Josh Van Veen: Winston’s Road to Somewhere

Josh Van Veen: Winston’s Road to Somewhere

If New Zealand First can position itself as the only party to offer voters a “Road to Somewhere”, then we may be in for a shock on election night. Josh Van Veen, who was once a party member and researcher for Winston Peters, applies some of the lesson of a recent, landmark book about British politics to what might be happening in the political psyche here.

 

The Road to Somewhere (2017), by British journalist David Goodhart, is said to be one of Winston Peters’ favourite books at the moment. An apologist for “decent populism”, the liberal centrist Goodhart is perhaps an unlikely source of inspiration for the NZ First leader, whose provocative style has led to comparisons with Donald J. Trump. However, Peters’ complexity defies crude reductionism. That is why Goodhart’s fascinating book should be read by anyone who wants to understand the appeal of NZ First in 2020.

A long-time supporter of British Labour, and pro-Remain, Goodhart offers a contrarian view from the political establishment to which he belongs. Brexit and Trump cannot be explained by class or regional differences. Rather, citing a wealth of survey data, Goodhart makes the case that the main cleavage in Western liberal democracies nowadays is not liberal or conservative, left or right, but the conflict between those who feel a strong psychological attachment to their nation or local community and those who do not. It is “Somewhere” vs. “Anywhere”.

The archetypal “Somewhere” citizen has a conservative disposition. They prioritise group loyalty and security over autonomy and choice. Given these traits, the Somewhere is less likely to travel abroad, and more likely to remain in close proximity to the area where they grew up. In contrast, the “Anywhere” citizen has an individualistic outlook and resists any ties that bind them to one place. These global citizens welcome fluidity of borders and diversity. Somewheres tend to have more ‘authoritarian’ attitudes, while Anywheres are usually ‘libertarian’.

Thus, politics may have less to do with a person’s economic status or where they live and more to do with their personality. This is an uncomfortable proposition for those on the left who see the world through a Marxist lens of class struggle or liberals who believe the human mind is a “blank slate” at birth. But there is a substantial body of research in psychology that suggests personality traits are, to a large extent, genetically inherited and stable over time. Indeed, analysis of voting trends in Britain has found a much stronger relationship between authoritarian attitudes and support for Brexit compared to occupation or income.

The main proxy for the Anywhere vs. Somewhere conflict has, of course, been the vexed question of mass immigration. We have seen this play out in Britain, the United States and throughout continental Europe. While an extreme, nativist fringe does exist on the far right, Goodhart contends that most Somewheres are not the racist bigots they are caricatured as. The vast majority have liberal attitudes when it comes to questions of race, sexuality and gender. But they nevertheless feel uncomfortable with the pace of change.

Such discomfort is better understood as fear of losing the familiar rather than dislike of the other. By and large, Goodhart writes, “they are friendly to individual migrants but put the interests of fellow members of the local or national club (of all colours and creeds) before outsiders”. What they seek is a national identity based on shared culture and traditions. In that regard, the distinction between citizen and non-citizen becomes very important. For example, giving preference to citizens in employment and educational opportunities is axiomatic.

To the Anywhere elite, who have dominated British politics for 30 years, nationalism has no place in contemporary political discourse. But a wave of populist sentiment, culminating in the Brexit vote, and ending with the election of Boris Johnson’s Conservative Government last December, has overtaken the establishment. Somewhere attitudes have become mainstream again. Yet the conflict between Anywheres and Somewheres is not over. It will continue to re-shape and define British politics in the 2020s.

New Zealand commentators, left and right, will dismiss the idea that such an active fault line exists here in 2020. After three years of ‘Jacindamania’, and the country’s remarkable victory against Covid-19, a belief in New Zealand exceptionalism has attained the status of civic religion. When Peters and conservative National MPs expressed outrage at ‘wokeism’ in the aftermath of racially motivated violence and statue-toppling abroad, Twitter regarded it as background noise.

But the national psyche is split between two different conceptions of New Zealand. On the one hand, there are those who imagine New Zealand as a liberal, cosmopolitan society that embraces diversity and openness. The majority support Labour or National. Jacinda Ardern has become the figurehead for this cosmopolitanism, with her appeal transcending party lines. While it is infused with patriotic sentiment, the cosmopolitan worldview rejects a national identity based on culture and ethnicity. It seeks a break from the past.

On the other hand, there are those who find meaning and comfort in the past. They feel proud, rather than ashamed or embarrassed of New Zealand’s British heritage. Our national symbols (place names, statues, the flag etc.) are worth preserving. Many look back on a bi-cultural, egalitarian society that “led the world”, and seek to restore it. That means elevating what we have in common above our differences, while encouraging new migrants to assimilate. Such commonsense is anathema to the Anywhere of New Zealand politics.

Winston Peters understands these opposing worldviews better than most. His career has been something of an elegy to the old New Zealand. In 2020, NZ First will position itself as the only party to offer both Māori and Pākehā voters a “Road to Somewhere”. If it works, the chattering classes may be in for a shock on election night.

 

Josh Van Veen is former member of NZ First and worked as a parliamentary researcher to Winton Peters from 2011 to 2013. He has a Masters in Politics from the University of Auckland. His thesis examined class voting in Britain and New Zealand

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.