Conviction leaders…where are they?

The world needs leaders with conviction, what I call a gut politician. New Zealand desperately needs the same. Leaders like Margaret Thatcher who did what was required because it was the right thing to do. Unfortunately we get the limp “aspirational” politicians.

The nostalgia of the past week following the death of the former Conservative prime minister has shown that voters want a sense of moral mission.

The magic word of the week was “conviction” – which replaced “aspiration” as the one every political leader had to utter as many times as possible in every public pronouncement. There was no longer any question, apparently, about whether “conviction politics” was a good or a bad thing, or whether it was an optional extra for political leaders. (How did that notion ever get off the ground, anyway? After all, what is the alternative: lack-of-conviction politics?) Convictions are simply strongly held, principled beliefs. What business would you have pursuing power if you had no strong principled beliefs about what was right for the country?

Unfortunately, until about 20 minutes ago, it was fashionable to imply that there was something faintly demonic about being a conviction-led leader: that it was tantamount to demagoguery or just implacable bloody-mindedness. And no one was more guilty of perpetrating this fiction than the present generation of Tories. But let’s not go over that ground again. I have said it before and I repeat it here: the great Modernising Terror is over.

The events of this past week, when the ragged anti-Thatcher protest failed to gain any traction, and the nation seemed united in respect and admiration (to the manifest surprise of the BBC), snuffed out any remaining flicker of doubt. It is safe now to speak with reverence about what the Conservatives accomplished in the 1980s. Something like real politics is back. Even if nobody is absolutely sure what it might consist of, we have a pretty clear idea of what it should look like. It is fairly crucial that the people who espouse it sound as if they believe in something. Using the word “convictions” all the time without embarrassment is not quite the same thing as having them. But it’s a start. 

Is David Shearer such a leader? Doubt it, David Cunliffe? Not likely. John Key? Nope. Steven Joyce? Hardly. Where are our conviction politicians.

The age of big arguments is over: free-market economics won the ideological war of the last century. All that remains are managerial quibbles over the precise degrees of regulation – the fine tuning of government intervention – that are needed to keep those markets running in a successful and equitable manner. What is left of democratic politics is a contest between competing groups of administrators. It isn’t about passion any more: it’s about practical competence. All of which certainly sounds plausible from a detached, historical point of view.

The trouble is that this is not how the people see it: they continue to have a grander and nobler idea of what it means to lead a nation. The democratic process itself, strangely and wonderfully enough, is still regarded as a great thing: something worthy of fine ideas and larger-than-life characters, of heroism, and a conception of running a country that goes beyond the superintending of fiddly detail.

More than anything, they want – as the nostalgia of last week made undeniably clear – a sense of moral mission. Government should be about something. So the present lot of Conservative leaders now realise that they must transform themselves from looking like managers who may be trusted to take common-sense decisions, into the bearers of a sacred duty on which they will never renege.

Precisely the situation New Zealand faces. We have had “managers” running the country. Helen Clark first and John Key next. Both lacked conviction.

The thing about true conviction – which distinguishes it from histrionics – is that it is consistent: that its practice follows from its preaching. If you say that you believe in something strongly enough to stake your political life on it, then you stand by that principle and see it through, even in the face of unpopularity or concerted attack. That’s the whole point.

Let’s see the end of focus group politics, where the country is governed by a small leite and 20 people in a room with clipboards. National runs the risk of becoming poll and focus group driven fruit cakes.


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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news, he tends to be in it, with protagonists using the courts, media and social media to deliver financial as well as death threats.

They say that news is something that someone, somewhere, wants kept quiet. Cam Slater doesn’t do quiet and, as a result, he is a polarising, controversial but highly effective journalist who takes no prisoners.

He is fearless in his pursuit of a story.

Love him or loathe him, you can’t ignore him.

To read Cam’s previous articles click on his name in blue.

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