Chris Trotter: Keeping the nation in National

Bill English faces the daunting task of putting the national back into National.

Bill English faces the daunting task of putting the national back into National.

Many people were surprised at Bill English's point-blank refusal to order an inquiry into Operation Burnham. What did he have to lose? If an inquiry exposed misconduct in the military, then his decision would have been justified. If it didn't, then his decision would have vindicated the military's actions. Either way, it was a win-win proposition for the Prime Minister and his party.

Except that no one who understands the origins and purpose of the National Party would ever expect it to sanction anything that might harm the reputation of our armed forces. National is the party of order and tradition; the party of hierarchy: and of the firm belief that there is a right way, and a wrong way, to do things.

National is also the party that was pulled together out of the political wreckage of 1935 by former military officers. Colonel H.G. Livingstone, Colonel James Hargest and Colonel S.C.P. Nichols all played prominent roles in the National Party's formation.

From the very beginning, National saw its mission as one of maintaining and, if necessary, restoring the conservative status-quo. Its founding documents speak of the need to "arouse and maintain interest in political matters . . . and to oppose subversive and other doctrines".

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This would require the creation of a mass organisation on a par with the Labour Party's. In the words of National's inaugural chairman, Claude Weston: "a political organisation to be of maximum assistance to its members must not be allowed to hibernate, only to wake up on the eve of an election. Like our friends of the Labour Party . . . we must work day and night; year in and year out."

National proved as good as its word, building up a mass movement that would, within a couple of decades, outstrip Labour's own. In the countryside, its membership overlapped that of Federated Farmers, the local presbytery, rugby club and school committee. In the towns and cities its members were prominent in the local Chambers of Commerce, Employers' Associations, Lodges and Rotary Clubs.

To an extent that Labour never quite matched, the National Party became the mouthpiece for its class. Its "organic intellectuals" were the lawyers, accountants and producer board grandees who kept the wheels of New Zealand capitalism turning through the third quarter of the 20th century.

When, during the final leaders' debate of the 2005 general election, Don Brash rather tactlessly equated National Party voters with "Mainstream New Zealand", he was exaggerating – but only slightly. So adept has the National Party become at aggregating middle-class interests and opinions that its policies are still widely received as reflections of common sense.

But, National's mission in the final quarter of the 20th century, and its role in shaping New Zealand's domestic politics in the twenty-first, was destined to grow increasingly complicated and even, at times, become self-contradictory. As the Keynesian world order began to break down in the 1970s, and as the structural weaknesses of the New Zealand economy were relentlessly exposed – National was forced to maintain its grip on power by tacking aggressively to the left.

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The essence of Sir Robert Muldoon's success lay in his ability to combine the cross-class political appeal of unbridled social conservatism with policies grounded in radical economic nationalism. By the early 1980s, however, Muldoon's Keynesianism-in- one-country had fallen seriously out-of- step with the emerging requirements of a rapidly globalising capitalist system. The Labour Party was thus enabled to present itself as the more effective vector for the urgent economic and social transformations being demanded.

The resulting "Neoliberal" regime was to prove almost as destabilising of National's electoral position as it was of Labour's. A political movement founded to protect the core values and essential institutions of the New Zealand nation state, was now expected to "sell" the benefits of rampant globalisation – along with its attendant liberal-cosmopolitan cultural values.

National's crucial role in preserving the ideological and cultural unity of the New Zealand middle-class was seriously impaired as international investment and mass immigration continued to both disrupt and displace domestic elites. Winston Peters' NZ First Party was born out of – and continues to be buoyed up by – the deeply-felt grievances of globalisation's local "losers".

National's defence of the national interest now consisted of urging New Zealanders to embrace the logic of globalisation by becoming more competitive, more innovative, and more flexible vis-a-vis the wider world. John Key, the highly successful international currency trader, epitomised the attributes and values of this "new" New Zealander – exuding an easy confidence which persuaded not only National voters, but also large numbers of erstwhile Labour voters, that the Left/Right "tribal" politics of yesteryear had been superseded.

The dramatic events of 2016 clearly persuaded Key that the era of post-politics politics was over. With his departure, Bill English faces the daunting task of putting the nation back into National.

 - Stuff


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