The key concepts in Edwards’ first sentence are, of course, “protect” and “conserve”. He bolsters these, in the next, with “caution”, “reassurance” and “normality”. Though he does not say so explicitly, Edwards clearly regards these concepts as irreconcilable with any genuinely radical purpose.
Radicalism and left-wing politics are generally held to be inseparable: to describe someone as a left-winger presupposes their possession of a radical disposition – and programme. It is not, however, permissible to argue that the reverse is true: one can be a radical and yet have not the slightest respect for left-wing ideas. Indeed, these days there are arguably many more radicals on the Right, than on the Left.
That being the case, Edwards’ generally negative framing of Ardern’s “conservatism” is more than a little problematic. To be a radical, or, to use Edwards’ own words, “a pioneering progressive or socialist” is not always to be, more-or-less by definition, on the side of the angels. (Or, for that matter, the Proletariat!)
In honour of the season, let us take as our example the “radical” measures adopted by the puritan supporters of the “Commonwealth” – the republican political arrangement held in place by Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army (think: the Taliban in breastplates!) between 1649 and 1660.
By the puritans’ radical reading of Christianity, festivals such as Christmas were altogether too close to pagan revelry for the comfort of God-fearing men and women. Even before the execution of King Charles I in 1649, the radical protestants who dominated the House of Commons had thought it best to encourage his subjects to treat the mid-winter period “with the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’.”
Legislation confirming this puritanical rejection of the sinfully joyous yuletide season soon followed. The feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun were simply removed from the Christian calendar. From 1644 until the Restoration in 1660, celebrating Christmas was illegal. As C.S. Lewis, that devout Christian, keen royalist, Oxford scholar and children’s author puts it in The Lion, The Witch, & The Wardrobe: “Always winter and never Christmas; think of that!”
Leaving Narnia behind, and returning to this considerably less enchanting world, we might further consider the actions of other radical puritans – like those belonging to the now thankfully defunct Islamic State. Or, the radical “Tea Party” Republicans, who saw moderation as treason and prepared the way for the radically disruptive Donald J. Trump. Thirty years on, a great many New Zealanders still resent deeply the radical reforms of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson. Even more Kiwis, in 2020, are profoundly grateful that their Prime Minister did not adopt the radically unsuccessful Swedish approach to fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.
Perhaps the strangest observation in Edwards’ Guardian article argues that Ardern’s “self-declared ‘politics of kindness’ isn’t particularly revolutionary, nor very tangible”. In a world where the very idea of kindness has been out of fashion for so long, the Prime Minister’s use of the word generated a public response that was as physical in its consequences as it was revolutionary in its intent. It was kindness that bound together “The Team of Five Million”, and it was their unforced solidarity and unity of purpose that made New Zealand the envy of the world. Tell all those young New Zealanders dancing at this summer’s music festivals; tell all the grandparents who hugged their grandchildren on Christmas Day; that the “politics of kindness” has produced no tangible effect!
Edwards also notes that: “The political left is […] increasingly bristling at the conservatism of Ardern.” To many New Zealanders, however, that will not be interpreted as a bad thing – quite the reverse, in fact. When they think of the political left, the images called to mind are not of Cabinet ministers carrying furniture into the first state house. No, their thoughts are all about the excoriating tweets, outlandish claims and bitter recriminations of “Cancel Culture”; and the equally distressing diatribes against “colonisation”, “hate speech” and “white privilege”. If the Prime Minister has made it her mission to “protect” people like themselves – ordinary Kiwis – from such excesses, and to “conserve” a measure of decency in their country’s political discourse, then they won’t be “bristling” – they’ll be cheering.
Just like the hundreds-of-thousands of Englishmen and women who lined country roads and filled city streets from Dover to London to welcome home Charles Stuart – King Charles II – in the very merry month of May 1660.
The dour regime of the Commonwealth; of Cromwell’s “Protectorate”; may have been radical (certainly they were the only successful republicans in 1,500 years of English history) but they were also dictatorial and joyless. For centuries after the rule of the New Model Army’s “Major-Generals”, Englishmen resisted the idea of a large standing army as a threat to their “ancient liberties”. The restoration of the monarchy (and Christmas!) was indisputably the wish and will of the overwhelming majority of the English people. If they had been given a vote on it in 1660, Charles would have won by a landslide.
If its “conservative” to give the people what they want, then Jacinda Ardern is a conservative. If protecting them from Covid-19 and political extremism is “conservative” then she stands guilty-as-charged. If offering people caution, reassurance, and a semblance of normality as the rest of the world plunges deeper into chaos, makes our Prime Minister a “conservative”, then that’s a badge-of-honour she can wear with pride.
Dr Edwards favours radical change, but he does not appear to be aware of what motivates people to seek change. Throughout history, the popular call for change has been motivated overwhelmingly by a fervent desire to restore the status-quo ante: to make things the way they were before they went wrong. Only very seldom are masses of human-beings moved to demand a shift towards an entirely new and unfamiliar order of things. Certainly, history is studded with minorities who were absolutely certain about the proper ordering of paradise. Most people, however, hanker after the good times they remember – and not for H.G. Wells’ “Things To Come”. Radicals would do well to remember that the winning slogan in the 2016 Brexit Referendum was “Take Back Control”. It was the back wot won it!
Which leaves me wondering whether, in these peculiar times, the only true radicals are conservatives. If the only way to ensure that the voters’ lives remain the same, is for everything to be changed, then I strongly suspect that Jacinda Ardern is the ideal politician for the job.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 28 December 2020.