The price of ditching a long-held principle

Social democrats once prided themselves on being internationalists. Workers across national borders were presumed to share a common oppression by capitalists. Nationalism was a game played by the ruling classes.

Helen Clark is heir to this tradition. It was a principle that sent Peter Fraser to jail for sedition in World War I. Half a century later the tradition spurred a generation of idealists to champion small countries, from Vietnam to El Salvador, against the United States. Ms Clark was one.

Hang on a minute. Who’s this Peter Fraser?

He was a modest but intensely purposeful man who combined principle and power and became an international statesman. The jacket blurb of a new biography by Michael Bassett flatly says he was our greatest Prime Minister.

He saw to the erection of the world’s first comprehensive welfare state, though with a firmly expected reciprocity from those helped that is dangerously absent from today’s softer social democracy. His personal achievement was a comprehensive education system. It was all done on balanced budgets.

Mr Fraser was an impressive war leader from 1940-45. At the formation of the United Nations he towered above other small-country leaders, an influential force — praised by such giants as Jawaharlal Nehru, Franklin Roosevelt and Sir Winston Churchill.

By the end of his reign he was all-powerful at home. He ran the government like an east European potentate, through a tiny group. The economy and society were crushingly regulated.

No modern social democrat would dare, and few even want, to recreate Mr Fraser’s sprawling regulatory edifice — none less than Dr Bassett, a 1984-90 Labour cabinet Rogergnome, no longer a party member and author of a book savaging state intervention.

His distaste shows in this new book. What does not show enough, however his third and least successful (though detailed, informative and absorbing) political biography, is the inner Fraser. A leader who “touched lives but not hearts”, Mr Fraser left little to go on beyond the reminiscences of his now long-departed inner circle.

This is a pity because his is the nearest stylistic parallel to Ms Clark’s prime ministership.

She has the strongest grip on a cabinet since his. Although, like Mr Fraser, militarism offends her, she would prove a Boadicea if we got in a scrap where the moral was clear, as it was to Mr Fraser in World War II and the early Cold War.

Ms Clark, also a defensively private person, runs her show through a very small clique. She, like him, is cautious not to get adrift of the public — though he had the advantage of implementing untested certitudes and she, in uncertain times, has to feel her way. She has something of Mr Fraser’s puritanism — witness her priggishness on public service pay. She values the arts, as he did. Her instincts are, as his were, to disregard colour and race.

And she is an internationalist. Or is she? Was he?

Mr Fraser preached collective international action to close down war. But his 1940s economy was intensely nationalistic, shutting out imports, and immigration was mono-ethnic British.

Ms Clark knows those policies proved unsustainable and preaches internationalist free trade instead. But her motive is nationalist self-interest (we might get left out).

Her defence policy is internationalist in preaching peace, the United Nations and good works by the army in sad faraway territories. But it rejects internationalist notions of recognising and responding to friends’ self-defence needs and excuses that on narrow nationalist strategic and fiscal grounds (we aren’t threatened, we won’t afford it).

And it was Ms Clark and her officials who proposed to (an admittedly hard-nosed) Australia to ditch a longstanding internationalist principle of community between the peoples of the Tasman. Near-automatic common citizenship has been sacrificed to nationalistic budgetary savings (illusory over the long haul).

Ms Clark makes much of “nation-building”. Ancient social democrats would say: fine, if it doesn’t diminish international brotherhood and sisterhood. But Ms Clark is no ancient social democrat.