quo is an extremist position.”

This short story was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 July 2024.

Wednesday 10 July 2024

Harsh Truths.

The Way We Were: An indelible mark was left upon a whole generation of New Zealanders by the Great Depression and World War II; an impression that not only permitted men and women of all classes and races to perceive the need to work together for the common good, but also to know – thanks to the bonding experiences arising out of existential danger – that such co-operation was possible.

THERE ARE LESSONS to be learned from the Biden-Trump debate/debacle. Important lessons, which New Zealanders would be most unwise to ignore. The first and most important of these is the need to face some harsh truths.

The American people have been running from the truth for decades. Electing an actor to govern them in 1980 merely confirmed their allergy to reality. Now they are readying themselves to elect Donald Trump for the second time. And, having witnessed Joe Biden’s disastrous debate performance, who can blame them? That the American Republic will struggle to survive such a final and decisive refusal to correct the consequences of its own corruption is unlikely to dissuade the American people from embracing its liquidator.

New Zealanders should, however, resist the temptation to sneer at the USA’s self-inflicted wounds. A dispassionate survey of New Zealand’s present predicament reveals a nation whose First World status can no longer be considered secure, and lacking a political class of sufficient calibre to retain it.

At virtually every level of the New Zealand state, from the lowliest public servant to the Justices of the Supreme Court, there is an alarming absence of evidence that the nation’s predicament is understood. Distractions there are in great number, but a clear-headed grasp of what it takes to hold a country together is not in evidence among those responsible for New Zealand’s administration.

This lack of clarity also pervades the ranks of New Zealand’s elected representatives. These are, with only a handful of exceptions, inadequately educated, lacking in relevant experience, and unadventurous to the point of actual cowardice. New Zealand’s current crop of politicians are place-holders not nation-builders. Unable to rise above the crude calculation of partisan advantage, an understanding of the broader national interest and of the needs of citizens yet to be born is beyond their capabilities.

Accounting for these alarming deficiencies is not easy. No matter how precariously positioned, New Zealand remains a First World country. Its people are educated, and their health preserved, by public institutions that easily bear comparison with those of much larger and richer nations. That being the case, the administration and government of New Zealand should be more than equal to the challenges faced. Likewise, its entrepreneurs and business leaders should be equal to the task of maintaining a productive and profitable economy.

And yet, when it comes to maintaining and extending the nation’s infrastructure, New Zealand’s leaders – private as well as public – are failing dismally. The political unanimity required to recognise, plan, and pay for the projects required to preserve social cohesion, while enhancing economic competitiveness and growth, is no longer a feature of New Zealand’s national life.

An indelible mark was left upon a whole generation of New Zealanders by the Great Depression and World War II; an impression that not only permitted men and women of all classes and races to perceive the need to work together for the common good, but also to know – thanks to the bonding experiences arising out of existential danger – that such co-operation was possible.

Depression and war (but especially war) made brothers out of farmers and freezing-workers, professionals and tradespeople. Bullets and bombs were no respecters of who one’s ancestors were, or which particular sailing vessels they arrived in, but incoming ordnance did make clear who was keeping who alive. Such lessons are not easily forgotten.

But, neither are they easily learnt. In the absence of the near universal experiences of economic hardship, the threat of invasion, and the intense comradeship born of armed conflict, the influences of class, race and gender soon recover their power to separate and divide human-beings. Without the common memories born of working, fighting, and sacrificing together, it becomes easier and easier to believe that “some animals are more equal than others”. And the longer that heresy goes unreproved, the harder it becomes to see the point of building anything that benefits anybody beyond one’s own kind.

There was a time when New Zealand politics was a reflection of the efforts of its two largest political parties to both represent and advance the interests of their “own kind”. Labour stood for the working-class. National for farmers, businessmen and (most) professionals. Thanks in large part to the Cold War, however, both parties understood the importance of keeping political sectionalism on a short leash. The beliefs that held New Zealanders together were accorded much greater importance than political ideologies with the potential to tear them apart.

But those beliefs, absent the experiences which informed them, could not escape the challenges of a generation that had not known privation or war. The ideas that kept New Zealand society tight: white supremacy, male supremacy, heterosexual supremacy, capitalism and Christianity; were deemed oppressive and unjust by the most outspoken of the first generation of New Zealanders for whom tertiary education was something more than an elite privilege.

But if these young intellectuals were successful in loosening New Zealand’s tightly wound society, they had also made it easier for the separate strands of that society to be pulled apart. It would become increasingly practical for New Zealand’s now less-connected citizens to look after their own kind – at the expense of all the other kinds.

Inevitably, it was the wealthiest and most powerful New Zealanders who had most to gain, and gained most, from the post-war generations’ great loosening of New Zealand society. In just two generations the nation reverted to the class-ridden, race-divided, sexually-exploitative society it had been before the election of the First Labour Government in 1935. The country’s politics, likewise, reverted to a competitive struggle between the elite defenders of the nation’s farmers and importers, and the elite protectors of its professionals and industrialists.

The single most important difference between that earlier, elite-dominated, New Zealand society, and the elite-dominated society of today, was the arrival of a gate-crashing new elite comprised of Te Iwi Māori whose children had taken advantage of the expansion of tertiary education in the 1970s to carve out a niche for themselves in the new political power structure. Revisionist history notwithstanding, the key role of this new Māori elite was to distract the urban Māori working-class from its poverty and exploitation – mostly by aggressively promoting the twinned illusions of tino rangatiratanga and mana motuhake.

These elements of New Zealand’s story run parallel to those that gave us the political bankruptcy of the Biden-Trump debate. The USA underwent its own great loosening which, like New Zealand’s, unravelled the social solidarity responsible for uplifting so many ordinary Americans between 1945 and 1980.

It is a process from which the wealthiest Americans have benefited hugely – primarily by disconnecting themselves fiscally from the rest of America. With a much-reduced tax base, the USA, like New Zealand, is undergoing its own slow infrastructural collapse.

New Zealand’s tragedy may lack the compelling duo of Biden and Trump – each in their own way illustrating the moral exhaustion of the American political system – but that is no excuse for Kiwi complacency. Both countries need to face the harsh truths of national decline.

Because, in Bob Dylan’s words:

It’s not dark yet 
But it’s getting there.

This essay was originally posted on The Democracy Project substack on Monday, 1 July 2024.