|Coming Over The Top: Rory Stewart's memoir, Politics On The Edge, lays bare the dangerous inadequacies of the Western World's current political model.|
VERY FEW NEW ZEALANDERS will have heard of Rory Stewart. Those with a keen eye for the absurdities of politics may recognise the name as that of the hapless Tory cabinet minister who fronted for David Cameron’s government during the catastrophic British floods of 2015. It was Stewart who, glumly – and hilariously – informed the news media that: “[T]he flood walls are working well. The only problem is that the water is coming over the top.”
Not the sort of line that is easy for anyone, let alone a politician, to live down. Perhaps surprisingly, Stewart did recover from his prize-winning clanger and went on to hold many more ministerial portfolios under Cameron and Teresa May.
Boris Johnson, however, was a force of nature Stewart couldn’t survive – even if he’d wanted to. When the extreme Brexiters forced May to resign, Stewart offered himself as the sane alternative to Johnson. Roundly rejected by his fellow Tories, Stewart was then cast out of the Conservative Party altogether by the unforgiving Johnson.
Fascinating though Stewart’s career may have been, the only reason he is again being talked about is because he has written an unusually effective memoir entitled “Politics on the Edge”, in which he lays bare the dangerous inadequacies of the working model of politics currently in use across the Western world. In a powerful essay for the Guardian newspaper, published over the weekend, Stewart summarises the working assumptions of that model:
“The polling graphs, which had brought Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to victory, looked like bell jars with the votes heaped in the centre, and few at the extremes. This era had left a whole generation of politicians with three assumptions: that liberal global markets were the answer to prosperity; that prosperity would spread democracy; and that the world would be governed by a liberal global order.”
With our own general election less than a month away, it is alarming how much of New Zealand’s politics is still governed by these three assumptions. Certainly, National and Labour, the two major parties, in whom close to two-thirds of the voters place their trust, have yet to demonstrate, in either their political demeanour, or their policy platforms, any convincing evidence that they concur with Stewart’s assessment that since the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 “all this has changed”.
Equally alarming is how closely Stewart’s experiences as a cabinet minister chime with what so many close observers of New Zealand politics have reported about the behaviour of our own executive branch of government. There is an ominous familiarity about Stewart’s reflections on the way contemporary politics is conducted:
“I had discovered how grotesquely unqualified so many of us, including myself, were for the offices we were given ….. It was a culture that prized campaigning over careful governing, opinion polls over detailed policy debates, announcements over implementation.”
That last sentence, in particular, could serve as the epitaph of the Sixth Labour Government.
Stewart’s most frightening observation, however, concerns the reckless excavation of the once proud mound of centre-ground:
“The old bell jar opinion poll, with the votes in the centre, [has] been replaced by a U-shape with the votes at the extremes.”
While New Zealand has yet to experience the extreme polarisation to which the United States has fallen prey, there exists a level of dissatisfaction with the way politics is being conducted that could easily be exploited by a populist politician less benign than Winston Peters and more effective than Brian Tamaki.
That such a figure has not arisen, either here or in the United Kingdom, bears out Stewart’s observations concerning the general level of knowledge and competence possessed by the political classes of most western democracies.
Certainly, it is hard to argue with his general thesis that because there continues to be broad agreement among the political and financial elites about how a twenty-first century society and economy should be run, our ideologically redundant politicians now vie with one another for the coveted title of “person the ordinary voter would most enjoy having a drink with”. Stewart would be the first to concede that, in the political celebrity stakes, Boris Johnson is without peer. What his Guardian essay (not to mention Johnson’s and our own Jacinda Ardern’s careers) make clear, however, is that celebrity is not enough.
The fascist leader, Benito Mussolini was much admired by middle-class Britons for making the notoriously unreliable Italian trains run on time. What was deemed admirable in the 1920s is making a resurgence in the 2020s. Democracy is entering that extraordinarily dangerous political space where a political ideology becomes inextricably associated with failure.
It is the principal reason for the Russian people’s troubling indifference (some would say contempt) for democratic values. In their minds, the global elites’ promotion of freedom, democracy and neoliberal capitalism coincided with the simultaneous collapse of Russia’s national prestige and their own personal well-being. Vladimir Putin’s popularity is due, in no small measure, to his success in restoring a fair measure of both.
Similarly, Donald Trump’s enduring political clout arises from his ability to make the degraded white American working-class feel proud again. Democracy is for college kids, sneer the Deplorables, apparently unaware that for a frightening proportion of woke college kids, democracy is also an over-rated political system.
Democracy’s steady retreat across the globe has left the moderate Tory, Stewart, reaching for such NGO panaceas as citizens’ assemblies and grass-roots, self-help initiatives. He is plenty smart enough, however, to know that these are nowhere near enough. What he, and a great many moderate politicians like him, are struggling to come up with is a democracy that works.
It’s not easy. This is how he describes the fork in the road at which he, a cabinet minister still in possession of a working brain and conscience, eventually arrived:
“I found myself struggling to produce policies that were other than either a grey compromise between past ideals and the populist present, or policies of the new right, cloaked in the language of the old centre. I acknowledged that the liberal consensus had failed to support manufacturing, adequately regulate the financial industry or invest appropriately in areas such as the north-east. But I struggled to come up with an alternative that did not echo Jeremy Corbyn’s nostalgia for the borrowing, protectionism and subsidies of the 70s.”
Which, depressingly, is where New Zealanders still in possession of a working brain and conscience find themselves struggling, just 26 days out from the General Election of 2023.
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 18 September 2023.