Friday, 19 March 2010

Plus ça change …

The two faces of National: The National Party's first Prime Minister, Sid Holland (standing, appropriately, on the right) dominated New Zealand society from 1949 until 1957 by unleashing the most brutal instincts of New Zealand conservatism. Keith Holyoake, by contrast, ruled New Zealand from 1960 until 1972 by adroitly deflecting the worst impulses of his own his party.

The naïve, the almost childish brutality, with which the chiefs of the National Party fell upon power may seem quite surprising, until one remembers how famished for power they were, and with what innocency of experience they faced the world about them … One does not mean that Mr Holland and his subordinates (lieutenants? – most of them looked like subordinates) went down personally to Government Buildings and kicked the bodies of public servants. Some of them were obviously not as bad as their leader ... Yet the insensitiveness to administrative delicacies, the conviction … that all you had to do with exchange controls was to end them, that all you had to do to make the pound go "further" was to take your hands off it, that the main thing needed in education was to insult the Education Department, was quite appalling.

Dr J.C. Beaglehole, 1961. (Describing the conduct of the first National government, 1949-1957.)

THE MORE things change, say the French, the more they stay the same. Ten years into the 21st Century, it is sobering to read the words of the eminent New Zealand historian, Dr John Beaglehole, and realise how very closely the events of sixty years ago are mirrored in the events of today.

Sobering, but not surprising, since similar causes tend to produce similar effects. By 1949, the New Zealand Right had been out of power for fourteen years, and most historians agree that it would have remained so indefinitely had Sid Holland, the National Party’s pugnacious leader, not reassured the electorate that Labour’s "cradle to grave" welfare state would not be dismantled by an incoming conservative government.

John Key came to power on a similar promise. His party had drawn the appropriate lessons from its narrow defeat in the 2005 General Election. New Zealanders had demonstrated that they were reasonably comfortable with Labour’s softened version of the neoliberal economic order, and would deny office to National for as long as the party threatened to "harden it up".

Don Brash’s flinty countenance was duly exchanged for Key’s fresh face – and the new National leader’s attractive combination of youth and openness swiftly convinced the electorate that his party’s pledge to preserve Helen Clark’s and Michael Cullen’s "kinder, gentler" version of the market economy could be trusted.

Even so, the experience of being out of office for a decade or more cannot help but leave its mark upon a party. Contrary to Lord Acton’s famous observation, it is the prolonged denial of power, rather than its too ample possession, which is most likely to corrupt a political movement.

Being forced to watch, in impotent rage, as one’s most cherished beliefs, and the institutions erected to give them force, are derided and dismantled will drive an iron spike into the tenderest soul. How this alienation manifests itself is one of those endlessly fascinating aspects of political behaviour.

The Labour Party provides vivid examples of the two most common responses: reaffirmation and rejection.

Kept out of office for twelve years by the imperturbable Keith Holyoake, Labour’s Norman Kirk saw his party’s landslide victory of 1972 as an opportunity to rush into law all the cherished policies he and his colleagues had developed during their political exile.

How different was David Lange’s response to the Labour Party victory of 1984. Repeated electoral rejection had soured him on Labour’s traditional offerings, and he entered office determined to implement the radical new political and economic agenda of his finance minister, Roger Douglas.

John Key’s government, by contrast, seems incapable of either reaffirming the Right’s traditional agenda, or rejecting it in favour of a new one.

The opportunity was certainly there at the end of 2008 for Key to "do a Lange", and dramatically steer his own party in a radical new direction. In essence, this would have necessitated the sort of social volte-face that Labour pulled-off in the late-1980s, when it all but deserted its electoral base to embrace that fraction of the New Zealand business community determined to move the country on from what it saw as a decrepit and discredited Keynesianism.

The Global Financial Crisis offered Key the perfect opportunity to effect what anti-capitalist author, Naomi Klein, calls "The Shock Doctrine" (and, for a moment, his "Jobs Summit" did teeter intriguingly on the edge of that precipice). It would have meant pouring money into the universities and the CRIs; strengthening the civil service and the state-owned media; and enlisting the co-operation of the Council of Trade Unions (which would certainly have been given) – all with the aim of introducing to New Zealand the sort of state-driven mode of economic development perfected by Singapore.

Key could have complemented and softened this "New Zealand Incorporated" approach by encouraging a generous and humanitarian social policy – drawing on the reforming legacy of liberal National politicians like Ralph Hanan, Les Gandar and Doug Graham.

Sadly, the Prime Minister proved unequal to this Kleinian moment. Having spurned the opportunity for "rejection", Key has instead presided over his deeply conservative caucus’s determination to "reaffirm" National’s traditional aims and objectives.

All the childishness, naiveté and political brutality described by Beaglehole in his 1961 essay has returned, proving that this National Government – like the Bourbon dynasty restored to power following Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815 – has "learned nothing and forgotten nothing". Intelligent, and (in Opposition, at least) thoughtful politicians like Simon Power, Judith Collins and Chris Finlayson have been forced to scramble aboard the same sort of obnoxious political juggernaut that clattered and clanked its way out of National’s provincial and suburban heartlands in 1949, 1975 and 1990.

Except, that all those members of National’s caucus who have, in the past week, cheered Education Minister, Anne Tolley’s, downsizing of the Ministry of Education, and applauded Stephen Joyce’s disastrous assault on university standards, are forgetting something of vital importance: their leader’s promise to maintain Labour’s "kinder, gentler" neoliberal state.

National’s backwoodsmen may see nothing wrong with "kicking the bodies of public servants" and ruthlessly reaffirming the policy objectives of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson, but those few wise heads that still remain in the National Party would do well to remind these backwoods Bourbons that the voters have firmly rejected them.

The Prime Minister’s winning smile cannot forever be relied upon to distract voters’ attention from the mounting casualties of National’s noxious nostalgia.

This essay was first published in The Independent of Thursday, 18 March 2010.

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