Act's Great Whyte Hope? If the Act Party is seeking a well-spoken, thoroughly erudite, persuasively articulate, refreshingly honest and witty champion of the battle-scarred neoliberal cause, then the New Zealand-born, Cambridge-educated philosopher, Jamie Whyte, is the obvious choice.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS are a poor basis for accurate political judgement. Had I been guided by my first impressions of Jamie Whyte my judgement would have been harsh – and wrong. His comments about the calibre of New Zealand’s politicians would have led me to dismiss the “philosopher” who’s trying to become the next leader and reviver of the Act Party as just another right-wing bigot – not to mention a very sorry ambassador for Cambridge University.
Our members of Parliament seek the support of their fellow citizens on behalf of many and varied causes. What unites them is a common desire to leave the world a better place than they found it. In pursuit of this goal they risk the breaking apart of their marriages, estrangement from their children and the endless jibes and insults of people who haven’t the slightest idea of the fraught and very lonely existence politicians are required to endure.
It is, therefore, quite outrageous to suggest, as Mr Whyte did in this week’s Sunday Star-Times, that: “[S]hamefully, it’s just the best job they are capable of getting … they have no particular talents, somehow they have managed to get in with their party and get elevated and they are as happy as a pig in shit. Otherwise, they would be working in the food industry [think McDonalds] or cleaning.”
Outrageous and (if I may be so bold with a Cambridge philosopher) illogical. Glossing over the huge rhetorical, social and organisational effort required to make it across the threshold of the 120-strong New Zealand House of Representatives with the word “somehow” is very “bad thinking” indeed.
If every cook and janitor could just as easily find work as a parliamentarian, then surely Parliament would be filled with patty-flippers and mop-wielders? Now, a good socialist might argue that Parliament would be all the better for the addition of some genuine workers, but an empiricist, noting the complete absence of such persons, would have to question seriously both Mr Whyte’s powers of observation and his reasoning.
More out of respect for Cambridge University than for anything I had so far learned about Mr Whyte I persevered with my enquiries. Surely there had to be more to recommend this person as a potential party leader than political sentiments more usually encountered in the commentary threads of right-wing blogs?
And thanks to the boundless memory of Google and YouTube – there was.
The first and most pleasant surprise was Mr Whyte’s accent. Given the frequency with which he reverted to the copulatory expletive in his Sunday Star-Times interview, I was expecting to hear a Kiwi accent broad enough to rival the Prime Minister’s. What I actually heard was beautifully modulated “English” English. (Think Lindsay Perigo’s perfect diction minus the Randian brio.) Mr Whyte could make a recitation of the phone book sound like a neoliberal treatise.
The other surprises were Mr Whyte’s facility for oratory; his skill in constructing simple yet persuasive illustrations of his ideas; and his wit. The ability to make people laugh – especially at one’s opponents – is an invaluable political skill. His 2013 address to an Act Party conclave is a little masterpiece of simple but effective political rhetoric.
Also impressive (not to say transgressive) is the interview he conducts with himself as part of the IViewMe website’s series of “thoughtful interviews with creative people”. Mr Whyte asks himself 10 questions and the impression which emerges from his own answers is very different from the boorish individual effing and blinding his way across Page 2 of Sunday’s paper.
Perhaps Mr Whyte (why do I keep thinking of Reservoir Dogs?) has been told that the New Zealand voter will never vote for a politician who rounds his vowels so beautifully? Perhaps he believes that to win public office it is necessary to speak to the electors as if they are all infantile buffoons? If so he should dismiss immediately any thought of reviving Act’s fortunes.
With Mr Key’s centrist policies anchoring the National Party firmly in the centre-ground of New Zealand politics and with his mangled English pronunciation making him the average Kiwi joker’s populist Everyman, the Act Party could do a great deal worse than to choose as its leader a well-spoken, thoroughly erudite, persuasively articulate, refreshingly honest and witty champion of the battle-scarred neoliberal cause.
It has always been the dream of Act’s founders that if they built the argument for free markets and open societies then the voters would come. In Jamie Whyte they have the opportunity to put that proposition to one final test.
Not with a shrewd but cynical populist; not with an ebullient perk-buster; not with a schoolmasterly admonisher or a robotic former National Party Cabinet Minister; but with someone who not only believes what he says – but says it superbly.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 21 January 2014.