Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Second Coming Of National's Rough Beasts.

Its Hour Come Round At Last: Instead of being thankful that New Zealand’s democratic constitution transforms days of retribution into peaceful transitions of power from one combination of political parties to another, National's far-right seethes with frustration, and consoles itself with fantasies of imposing a day of retribution of its own. On that day, all those who have deprived them of their rightful power and status will get what’s coming to them.

WHAT ROUGH BEAST SLOUCHES towards Wellington to be born? What sort of National Party are the people who brought down Bill English trying to establish? And will there be enough reasonable men and women in National’s caucus on Tuesday, 27 February to stop them?

In the movie, Schindler’s List, the hero, Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson) attempts to persuade the SS labour-camp commandant, Amon Goeth (played by Ralph Fiennes) to refrain from picking-off random prisoners with his hunting rifle. For a few days, Schindler’s appeal appears to be working. Eventually, however, the commandant’s murderous impulses get the better of him and he resumes his deadly sport.

For 12 years, Bill English has played the role of Oskar Schindler: cajoling, persuading and, on occasion, outmanoeuvring the far-right of the National Party into running with a moderate, liberal-conservative political agenda. It was by trading on the popular appeal of this agenda that John Key and Steven Joyce were able to give the National Party three general election victories in a row.

Not that English was some sort of bleeding-heart liberal in disguise. On the contrary, his Catholic faith mandated a deeply conservative stance on many of the social issues which Key supported as proof of National’s liberal bona fides. By the same token, however, it was English’s Catholic faith that caused him to reject the swingeing economic austerity measures imposed by right-wing finance ministers in the UK, Canada and Australia.

Not only was English convinced that austerity was economically ineffective, but he also recognized that it was politically counter-productive. Not that the economic and social policies of the Key-English era were entirely benign – far from it. The National Right had to be appeased with anti-worker and anti-beneficiary measures that were intended to – and did – inflict a great deal of unnecessary suffering on tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders. In the hands of a different finance minister, however, matters could have been a great deal worse.

This was the knowledge with which the National Right, like SS Commandant Goeth, found it so difficult to be reconciled. Why be just a little oppressive of the poor and marginalised when you possess the power to grind their faces in the dust? Why restrict oneself to fastening legal leg-irons on the trade unions when you can legislate the evil socialist bullies out of existence altogether?

For the far-right, political power only becomes real when it is used. To exercise restraint is to allow those within your power to set the limits of their own persecution. Far from being a manifestation of strength (as Schindler suggested to Goeth) the willingness to exercise restraint is a craven demonstration of weakness.

In his fascinating Newsroom essay on Bill English’s political career, Bernard Hickey describes the occasion upon which his subject was so moved by the recollection of his own and his wife Mary’s family histories that he wept:

“He talked of his admiration for his father-in-law’s family ethos and hard work in raising a big family in Wellington, despite the struggles of arriving with little from Samoa in an unfamiliar city. He also talked about a quiet chat he had with a kaumatua on a marae about the problems of Maori youth, and the need for strong communities with their own resources. His point was that he admired the self-reliance and quiet conservatism of family and community life. He saw his role as helping those communities and pulling Government out of the way to let them get on with it. It wasn’t an ugly or dry form of libertarian scorched-earth politics. It was a deeply humane and thoughtful approach where Government was supposed to treat people with empathy and dignity and as individuals, rather than as just another beneficiary locked into welfare for life. His views on helping to lift people out of poverty were a precursor to his championing of the social investment approach, which he was only just starting to roll out through the Government as Labour returned to power in late October.”

It was during this part of his talk that English was obliged to pause for a few moments:

“The tears rolled down his nose and splashed onto the lectern. You could hear a pin drop. The audience was with him though. English's story was utterly authentic and thoughtful and showed a depth of humility and humanity that struck a chord that night. He got a standing ovation when he finished.”

English’s moderate conservatism, Hickey seems to be saying, is born out of a love for ordinary people. By contrast, the vicious conservatism of the far-right is born out of the gnawing fear that ordinary people might one day decide to exact retribution from those who have found it expedient to grind their faces in the dust. That fear begets hate which, in turn, is translated into institutional and physical violence. The great paradox of far-right aggression, however, is that by oppressing the poor, the marginalised and the dispossessed it only brings the terrifying day of retribution closer.

Instead of being thankful that New Zealand’s democratic constitution transforms these days of retribution into peaceful transitions of power from one combination of political parties to another, however, the far-right seethes with frustration, and consoles itself with fantasies of imposing a day of retribution of its own. On that day, all those who have deprived them of their rightful power and status will get what’s coming to them.

That’s where we are now. English’s moderation is deemed, by his colleagues, to have failed the National Party. New, and much more aggressive leadership is required. Those panderers to, and enablers of, the poor and marginalised – Labour and the Greens – must be driven from the Treasury Benches as quickly as possible. And Winston Peters, that conservative turncoat and traitor, must be cast into the ninth circle of political hell – and his worthless party with him.

William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet, saw it all happening nearly a century ago, in the fretful aftermath of the First World War. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”, he wrote in his most famous poem, The Second Coming.

The final lines of that poem can still send a chill down the spine:

… but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

This essay was jointly posted on Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of  Thursday, 15 February 2018.


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Interesting, I guess intellectually I must have known that there were shades of National-ism, although perhaps not fifty. But I always thought Bill English was a very grey man. And I've always lumped them all together. My bad I guess, but in my defence when you read the comments of some of the conservatives on this site who claim to be "moderate" you think that maybe it's just a thing to say because New Zealanders don't like to be considered extreme. I always thought the really loony ones were in ACT – or the Conservatives who I tend to forget about I must confess. I always despised English for not being able to rise above his catholicism as John F. Kennedy was wont to – at least in his public statements. Still, the power struggle will be interesting in both the English and the Chinese meanings of the word. I was heading up the coast yesterday listening to "Crusher" Collins expounding on why she should be the leader. Is she one of these extremists I wonder? Not being privy to the inner workings of the national party I wouldn't know, but she seemed a bit of a populist to me, in the Muldoon sense. Perhaps someone could enlighten me on her economic proclivities.

Unknown said...

Terrific Chris

Polly said...

Chris a great piece of writing,
William Butler Yeats captured our future battles in its core.
I have dusted off my tin helmet.
Winnie will stay in the trenches, eating his fruits and ice cream.
He will not go over the top.
A fifth columnist to the core.

pat said...

so the polarisation continues? is often said we are 20 years behind the US, are we catching up?

peteswriteplace said...

Perhaps Bill finally realised where he was, in hell, and wanted right out. When does he propose to leave Parliament itself?

Charles E said...

What a stream of malignant fantasy you expel Chris. You just can’t help it perhaps, like indigestion, it has a life of its own within.

What do you know about the National Party? It really is a foreign country to you, a scene of dark visions. A pathology. But Bill, you think is the exception. The rest are bastards …Tosh.

Bill is absolutely core National and there are many like him. His values are the values of our party exactly as he movingly described them. That is Conservatism described. We believe exactly as he did, that people are at their best when they are in a good community and do things for themselves, their families and their neighbourhood. A good government assists this by keeping out of the way as much as intervening. Both, not the destructive constant butting into our lives the left favours, which creates poverty, in all its forms, in the long run by destroying peoples' capacity to thrive free.... on their own two feet.. I will not go on as you do not understand us at all.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"I will not go on as you do not understand us at all."

Thank Christ! Because I freely admit I don't understand why anyone would believe that less government equals less poverty. When you think of the countries that live by that mantra – namely the US in the developed world – it has more poverty than the rest of us put together I would think. And when you think of those countries which are stable, relatively unified, and – yes – happy, you come across the Nordic countries of course, in which the government intervenes a shitload. Perhaps you'd like to address this Charles rather than crapping on about malignancy? Because I can't think of anything more malignant than an extreme conservative.

Kat said...

@ Charles E

Oh dear, Charles it seems you are still at the "anger" stage of the grief process. Its only the third so guess we still have you to go through the forth stage which is "depression". But on a positive note you have the "upward turn" stage to look forward to which could happen for you sooner than later with Jacinda Ardern at the helm. Only if your willing that is.

Andrew Nichols said...

Charles E I used to be a NP member in the late 70s to early 80s at Auckland Uni when the likes of Simon Upton, Martin Gummer and Peter Kiely were there and I think Chris describes the Nats quiet well. There really were and are some rabid rightwing weirdos in the party as well as some fundamentally decent folks. Grew out of homo economicus utopia politics in latter years afyter a scientific career of course and am now a Green in my 60th year. Living an ecologically sustainable lifestyle is the only way we will leave a habitable planet for our kids and grandies.

Anonymous said...

Charles is right of course, about the National Party. But all the same, you made some good points, and you do recognise how fortunate we have been to have John Key and Bill English, instead of the Ruth Richardsons and Judith Collins' of this world.

Maybe Bill will turn out to be the last of his kind, to lead National? I hope not.


Jens Meder said...

English's weakness in his strength was that he could not persuade National to put universal(retirement) wealth creation as a priority before freely consumable tax reductions -
but with one National contender's voice mentioning of giving up tax reductions as an immediate priority -

it is possible that National may move towards the center of the political spectrum by changing its old idealistic belief under the slogan of "Property Owning Democracy" into a measurable policy goal through certain un-liberal wealth ownership creative policies and systematic participation by all.

Such constructive competition with fiscally responsible wealth creative Labour cannot fail in achieving reduced political division and genuine Ownership Democracy sooner rather than later.

Kat said...


Pity John Key and Bill English turned out traitors to the true Kiwi ethos and became bludgers who sucked everything dry that was built up by our pioneering forebears.

Nick J said...

Charles E makes a solid point about National party composition, yes there are good people there. And "bad". They are a bit like Labour, they have progressives, conservatives, liberals, reactionaries, the lot.

I'd posit that since the exposure of the last evils of the extreme Left with the fall of the wall that there are limits to the electorates tolerance of extreme Leftism. The same experience has not recently enough occurred for those extreme elements of the Right, hence their toleration by parts of the National party.

Victor said...

Charles E.

If find myself in partial and surprising agreement with you.

Most people who vote for centre-right parties or represent them in Parliament are decent enough and sincerely committed to the public good as they see it.

The problem with most of them is that they're just plain wrong, normally as a result of an inadequate education, particularly with respect to economics and economic history. Many, I suspect, would fail the "who was J.M. Keynes?" test.

I'm a mite less charitably inclined towards neo-liberal dogmatists (of whom I know you not to be one). Yet the abiding vice of these is normally not cruelty but callousness.

I'd agree that there's a minority who enjoy hitting people when they're down. But then there are sods in all political tribes.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Of course there are decent people in the National party. Stalin used to call them "useful idiots." :)

sumsuch said...

English's Catholicism allowed him to carry on with the completely inappropriate tax cuts for the rich in 2009 in the face of the GFC, and his loving social investment programme (fiddling with families, instead of MONEY)'he was only just starting to roll out' when he was de-elected 9 years later. "Love your neighbour as yourself' , the Christian God's digest of faith, implies the neediest come first rather than this example of realpolitik (indeed, re social improvements, I would prefer the originator of 'realpolitik', Bismarck).

sumsuch said...

Charles E , the govt should get out of the way so ... the rich can prey free as per the last 37 years (if I include the US)? It's all over you know, the decision, on that free-market experiment. The problem is the 1980 rich and powerful occupy all the positions of power, and the 90% underdogs are diverted and comforted short-term enough not to understand or be capable of the REVOLUTION needed to enact the super-evident result. Unlike '35.

It's all covered under how to destroy the human species--slow-boil rather than fast-boil. Like frogs.