Mere party labels don’t adequately capture how political leaders view and react to the world, its challenges, pressures and perils. Nasty, brutish and Shorten the Labor leader might well be, but how to classify Turnbull? Perhaps he’s just a lawyer
I want to revisit a theme I’ve touched on more than once over the past decade, namely classifying politicians using criteria other than the familiar ‘left-right’ party political spectrum. Sometimes it’s worth looking for qualities other than their views on the size of government or thoughts on the optimal GST rate or commitment to free speech or labour relations reform in order to try to understand the people we elect to our legislatures.
So let me suggest a couple of different ways to look at politicians and then tell you where I’d put some of the current crop on these new scales. Here’s the first alternative, and it’s one I’ve written about before because I think in some ways it’s a much more satisfactory classification system than Left or Right. I refer to Roundheads and Cavaliers, terms taken from the two sides in the English Civil War. The former were in Cromwell’s camp and we can think of them as comparatively humourless, somewhat puritanical, dour, much more focused on winning and, in that sense, a more professional crowd.
Then there were those in King Charles’s camp, the Cavaliers. Think of them as the foppish, big living, irreverent, non-sanctimonious, prone to having a huge ego. This crowd has few politically correct tendencies.
Now my pick as the greatest person of the twentieth century is Winston Churchill, a view shared by the American columnist Charles Krauthammer, I am pleased to say. If ever there were a politician in the last 70 years who counted as a Cavalier it is surely Winston Churchill. The man had a liking for rogues; he was big on drinking; he was bitingly funny at others’ expense; in no sense at all did he have a politically correct bone in his body. It is doubtful he could have long survived in today’s nit-picking, poll-driven world, where every slip or joke or, indeed, blunt truth is magnified out of both proportion and context by social media.
If we confine ourselves for the moment to non-Australian examples then other, pretty obvious Cavaliers since then include Pierre Trudeau in Canada, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan in the US, David Lange in New Zealand and present leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party Nigel Farage.
What about overseas Roundheads? I’d nominate former US President Jimmy Carter, though he was an unsuccessful exemplar of the category. Maggie Thatcher, by contrast, was an incredibly successful Roundhead. Canada’s just defeated Prime Minister Stephen Harper was a Roundhead who was moderately successful. President Obama seems to me to be a clear Roundhead. For my money he’s one of the more unsuccessful politicians in this camp, but others may disagree. Yet notice that this way of classifying politicians crosses party lines. Nor is it in any way the case that winners fall into one camp and losers into the other. There are specimens from both camps who succeed and others from both who fail.
Okay, so let’s play the Cavalier/Roundhead game with Australian politicians. Bob Hawke is a sure-thing Cavalier. That’s a no-brainer. Harder to categorise is Paul Keating, but I make him out as a Roundhead. John Howard? Cavalier, I’d say.
What about recently defenestrated Tony Abbott? That’s tough. In Opposition he was a Roundhead, no doubt about that. Once in office I think he tried to be a Cavalier, at least in part, and it just wasn’t in him. He’d have been much, much better advised to stay the vigorous Cromwellian Roundhead, Thatcher-style. Don’t give an inch on anything, rather than half-heartedly cater to the ABC and Team Australia and a few idiot independents in the Senate, not to mention to the traitorous rabble in his own caucus.
And what of Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten? Mr. Turnbull is certainly big living; he likewise checks the ‘huge ego’ criterion without any doubt; but it would be a stretch to call him non-sanctimonious. And is he irreverent? Not that I can see. He strikes me as someone who genuflects at the altar of every platitudinous piety that motivates the ABC and your typical inner-city bien pensants. Still, on balance, I put our present PM in the Cavalier camp.
And Mr. Shorten? I figure in his personal life he’s a Cavalier. But professionally, what with the Greens over to his left and some of his own MPs who are as puritanically self-righteous as they come, he is forced to play the Roundhead. It does not suit him well. There’s something lacking. What’s the word? Ah, authenticity!
Now if that’s one non-standard way to classify our politicians here’s another, and it also crosses party lines. Here we lump them either into the Hobbesian camp or, for lack of a better name, into what I will call the Multilateralist Lawyers’ camp. Thomas Hobbes was the famous British philosopher who saw that the world was a very, very dangerous place. Human nature was such that in any imagined state of nature life would be ‘solitary, nasty, brutish and short’ for us all. And the world would always be a dangerous place. One tangential corollary of this is that any nation must be prepared to spend on defence and to fight – and fight to win.
Then there are those (excuse the sarcasm, I can’t help myself) who think that virtually all of life’s problems can be sorted out over a good, long heartfelt talk. It’s all about understanding the other chap, and putting in place some multilateral structures – a United Nations and some rights-related committees, as it were – to dispense with the need for war and turn warfare into lawfare, or international lawfare. Talking and compromising, not fighting and killing.
Okay, I indulged in caricature there but you have the idea of this sort of split. Again, Churchill was a Hobbesian through and through, and thank God for that. Mr. Putin is too. Ah, and so is our very own Mr. Abbott. Mrs. Thatcher as well. And of course Ronald ‘that is the evil empire’ Reagan was a Hobbesian too.
Canada’s Pierre Trudeau? Not a chance. He contrived to avoid fighting in World War II. He was buddy-buddy with Fidel Castro. Sure, he was tough with the Quebecois terrorists when he had to be, but a Hobbesian he was not.
Nor could anyone accuse President Obama of Hobbesian inclinations. Ditto for Angela Merkel and, indeed, the whole European Union seems to me premised on the worst sort of supranational naivety about how dangerous the world is, to say nothing of its astoundingly enervated democratic credentials. So in that sense the EU as a club for democracies – democracies that overwhelmingly no longer spend anything more than about a trifling one percent of their GDP on defence and so in truth are entrusting their defence to the Americans – is non-Hobbesian in its assumptions about the world.
And what of our current Prime Minister? I don’t see him as a Hobbesian. I put him in the multilateralist lawyers’ camp. You?