Collective success, individual success, and the political philosophy of John Key

A few months ago, before his recent New Zealand election success, John Key was the subject of an in-depth profile in the New Zealand Herald. Reflecting on that profile on well sharp, Barry asked: “What are we getting ourselves into?

Well, we are beginning to find out. In his victory speech, John Key let us see his political philosophy very clearly when he said: “What will determine success is the unity of purpose, a willingness to work together while recognising that our collective success rests on the success of individuals.”

The first thing to comment upon is the recognition that there is such a thing as a ‘collective,’ which sets Key apart from hardline neoliberals – those who believe, as Margaret Thatcher notoriously once put it, that ‘there is no such thing as society.’ It was interesting to note that, rather than stirring applause, Key’s acknowledgement of the existence of society drew a puzzled “huh???” from his National Party audience.

However, the idea that the success of the collective – social cohesion, social welfare, and social security – depends on the success of individuals is a leap backwards to somewhere before 1914. In those few words, John Key makes the plainest statement of old-school conservative values – the so-called ‘one-nation’ conservatism of Benjamin Disraeli, twice prime minister of Victorian Britain.

For those 19th century conservatives, too, there was an acknowledgement of the existence of society – but an ordered society where wealthy patricians and born-to-rule aristocrats ran the show and cap-doffing plebeians knew their place. And yes, there was a charitable impulse – but this was not solidarity, it was a highly paternalistic philanthropy where welfare was provided for the benefit of the deserving poor, and the undeserving poor got the workhouse. That was a society where collective success rested on the success of individuals.

Social democracy rejects this philosophy and stresses the opposite view: that the success of individuals rests on the success of the collective. The wholesale rejection of 19th century conservative values led to the election of the 1935 New Zealand Labour government which, among its many reforms, massively expanded the state housing scheme and provided security and stability for thousands, including, in due course, the young John Key.

The considerable success of John Key – wealthy former merchant banker and now prime minister of New Zealand – clearly rests on the success of the collective, but apparently he cannot see that.

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