A pretty determined bastard

A studious Christian who speaks fluent Mandarin is an unlikely political hero. But Kevin Rudd looks

When Margaret Thatcher was taking on the miners, Australia's Labor prime minister Bob Hawke was forging a decade-long compact with the unions and industry. While George Bush Sr was fighting Saddam Hussein, Paul Keating was planning national competition and welfare-to-work policies that became international models. At the start of the 1990s, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown visited Australia and saw how a market-friendly, mildly redistributive social democracy could dominate the political centre ground.

Yet, for the past decade, the Australian Labor Party has been in the wilderness. John Howard, the 68-year-old Liberal prime minister, has created a devastatingly effective combination of economic liberalisation, social conservatism and noisy nationalism. Australia has enjoyed 16 consecutive years of economic growth, at among the highest rates in the OECD. In the country's federal system, every state and territory government in Australia at present is held by Labor. But nationally, Howard, dismissed by the left before and after his 1996 victory, came to appear invincible. Now that may be changing.

By the end of this year, there has to be an election, and Howard has hit trouble. The worst drought for a century has strained the economy and contributed to rocketing public concern about climate change. Until this year, Howard steadfastly refused to endorse the Kyoto Protocol or recognise the scientific consensus on climate. His recent industrial relations reforms have also been deeply unpopular, heightening a sense of insecurity among key groups of voters carrying record personal debt.

At the end of last year, Kevin Rudd wrested the Labor leadership from Kim Beazley, an honourable but floundering veteran of the Hawke-Keating years. Rudd, 49, won by teaming up with 45-year-old Julia Gillard, a rising star of the left in Victoria and now deputy leader. Rudd is the party's fourth leader in a decade. When he challenged Beazley, it was widely assumed that the coming 2007 election was already lost for Labor. Since the beginning of this year, the party has maintained a landslide lead in the polls.

Rudd has been through a political maelstrom, fighting to control Labor's and the media's pre-election agenda. He has had the kitchen sink thrown at him by a government desperate to regain the initiative. He has been attacked on his character, honesty, economic credentials and political inexperience. But the polls stubbornly refuse to shift, and the Australian media and establishment are now preparing for a sea change.

Born to share-farmer parents in rural Queensland, in the subtropical north-east of Australia, Rudd is married to Therese Rein. They met at university and have three children. Rein has combined parenting and support for her husband with founding and running a highly successful group of companies providing rehabilitation services to the long-term unemployed.

Rudd's early life was deeply marked by his father's death after a road accident, and the subsequent economic insecurity faced by his family. The young man who emerged acquired a level of personal discipline and a seriousness of purpose that have given him extraordinary momentum. On achieving the party leadership, he described himself as a "pretty determined bastard". Since then, he has demonstrated just how determined. He is, in many ways, an unlikely Labor figure, coming neither from the world of unions and labour law nor from the factional heartlands of New South Wales and Victoria. He has been characterised as a nerd. He is slight, studious and intense. One newspaper cartoonist draws him as Tintin, the Belgian comic-book hero.

Self-deprecating

In a country where politics is often viewed as a blood sport, full of vicious parliamentary exchange, his trademark approach might seem out of place. In April, he opened his speech to Labor's national conference with: "I'm Kevin. I'm from Queensland. I'm here to help."

Rudd has learned to use his own identity, including self-deprecation, to project a distinctive quality to voters. He is a centrist and a social conservative and after years spent carefully studying Howard's tactics and the success of others, including new Labour, he has built an approach that is neutralising the government's usual lines of attack.

He has carefully narrowed party differences on national security and the economy, using a "hit-and-run" approach to policy and communication, connecting with underlying public anxieties about Australia's place in the sun by focusing on declining productivity growth, petrol prices and mortgage stress. In doing so, he has paved a road for transition to a set of long-term challenges that Australians know have to be tackled: China, climate change, and prosperity beyond the long mining-fuelled boom.

Federal politics is Rudd's third career. After excelling at high school, he studied Chinese at the Australian National University and joined the department of foreign affairs and trade, where he was posted to Stockholm and Beijing. Rudd speaks fluent Mandarin, and has assiduously built friendships in China. If he becomes prime minister, he will be the first western leader with such a level of understanding.

In a speech to the Brookings Institution in Washington in April this year, he argued that "we in Australia and the United States are now at a critical juncture on how best to shape the future characteristics of the regional and inter national order". During his American trip, Rudd made a ritual visit to Rupert Murdoch, who showed his enthusiasm for the challenger.

Rudd has a further layer of professional identity: in the late 1980s, rather than climbing to the top of the embassy ladder, he became chief of staff to Wayne Goss, then campaigning to become Labor premier of Queensland by toppling a 32-year-old country conservative regime. After Goss's bruising victory, Rudd transferred to become, at the age of 35, director general of the New South Wales department of premier and cabinet, a pivotal role in Australian state governments. The experience helped convince him to enter federal politics, and in 1998 he won the Queensland seat of Griffith at the second attempt.

This combination of deep international and strategic knowledge and hard-edged public management experience puts Rudd closer to Gordon Brown or Nicolas Sarkozy than to Tony Blair at the start of his premiership.

Work ethic

Rudd regularly cites Christian faith as a source of political motivation. In an essay, he described the German pacifist and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed by the Nazis in 1945, as "the man I admire most in the history of the 20th century".

He went on to attack the conflation of Christianity with conservatism in contemporary politics, and argues that a core, continuing principle "should be that Christianity . . . must always take the side of the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed". While he does not easily embrace the language of the left, there is no doubt that he sees the role of the government in terms of social justice. His main policy emphasis is, not surprisingly, on education.

Rudd has plenty of critics. His intellectual capacity and ambition have been experienced by some as arrogance, and his ferocious work ethic can translate into extreme demands on others. In a recent interview, he said: "I've never worked in a bureaucratic or political environment when it hasn't been really tough. I've never arrived in a show where everything's up and running . . . It's always hard. So you get bred hard."

This intensity and determination help explain why he has got this far. But Rudd has to build a culture that can be sustained in government. His natural tendency to punch home the advantage will be tested in the second half of the year, as the Liberals go all out to protect Howard's legacy and new-found supporters swarm around Labor.

The election is far from won. Howard has come from behind before, and the electoral geo graphy is difficult for Labor. But there is a scent of change in the air.

Australia is the industrialised nation most exposed to climate change, and most sensitive to China's rise. It must work out how to sustain prosperity for a more diverse population, on a more fragile planet, in a region that will shape the 21st century.

The pressure is on Kevin Rudd.

Tom Bentley is a director at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government

Wizards of Oz

Illustrious sons and daughters

Rupert Murdoch (b 1931 in Melbourne) is the most powerful media executive in the world, controlling an empire that started when he inherited the Adelaide News. His UK ownership of the Sun is widely held to have helped Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair to power.

Kylie Minogue (b 1968, left) had a role in the Aussie soap opera Neighbours that launched a stellar pop career ("I Should Be So Lucky") lasting decades. After a battle with cancer, she made a triumphant live concert return last year.

Peter Singer (b 1946), is a philosopher who intellectually underpins the animal liberation movement.

Joan Sutherland (b 1926, Sydney) is one of the greatest sopranos ever. She was hailed around the world as "the voice of the 20th century".

Barry Humphries (b 1934) is a comedian and satirist more often seen as his stage and TV alter egos Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson.

Howard Florey (1898-1968) won a Nobel Prize for his development of penicillin. A peer and the first Australian president of the Royal Society of Medicine, Florey appears on the A$50 note.

Clive James (b 1939) is a television critic and broadcaster with a voice as well known as the Queen's. A former president of Cambridge Footlights, he describes himself as a member of the "proletarian left".

Nicole Kidman (b 1967) grew up in Sydney to become the world's highest-paid actress, starring in Moulin Rouge, Eyes Wide Shut and The Hours (for which she won an Oscar). A Companion of the Order of Australia, its highest civilian honour.

Cate Blanchett (b 1969) is an award-winning actress, acclaimed since her first high-profile role in Elizabeth. Listed in 2007 among Time magazine's 100 most influential people.

Shane Warne (b 1969, left) is a cricketing legend, raising eyebrows on and off the field. One of Wisden's top five cricketers of the 20th century.

Germaine Greer (b 1939) is a writer and academic. Her 1970 feminist tract The Female Eunuch was hugely influential. Has strong views on everything from underwear to art.

Peter Carey (b 1943, in Victoria) is now living in New York. He has twice won the Booker Prize, in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda and in 2001 for True History of the Kelly Gang.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The most important protest of our time