Getting on the right side of history

A big part of success in government is to be on the right side of history. It’s not easy.

First, history comes in slices and in grades. You can be on the right side of history for a couple of years, only to find you have been in a little eddy current by the bank going in the other direction from the main current.

Second, history is continuous change. Governments, risk-averse to a fault in pursuit of re-election, can quickly fall behind.

Third, a government can get ahead of history. That can be as fatal as getting too far behind.

National clearly was on the right side of history in the 1950s and 1960s, marrying liberalism to the welfare state. Labour was locked into its achievements of the 1930s and 1940s.

But the values revolution among the young — sexual liberation, opposition to the Vietnam war, environmentalism and a sense that the welfare state could eventually ensure full participation by everyone — passed National by.

Labour chimed in but then the 1973 oil shock destroyed its economic management credibility and, though no one knew it at the time, nullified the notion of the perfectibility of the welfare state. Sir Robert Muldoon stayed rigidly on the wrong side of the values revolution and was a slave to “security” at the very time the rising generation, especially in his own party, was worshipping “freedom”.

This burst through after 1984 in another revolution, a restructuring which undid much of the welfare state’s economic underpinning.

This carried a suicidal Labour government far ahead of history. For an eery parallel, note the fate of the British Conservatives, previously the party of protectionism, after their leader Sir Robert Peel’s rapid liberalisation in the 1840s.

The Conservatives split and spent most of the next three decades out of office. Labour here split four ways between 1989 and 1994. It was able to recover during the 1990s because National went uncharacteristically radical in its early years in government.

That allowed Labour in 1999 to cruise an eddy current of reaction against the “extremism” of the 1990s. But that left it in danger, by mid-2000, of being marooned in a backwater as history moved on into the 2000s decade.

This evoked another spectre from mid-nineteenth-century Britain when a brief Conservative rule served only to underline a longer rule by its Liberal opponents.

The portent was visible to close politics-watchers through 1999. National’s rising generation of ministers, the so-called “brat pack” of 30-somethings Bill English, Tony Ryall, Nick Smith and Roger Sowry, were developing a new policy line that married market economics and modest microeconomic reform to reform of the welfare state. In essence, they were trying to winch National out of its 1990s historical trap of continually refighting the 1980s revolution.

But in 1999 National suppressed the brat pack’s catchy presentations. And in opposition in 2000 the brat pack broke up, some seduced by attack theory and English adrift while he thought about his future.

Only recently has a genuine 2000s policy begun to emerge in National, mainly in a series of thoughtful speeches by English loaded with economic strategy, to move on from what he calls the “passive” reliance on deregulation to attract investment.

That is, only recently has National caught up with history.

Helen Clark took advantage of the vacuum in 2000. While National was fixated on her initial failure in the winter to hose down the Treaty of Waitangi issues raised by Tariana Turia, she acquired ownership of the “knowledge society” language.

She thus began to move on from her unhistorical 1990s mission to reverse some of the 1980s revolution — and potentially to claim the 2000s ahead of National.

It is far too early to tell whether Clark is on the right track historically or whether an English-type National might elbow past her. An accurate reading of historical currents is possible only in retrospect — contemporary readings are often falsified by later events.

But on one point there is clarity. Of Labour’s two helpers the Alliance is the representative of those marooned on the other side of the 1980s revolution and the Greens are calling for another revolution.

Guess which of those two will go up and which down in 2002. But is the Greens’ mixture of apocalypse and utopia the next stage of history or a branch line? We don’t know. Nor does Labour, which may have to work with them after 2002 and is dead scared of getting ahead of history again.