Friday, 22 March 2019

A national leader who has risen to the occasion


The prime minister has won international admiration for the way she has handled the national crisis. She has found the right words, struck the right note, and she has brought the nation together in a way that few leaders can.

In many ways, it has been a masterclass in political leadership. Not only because of what she said but how she said it – she understood the nation’s need and responded in a truly exemplary fashion.

Oh, wait. No, surely, you didn’t think I meant … Did you? Really?

I’m talking about Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, whose response to the mass murder of 50 Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch last Friday has been, in my view, pitch perfect.

With just three simple words, she set the tone for the country’s remarkable national response: ‘They are us.’ It should become the ringing credo for all modern nations, the most powerful answer available to the populist wave that seems to be sweeping across the globe.

In countries as different as Brazil, China, Hungary, India and Turkey, leaders have set community against community, majority against minority. ‘We, the people …’ has become not a cry of unity but of division, the people against the elite, against the foreigner, against the enemy.

We even heard it in Downing Street on Wednesday night, when a very different prime minister sought to turn ‘the people’ against the very people they had elected to represent them in parliament.  ‘I am on your side,’ she said, apparently not having seen – or having chosen to ignore – the latest opinion poll suggesting that sixty per cent of the electorate would now prefer the UK to remain in the EU, and only forty per cent support the withdrawal deal that she has so painfully negotiated.

She also seems to have forgotten – or chose to ignore – that UK prime ministers govern only as long as they retain the confidence of parliament, not the other way round. It’s parliament that is supreme, not the prime minister. Her words, doubtless born of a belated realisation that she has boxed herself into a corner from which resignation is the only escape, were a disgrace.

If you haven’t already done so, look at the pictures of Jacinda Ardern, her head covered to respect Muslim custom, embracing the families of the Christchurch victims. Listen to her explain why she will never mention the murderer’s name – and marvel at the speed with which her government has moved to tighten New Zealand’s gun laws.

Suzanne Moore, writing in The Guardian, quoted Martin Luther King, who said that genuine leaders do not search for consensus but mould it. Ardern, she said, ‘has moulded a different consensus, demonstrating action, care, unity. Terrorism sees difference and wants to annihilate it. Ardern sees difference and wants to respect it, embrace it and connect with it.’

Why do I focus on New Zealand, this week of all weeks, with the clock ticking inexorably towards an event that I now hesitate even to give a name to? Because Jacinda Ardern has shown that liberal values have not died, that they still have a place in today’s world, and that – even as a nation faces its darkest hour – reaching out to embrace neighbours is not an unaffordable luxury but an essential response.

Yes, New Zealand is a small, generally peaceful country, unlike many of those where the wave of populism is running strong. But that doesn’t mean it can’t offer the rest of the world an example of how to adapt to the needs of a changing population in a rapidly changing world.

Like all successful leaders, Jacinda Ardern knows the power of words. Unlike many, she uses them to bind wounds, not to open them. She doesn’t talk of immigrants ‘swamping’ towns and cities (M Fallon, 2014); she doesn’t insult Muslim women who wear face-covering veils by saying they look like letter boxes or bank robbers (B Johnson, 2018); nor does she refer to migrants as ‘a swarm’ (D Cameron, 2015).

And when the President of the United States asks her what support the US could offer New Zealand after the Christchurch shootings, she replies that he should offer ‘sympathy and love for all Muslim communities.’

There isn’t much for liberals to celebrate these days – so let’s not miss this opportunity to celebrate a rare political leader who has genuinely risen to the occasion.