OPINION

The West is broken. It’s official. Citizens across the Western world (including New Zealand) have been polled on the big questions, the ones that matter about trust and confidence and hope, and the results are in. The West is broken.

Why didn’t these poll results lead the news across the West? Why weren’t they on the front pages of all the newspapers? Leading every bulletin on the radio? Why weren’t journalists asking the politicians: ‘Do you accept responsibility for breaking your country?’ Or, more importantly: ‘How do you propose to fix it?’

But, how does a broken country compete for news space with two war horses, one black, one white, blood-smeared, bolting through the streets of one of the West’s great capital cities?

In ancient times, this astonishing scene would have been regarded as a portentous event. The priests in the temples would have muttered darkly about signs and omens. Symbolically, the bolting horses represent a loss of control. A crack in the natural order of things. They also constitute an unmistakable threat to those who rule. Such a prodigy, the priests would say, can only have been sent by the gods as a warning: Fix what is broken!

But the West has learned to live without gods – and priests. It no longer heeds the ancient laws. Bolting, bloodied war-horses are not a portent: they’re a news item. A dramatic distraction from the mournful drum-rattle of Western decline.

Since the event happened in London, it is surprising that the UK media did not think to link it to other signs and portents that have appeared in that unhappy realm. To the 250-year-old oak tree that blazed on Balsall Heath in 2019. Or to the white hart (deer) killed by police in 2021 after it was found wandering the streets of Liverpool.

The oak tree has, for many centuries, been associated with the English monarchy. In legend, the white hart, if encountered, could lead whoever followed to a new and happier life. To kill a white hart was the worst sort of sacrilege.

“Quite simply you have no idea what you have done,” warned modern pagan, Rose of London. “Of the storm that is coming from your act of wilful destruction.”

One can, however, be certain that the leaders of Western political parties, even if they no longer place much stock by signs and portents, continue to pay the closest attention to opinion polls and attitudinal surveys. They will be taking extremely seriously the news that the voters believe their countries are broken. Certainly, their silence on the subject should not be interpreted as indifference, not when it’s fuelled by a volatile mixture of fear and fascination. And they are on the receiving-end of messages, millions of them every day, filled with rage and hatred and the lust for revenge: texts brimming with frustration and despair and emails vibrating with the dangerous energy of unanswered demands; the West’s politicians are in no doubt that their countries are broken. A fair proportion of them also know that it was politicians like themselves who did the breaking.

What they don’t know, or don’t want to know, is how to go about fixing it. When they look at all the inefficiency, the duck-shoving, waste, unfairness and corruption currently afflicting Western nations, they do not see a complex series of inter-related problems that, with a good measure of attentive listening, hard work, and imagination, could be fixed. No, what they see is the West’s economic system functioning as intended. Not effectively, to be sure, and certainly not fairly. But, functioning at the highest level that those who own, control, and benefit from Western capitalism are prepared to tolerate.

This is as true of New Zealand as it is of the United Kingdom, Europe and North America.

There’s a story that once did the rounds of the Labour Party, back in the 1980s, as the old, social-democratic New Zealand was being dismantled by the same politicians who’d been carried into parliament on the coat-tails of Norman Kirk’s landslide in 1972. Mike Moore, Michael Bassett and Roger Douglas were deeply mistrusted by Labour’s rank-and-file who saw them as clever young men who were in a hurry, impatient with tradition and hungry for change.

The story describes how Mike Moore, in the months leading up to the 1984 snap election, insisted that the entire Labour Caucus sit through every episode of The Dismissal: the 1983 Australian docudrama depicting the events leading up to the vice-regal coup d’état that toppled Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in 1975.

Now Moore did not want his colleagues to watch the series for inspiration. He did not want them to feel again the rage that led Whitlam to growl: “Well might you say ‘God Save the Queen’, because nothing will save the Governor-General.” No, Moore’s purpose in making Labour’s caucus watch the series was to show them what happens to a Labour Government that takes its commitment to promoting “democratic socialism” seriously.

Moore wanted Labour’s caucus to see how effortlessly the Establishment can destroy a government that displeases it. How the media, fed by leakers in the bureaucracy, can undermine the public’s trust and confidence in the government. How the judiciary, properly briefed, can be persuaded to interpret the constitution in novel ways. How an opposition with the whiff of power in its nostrils can turn the traditions of parliamentary democracy upside down, creating a constitutional crisis that only vice-regal intervention (sanctioned by Buckingham Palace) can resolve.

According to the story, Moore’s efforts bore fruit. Presented with a programme that enjoyed the full support of the media, the bureaucracy, big-business and the more ambitious sort of academic, Labour’s caucus opted for the unprecedented experience of being patted on the head by the ruling class. In the words of the pamphlet that began circulating the Labour Party in 1984: “Join the Yuppie Revolution – Or, stick with the unions and be ‘Left’ behind!”

The National Party had no need of a Mike Moore figure to point out the ‘lesson’ of history. When Labour’s Judith Tizard came within 500 votes of winning the blue-ribbon seat of Remuera in 1987, the virtues of joining the Yuppie Revolution could hardly have been made clearer. Jim Bolger may have been a clod-hopping National leader straight out of central casting, but he knew enough not to object when the dark knights of the Business Roundtable, the men holding the donors’ cheque-books, told him: “No Ruth Richardson – No Money.”

That’s how the West was broken. Not with hypersonic missiles – as Russia is currently attempting to break Ukraine with – but by creating a system for keeping the wealth of those at the summit of society safe and growing. A system protected by a privileged layer of professionals and managers whose job it is to prevent the sort of change that might make it possible to fix what has so obviously, and so tragically, gone wrong.

When between a half and two-thirds of the West’s citizens (including New Zealanders) tell the pollsters that they believe: The economy is rigged to advantage the rich and powerfulTraditional parties and politicians don’t care about people like meThe nation needs a strong leader to take the country back from the rich and powerfulExperts in this country don’t understand the lives of people like me; then you know just how badly the West is broken.

Making whole what has been shattered will not be the work of the privileged political class responsible for allowing the West’s problems to grow more intractable with every passing year. The people of the West know this in their hearts, in their guts. Which is why, presumably, more than half of them believe that: To fix the nation, we need a strong leader willing to break the rules.

In other words: a prodigy.

Like a blood-smeared war-horse galloping, riderless, through the streets of the capital.

Known principally for his political commentaries in The Dominion Post, The ODT, The Press and the late, lamented Independent, and for "No Left Turn", his 2007 history of the Left/Right struggle in New...