Helen and Elizabeth –a pair in history?

As her anniversary in power approached, to my surprise several people volunteered to me that Helen Clark could become our greatest Prime Minister. They have been of the right and the left, of super-high and modest incomes.

They are wildly premature. But are they right? The marker of a long and successful reign, as top politicians of all sorts know, is that it is built on fusion between the ruler and the ruled.

Lee Kuan Yew was an autocrat to his back teeth but was at one with the Singaporean people whom he made prosperous and to whom he gave identity. Bob Hawke’s fellow-feeling with the Aussie battler made him a national leader, not just Labor Prime Minister. Tony Blair would like to achieve that in Britain.

This country’s pre-eminent and perhaps only example is King Dick Seddon, top dog 1893 to 1905. The challenge for each new Prime Minister since then has been to emulate Seddon’s mateship with his people.

It is a particular challenge for bluestocking Ms Clark who last year put at the top of a list of people she would want at her table for a millennium dinner the sainted Joan of Arc.

You can readily see part of the fascination: the virgin Maid of Orleans is a perpetual puzzle for historians and biographers, who have published at least three new studies in the past year. How could a young female nobody from nowhere inspire the military campaign that ultimately expelled the English from medieval France? What about her has made her an embodiment of French national spirit?

This is not only an affair of the mind, however. One of the new studies celebrates Joan’s “gift of passionate action” – and the politics Helen Clark learnt in Auckland University’s liberal-left nursery in the early 1970s were the stuff of youthful idealism.

But another famous virgin of history is more instructive as a guide to Ms Clark: Elizabeth I, Queen of England in Shakespeare’s time.

There are, of course, huge differences, and not just of time and place. Elizabeth was born into a ruling family. She used her beguiling femininity as a management tool and was prone to occasional misjudgments because of her sexuality.

But note the similarities. Formidably intelligent and classically educated, she was a patron of the arts. She was cautious, often cagey, in decision-making and a fiscal conservative – but steely and ruthless in defence of the state (modern equivalent: programme) against enemies.

Most important, Elizabeth doted on the doting of her subjects. If she were a modern-day prime minister she would be solicitous of the opinions of middling sorts of people.

As Ms Clark increasingly is. This is not petty populism of the Prebble or Peters sort. It is recognition that she has to occupy the centre. The Joan in her must yield to the Elizabeth, the backward “correction” of her first year to a forward programme that enriches and inspires ordinary folk.

Elizabeth harnessed wild spirits, to defeat Spain by a revolution in sea warfare and to exploit merchant opportunities. Ms Clark seeks to enlist innovators in a quest for prosperity.

In economic policy Ms Clark is edging nearer her conservative upbringing, that is, towards defining and occupying a new centre, a “third way” between old social democracy and hardline market economics. She is also edging towards Steve Maharey’s notion of “partnership” as the basis of modern social democracy. Constructed intelligently, a web of interlocking partnerships might draw opinion leaders into the Labour orbit and infuse Labour through society. That could make her a transcendent Prime Minister to match Elizabeth’s transcendent monarchy.

An eery parallel with Elizabeth perhaps provides the litmus test.

Elizabeth’s greatest achievement was to intuit a middle way between the murderous religious antagonisms of the Reformation and, with brilliant tactical sensitivity, unite a bruised people. Ms Clark’s greatest challenge is to defuse deepening antagonisms between Maori aspirations and “mainstream” values.

Elizabeth started with a deep and subtle education in the warring theological arguments. Ms Clark came late to a grasp of the true nature of Treaty antagonisms. So there is no assurance she can meet that challenge. But if she does, she may climb up there with Mr Seddon.