Principle is for the back pocket in a realists trade

Politics is a realists’ trade. The most artful practitioners keep principle in the back pocket, if anywhere.

Bill English says he is hewing a principled line on Iraq. This fits in with his declaration in his first speech this session that National will hold the government to account according to National’s principles.

Whether it does, we will have to wait and see. English has yet to restate National’s principles in a manner that distils out the policy positioning that hardened into dogma during the 1990s.

He will do that as part of a reshaping of the party that will include a constitutional conference early next year to turn it into a truly national party that, unlike in the July disaster, can fight elections as a single unit for the party vote. Reform will also involve a wider policy debate than the musings of a caucus that has lost respect.

To restate principles does not mean inventing new ones. It is to state again, in a form relevant to the issues of the 2000s, National’s enduring principles — which you might sum up as embodied in a property-owning, liberal democracy that values order.

Helen Clark did that for Labour in her conference speech in 1995. It was at that point that Labour’s inner recovery started.

Principles are not doctrine or dogma. Many National MPs have intoned policy as if reciting a catechism, so that too many voters have come to see it as narrow and dry. English will aim for something with greater breadth.

Low taxes demonstrate the difference. Low taxes are not a principle. They are a policy mechanism to give effect to the principles of self-reliance and private enterprise. In the past 10 years they have become National dogma, with limited appeal to a majority that fears inadequate social services.

The value of principles is in branding. They are flags to run up a party’s mast. They are gauges against which to measure performance.

But they do not substitute for performance and they must not conflict with the real world. Politicians too hung up on principle are not realists. Such politicians are confined to the margins.

The Greens have shown how. They elevated a principle about genetic modification to a tablet-of-stone commandment. That ensured they lost Coromandel and punctured their ballooning poll ratings.

New Zealand First elevated getting tough on crime to the status of principle during the election campaign. But Brian Donnelly, mauled in the street, did not forthwith lay a complaint with the police. Can they fix it? No they don’t.

So let’s check out English’s principled stand on Iraq.

The strong principled case for intervention in Iraq is liberation of the Iraqi people from want, fear and a dictator’s murderous habits. Saddam Hussein could lift the blockade on his suffering people by bowing to United Nations demands to prove Iraq has not made, and is not developing, “weapons of mass destruction”.

Now he is unnecessarily courting a United States attack. He is failing a governor’s first responsibility: the responsibility to protect his citizens.

English’s case is not liberation in accordance with the principle of the responsibility to protect. It is alignment with our “traditional allies”, who are claiming, on weak publicised evidence, a strategic threat by Iraq. And actually he is not in favour of ally status with the United States, since he won’t repeal the anti-nuclear policy which keeps us at most a friend.

So in reality he is making a realist’s case. This is the one made by his senior MP Lockwood Smith. It is that the less supportive we are of the United States, the less likely we are to get a free trade agreement.

This was underlined at the weekend. The new United States’ national security strategy includes Australia and excludes New Zealand from the list of “focal point” countries for free trade agreements.

So much for English’s principles, appropriately, in a centre-right party, subservient to realism. Is Clark more principled?

She has stuck to a principle of a multilateralist, rules-based approach to critical international issues: action against Iraq needs an explicit United Nations sanction.

Nothing there about liberating the Iraqi people. Lots there about ensuring no rebellion in her ranks. Clark is a realist.