Two birthdays with reminders of change and continuity

Friday is the Labour party’s ninetieth birthday. Today is the United States’ 230th. What would the founders think?

Labour was born in a time of darkest war, imperial grandeur gone bad. It was born in part of failure to improve working conditions through direct action and recognition that if improvement was to be won through political action, the movement’s disparate strands had to work as one.

Revolution was exchanged for reform, socialism exchanged for social democratic adjustment of capitalism, international brotherhood and sisterhood in a borderless world exchanged for nationalism.

Two fringes were left unrepresented: idealists who could not accept the compromise, later generations of whom idolised the likes of Che Guevara or joined the Alliance; and communists, who ran out of heroes as their creed turned repressive, then decayed.

Labour ran out of reforming energy in the 1940s, recovered some of it with a new generation in the 1960s only to hit the stagflation wall in the 1970s, careered into deregulation in the 1980s and groped to a “third way” in the 1990s.

Would the founders recognise modern Labour? In 1916 theory was the foundation for action; the theory for Labour’s 2000s economic policy has followed action. “Values” have replaced doctrine. Keywords project a “brand”. A “centenary project” aims to build funds and energise members.

There are nevertheless strong threads of continuity:

* an internationalist foreign policy, influentially pursued by Peter Fraser (an anti-conscription jailbird in 1916) at the United Nations’ founding — Helen Clark, internationally respected in her own right, is recognisably his heir;

* a belief that wages are sustenance and the foundation of dignity, not a cost — still the deepest dividing line between Labour and National;

* a belief that life chances should be evened up — focused originally on the working class, now more often on gays, ethnic minorities, the disabled and other disadvantaged;

* a belief in the state’s power to change society for the better and its duty to do so.

What about that other birthday? Would the founders of George Washington’s America recognise George Bush’s?

For by far the most part yes. But in one sense no. They fought against an imperial power and a misused royal prerogative. Bush acts as if heading an imperial power and misuses presidential prerogative.

Last week the Supreme Court whacked him for unconstitutional behaviour over Guantanamo Bay prisoners. But his delinquency goes far beyond that.

Imagine if Helen Clark set aside Parliament’s exception of working dogs from microchipping. Dame Sian Elias at the Supreme Court would intone stern admonitions when it reached her. Farmers would be out in force on their tractors.

The doctrine is clear in our constitution, “unwritten” though it is. The Executive, nominally headed by the Governor-General but in action by the Prime Minister, must implement laws passed by Parliament.

The famous Fitzgerald v Muldoon case in 1976 made that clear after Sir Robert Muldoon had purported by press statement to absolve companies from paying into Labour’s compulsory superannuation scheme for employees. Parliament subsequently cancelled the scheme but it was still the law when he issued his directive.

In the United States in the 1980s President Ronald Reagan began issuing his interpretations of Congress’s bills to guide possible court rulings. Now, writes Elizabeth Drew in a chilling article in the June 22 New York Review of Books, Bush has gone much further.

He issues “signing statements” which counter laws Congress has passed: 750 according to the Boston Globe. Examples Drew gives are refusing to implement a requirement for more diversity in awarding government science scholarships, overruling “numerous” items in appropriation bills, not reporting back to Congress on implementing some bills as required in them and severely limiting inspectors created by Congress to, for example, examine activities in Iraq.

Bush has asserted two justifications: the “inherent” power of the Commander-in-chief; and a shadowy “unitary executive” doctrine allegedly giving him power over the Congress and the courts.

Conservative Grover Norquist says that means “you don’t have a constitution; you have a king”. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel says: “If it was a Clinton presidency, we’d be holding hearings.”

Bush could have vetoed bills he didn’t like but chose to sneak rather than risk being over-ruled.

Does it matter to us down here?

Yes. The revolution 230 years ago which today’s birthday marks gave the world powerful ideals of governance and liberty. Though often honoured in the breach, as ideals are, they have been and are a light shining into corners where peoples are oppressed.

The good news is that the ideals will outlive Bush. Just as Labour has always insisted its mission is bigger than its leaders, so America’s liberty is greater than its presidents.

Birthdays remind us of those deep continuities.