Bill English conservative: a 2000s update

Four years ago Bill English was crushed on the anvil of defeat and humiliation. Today he is a darling of his party again — and the most convincing definer of the modern conservatism that will position his party in the John Key era.

English rose effortlessly to the top of the National party, pre-ordained from youth and armed with a good degree and a stint in the Treasury to add to farm life as a child. He also was armed with a strong Catholic faith.

English doesn’t talk easily about his faith. It is personal and the personal and the political are separate, he says. But his recovery from failure at the polls and as leader has an air of redemption about it.

He has been hardened. He has done some deep rethinking. Both were ingredients in his combination of conciliation and hard bargaining last weekend which produced the new team and the most promise of unity and directional steadiness in more than a generation.

For that directional steadiness, the party needs a firm sense of what it stands for. In the 1970s Sir Robert Muldoon abducted National into “ordinary bloke” populism which ended in tears for the country and the party. In the 1990s Ruth Richardson carried it off into what both Key and English call neoliberal territory — fine for a time and for the times but in tune neither with party tradition nor the voting pluralities it needed for power.

Key understands that. His speeches this week paint a centre-right positioning that is much more centre than right. And Key can make that highly saleable, with his affable, unflappable media presence and his press-the-button words and phrases. The “values” he propounds are values to which his party and its supporters can readily subscribe — and some of Labour’s supporters besides.

Key has also done some reading of party history and makes a good fist of listing the party’s principles, tracing them back to the 1940s.

But if you want a deeper way of thinking about National and what the modern conservative believes, English does it better — and with more depth and assurance than when he expounded a “new conservatism” in the late 1990s in these pages.

Then “order” was a starting point. Now he starts with “respect” and keeps returning to it. He also talks a lot about “collectives”, which is not what you normally expect to hear from a conservative. In English’s world individuals are not the isolated beings of neoliberalism.

And he talks of “values, character, ethics and trust” as being at the heart of society and people’s dealings with each other and the government.

“The first thing is respect for the integrity of every person, which means you trust people to make their own decisions,” he says.

“The second thing is responsibility. People are capable of taking responsibility for the decisions they make about their jobs, what teams they join, how they vote — and what crimes they commit.

“If you have respect for people and believe they can take responsibility, then there is always hope if they go off the rails, because everyone has the capacity to make a different decision and change the consequences.” Following these two principles casts the government’s role as to underpin, not dominate. “People run their own lives.” So the government’s role is to provide clear rules, show respect and “allow people to express their humanity individually and collectively”.

It is at this point that something nearing “order” enters English’s present formulation.

People are in families and in iwi and join churches and sports teams and other organisations. That, too, demands respect.

“People function with their own unique integrity. Often they choose to join up with others. And that is where true conservatism is different from neoliberalism.

“The fact that people want to share aspirations and work together is absolutely important. It’s how you keep the government in its proper context.”

“The government is the expression of some collective will,” he says, but it does not have a monopoly on collective action. “For most people the practical reality is that they are in families, communities and other organisations that are expressions of their identities, values and characters. We should respect that, too.”

And that distinguishes English’s conservatism from what he calls a “rightwing view” which “says whatever people do together doesn’t matter, that it is just what they do themselves that counts.

“My traditions are collective as well as individual traditions. What people do together is as vital as what they do individually.

“On markets and regulation I am quite dry. Markets are a great way to express individual preferences. But that has to be underpinned by a collective sense of trust and responsibility. This has never been a society of isolated individuals.”

Which leads English to talk of “social justice”, normally a phrase social democrats claim as their own. He also adds “progressive” in front of “conservative”, as if to claim modernity, in much the way 1972-72 leader Sir John Marshall hyphenated liberal and conservative half a century ago. Liberal Key could easily agree.

“Social justice is a powerful idea. It puts us on the watch for unearned and undeserved privilege,” English says.

So English’s modern conservatism is not about preserving privilege. Traditional conservatism’s primacy of place for order, which conserves privilege, is out of order in English’s lexicon. It clashes with respect.

This goes especially for privileges “accumulated by the masters of an aggressive welfare state”. The state must earn its place in people’s lives by “respectfully and effectively supporting them”, he says.

So social justice is “fundamentally about respect for the integrity of the person”, a respect it demonstrates by ensuring people have genuine choices even if they have diminished capacity.

So for those people who don’t feel they belong — being poor or alienated or incapacitated — part of a conservative government’s job is “to provide that sense of belonging for people by ensuring they are looked after”.

And the conservative’s state does not always do the looking after. “The government should recognise the ability of other organisations to meet those needs — that is, to show respect for the way people organise themselves.”

The present government, he says, tends to treat people it regards as vulnerable as “passive, hopeless people who are going to stay that way forever”.

And where does “respect” for collective associations take English as a modern conservative?

To acceptance of groups which “we have often regarded with fear. I don’t regard the way Maori and unions organise, for example, as a threat any more than the way business organises is a threat. All should be treated with respect instead of fear.”

At this point we are getting close to Key’s “inclusive society”. Key and English know that to be a convincing conservative government, they must reach beyond National’s most ardent supporters’ comfort zone — reach into Maori and wage-worker territory.

And in any case politics is a “noisy contest of ideas”.

Which leads us back, un-noisily, to English’s Catholicism. Some of his political ideas trace back to the Catholic tradition, he says. “I personally think that trust and values and character have spiritual roots. Most people instinctively understand there is a common goodness bigger than them.”

Some of his personal positioning directly relates to his Catholicism. For example, he opposes abortion and euthanasia, as believing Catholics do.

But though conservative in his personal positions, he is liberal in his attitude to others’ positions. He respects other views and does not try to force his view on others, as the church does.

He notes that the churches have less moral authority they once had.

So what does he get from the church?

“I go to mass every week. I don’t understand all the theology and any religious faith is a continuous wrestle with doubt,” he says (declining to say whether he believes in such mystical matters as transubstantiation, the virgin birth or the trinity).

“But at mass I hear stories and see rituals which are thousands of years old and I hear words I don’t hear every day, like mercy, forgiveness and sin and these stories and rituals and words are an anchor in my life.”

He nevertheless insists his religious beliefs are personal. “They are not relevant to the public.”

Maybe not. But, given the depths of his humiliation four years ago and his unceremonious ouster three years ago, something gave him the strength to recover his standing within the party and his nerve and last weekend stake an undeniable claim to a role in the leadership.