Now for a battle of political generations

We now have a battle of political generations. That is what Bill English’s leisurely accession to the National party leadership spells.

Helen Clark is, in political terms, a child of the 1960s and early 1970s. English is politically a child of the 1990s. The next four years will be a contest between their different ways of viewing the world.

The last great clash of political generations was the 1980s overthrow by Clark’s political generation of the previous generation, the children of the 1940s, personified by Sir Robert Muldoon.

Ask an under-30 who Muldoon was and the answer will be: someone from history. No one under 30 voted in the 1980s.

Even 40-something English was eligible to vote only twice under Muldoon, in his twilight years as a Prime Minister. By the time English got to Parliament in 1990 the battle had been won in government and the National party against 1940s security and for the Rogernomics market-centred version of a new liberalism.

By contrast, those who went through that battle cannot quite leave it behind. Jenny Shipley is only six years older than English but she is on the other side of the political generation divide. Her prime ministership was about defending and reinforcing the new liberalism.

Clark is also on the other side of the political generation divide and hostage to the 1980s arguments. Her leadership of Labour has been in part a mission to restate a version of the new liberalism which recognises some inescapable post-1980s realities (or, perhaps more accurately, perceptions) but is also recognisable as “Labour” to those whose formative political years were the same as hers, the late 1960s or early 1970s. This is particularly so in social policy.

Say the phrase “microeconomic reform” in Clark’s presence and she interprets it as an ideology (Rogernomics) which she abhors.

Say the phrase “microeconomic reform” to Bill English and he sees it as a cost-benefit exercise. If benefits outweigh costs, you do it. If costs outweigh benefits, you don’t. The same goes for social policy reform. For most under-40s the Rogernomics convulsion, like Muldoon, is just an historical event.

Contrast that with ACT’s worship of market economics as an ideology, a management challenge for National in any coalition. And contrast Clark’s repositioning with the Alliance’s recent triumphal 1940s assertions of public ownership as correct ideology.

But to say the English-Clark contest is a battle of political generations is to say nothing about who will prevail. Some generations get lost.

The Clark generation is still relatively young and very vigorous. The huge poll lead Clark’s left has over English’s right (17 per cent average this month) strongly suggests Clark will run the government after 2002.

Moreover, the English political generation is not all of one piece. Ask many under-40s about our fate and future and the conversation is likely at some point to take on a greenish hue. For the moment that green dimension is arrayed with the Clark political generation, not the English one.

But English’s appointment– provided he doesn’t plunge National even lower than its record low vote in 1999 — is for four years, till the 2005 election, not one.

That gives him time to connect with voters. It gives him time to flesh out a new National policy tone.

To do that he will reverse out of the “extremism” of the Shipley generation. Conservative parties suffer badly when they have bouts of radicalism. National’s attack of that virus in the 1980s-90s laid it very low.

Conservative parties are best self-defined as parties of government, non-ideological or even anti-ideological. They do that by identifying, and identifying with, the political centre of gravity, substituting pragmatism for purity, forging a fudgy unity by accommodating diversity.

That is what English aims to do. But Clark has also set about anchoring Labour to the centre of gravity. And she has the advantage of office, which gives her the opportunity to make the agenda and prolong her generation’s hold on power.

English’s opportunity is that Clark every now and then lets show a flash of ageing ideology. Whether he can turn such generational slips into a transfer of power is the contest of the next four years.