This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.
At first glance, the adoration of Jacinda Ardern is preposterous. The prime minister of an isolated, rich and safe country is elevated by Meghan Markle, Stephen Colbert and every other chest-beater in the celebrity-liberal complex into a secular saint.
She was a rumoured nominee for the Nobel peace prize, even though the most striking feature of her foreign policy has been to back away from recognising China’s crimes against humanity. Prospect magazine hailed her as the second greatest thinker of the Covid-era, and Fortune chose her as the world’s greatest leader in 2021.
We have been here before. Progressives showed their need for hero worship with Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau. There was a moment in 2013 when the right-thinking hailed Pope Francis as the world’s clearest voice for change, and shuffled away in embarrassment only when they realised that the Pope would not promote LGBTQ+ equality because he was, after all, a Catholic.
These two books on Ardern do not help. They are fan-non-fic that will appeal only to the converted.
Supriya Vani and Carl A. Harte’s effort is well-researched and competently written but does not contain a line of thoughtful criticism. Michelle Duff offers the occasional complaint from the left, but is ruined by its sloppy, rambling style, and her insistence on inserting herself into Ardern’s story (“My cousin Sophia is probably the loveliest person you’d ever meet,” goes a typical passage from an author who has yet to learn the difference between autobiography and biography).
On George Orwell’s principle that saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent, anyone wanting to justify Ardern and the modern progressivism she represents has to work harder than this.
The first thing outsiders must lose is their snobbery. From Swedish social democracy in the 1930s, through to the invention of modern slob populism by Silvio Berlusconi in the 1990s, nations that the centres of power overlook have shown the patterns of the future.
New Zealand was the first country to give women the vote and, unlike the British state, its rulers did not imprison and torture suffragettes before expanding democracy. It took neo-liberal ideas to the extreme in the 1980s, and its experience of sky-rocketing inequality helped discredit them. If you think you can ignore a small country because it is small, you may miss what will happen in your country tomorrow.
Ardern represents modern progressivism with state power behind it. Highly unusually for a politician from the contemporary left (or right), she doesn’t denounce or cancel. She might at many stages in her career have turned on sexist opponents and highlighted their every micro-aggression and patronising sneer, yet she never rises to the bait. Like Obama, she has maintained her dignity, and by preferring explanation to denunciation taken people with her.
She can find the right words in a crisis. After a terrorist slaughtered Muslim New Zealanders, she turned a critique originally used against al Qaeda and applied it to the white far right. They hate the best in our countries not the worst. Or as Ardern put it, New Zealanders were not massacred because they condoned extremism, but because “we represent diversity, kindness and compassion … And those values will not and cannot be shaken by this attack.” A politician who can see that right away and say that right away deserves some slack.
I could talk about her success in protecting New Zealanders from Covid, but the veneration of her began before the pandemic, and comes from another source. She is adored to the point of excess by foreigners — and feared by the western right — because she represents a possible future. Not a certain future. The next decades may be dominated by the brutal Chinese superpower she lacks the moral courage to oppose, or by environmental collapse leading to tens of millions of climate refugees fleeing from the heat and being met with armed border guards.
Ardern’s career is a foretaste of a quieter and less frightening world in which workplace feminism has triumphed. She was only the second democratic leader to have a child while in office. The first was Benazir Bhutto, who had to hide her pregnancy from the Pakistani generals in 1990, for fear they would use it as an excuse to depose her, and from the electorate, for fear it would use it as an excuse to dismiss her. Even now most leaders in most countries are frightened of taking a break from power, because they can guess what their rivals will do when their back is turned.
She is adored to the point of excess by foreigners — and feared by the western right — because she represents a possible future
That Ardern had the confidence to go on maternity leave and that New Zealanders had the maturity to allow her time to be a mother symbolises an advance as significant as winning the right to vote.
Modern liberalism is not merely about the protection of minorities, or in the case of women, the majority, but about awarding them dignity. It extends democracy’s original egalitarian promise that everyone’s vote will carry equal weight and says that everyone will be treated with equal respect.
Whether such a utopia can ever exist is another matter, but Ardern with her plain language and simple emphatic gestures allow you to believe it might. She does it so well, she has taken the New Zealand Labour party from being a broken-down organisation without a hope of winning an election to the natural party of government.
You must know the flaws in her arguments. How do liberals respond to reactionary movements in Islam, Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism? Respect their right to be reactionary? If they do, how can they damn bigoted white voters? What do they say when trans rights conflict with women’s rights? And how do they respond to politicians such as Trump and Modi who turn their own ideas against them and assert that the identity and dignity of the majority demands the denigration of others?
Ardern has no answers to these questions. Indeed, she doesn’t even ask them. She was raised in the Mormon church, and there is a religious aspect to her politics and to much of global liberalism. One cannot imagine her or Stephen Colbert or millions like them expressing a heretical thought or acknowledging a contradiction.
Yet I would still vote for Ardern if I were a New Zealander, and wish someone like her was leading the British Labour party. As Trump and strongmen politicians like him have shown, the hypocrisies of modern liberalism are as nothing when set against the ugliness and studied stupidity of modern conservatism.
A politics based on “diversity, kindness and compassion” is often phoney and riven with double standards. Its self-regarding sanctimony can leave any intelligent woman or man wanting to throw up. But it is slowly winning across the West because it is better than the alternative vision of uniformity, cruelty and indifference Ardern’s opponents offer.
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