• Get Over It, National

    As the National party struggles to come to terms with its failure to win the general election, it needs to face up to the reality of its situation.  So far, it has done little more than feel sorry for itself, and that has been rapidly followed by looking for someone to blame.

    The prevailing sentiment is that, in reality, they “won” the election and were cheated out of it – if not by a perverse electoral system, then by an unprincipled chancer who refused to play by the rules.

    What they will not recognise is that they were required to play by the rules that everyone else (including the electorate as a whole) had accepted, and that their failure to prevail was theirs alone.  They lost because they could not assemble enough seats in parliament to command a majority.

    What they cannot seem to accept is that, having held office for nine years and won three elections in a row, it should have come as no surprise that the voters might have been prepared to give someone else a chance – especially when the main opposition had a new lease of life under a new and charismatic leader.  Nor should it have been a surprise that the voters who signalled their wish for a change should have reached a range of different views (under a proportional representation voting system) as to precisely who they wanted to see take over, and that it was then up to the various parties to construct a parliamentary majority and form a government.

    The difficulty National has had in accepting these simple truths is significant in at least a couple of respects.  First, it represents a real obstacle to their chances of recognising, rapidly adjusting to, and overcoming their current plight.  And secondly, it tells us something about how National sees its place in New Zealand politics.

    Although my own political sympathies lie elsewhere, I like to think that I have some insight into that very question – and that is because my own dear (and long departed) parents were lifelong National party supporters, as were their parents before them.  For them, the way they voted was less a matter of personal advantage or political calculation as it was an expression of a social attitude.  “People like us”, they felt, and would sometimes say, “vote National”.

    “People like us”, in their terms, were people who had a vested interest in the status quo, by virtue of their achievements, and who therefore had a special responsibility to maintain the social order.  And with that responsibility came a special and unique role – to be available to take the important decisions needed to hold society together.

    It is only a short step from those assumptions to a belief that the exercise of governmental power was almost a kind of birthright, and that any departure from that norm was at best an aberration.  I encountered a much more overt and deliberate expression of the same attitude when I became involved in British politics.

    British Conservatives, of course, operate in a much more class-conscious society than we are used to, and noblesse oblige is perhaps one of the less objectionable manifestations of the belief that some people are “born to rule”.  It is an attitude that generations of public-school educated boys took with them, for good or ill (more usually for ill), to the further corners of the Empire.

    It may seem somewhat fanciful to draw a parallel between the New Zealand National party and the British establishment, but I suspect that the incredulity of National supporters at the loss of power and their refusal to accept it or accommodate it stems from a similar belief that they are meant to govern and that the natural order has somehow been overturned by the advent of a Labour-led government.

    The sooner National can get over their failure to win, and can accept that they have no special claim to government, the better for them and for New Zealand politics.  The most difficult lessons are sometimes the most salutary.

    Bryan Gould

    8 February 2018

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