Saturday, May 14, 2011

The New England populist tradition

I am about to bring up on the side bar a short notice explaining my political bias that I come from and am influenced by, the New England populist tradition. I feel the need to do this because of the way that my analysis often doesn't quite fit conventional modes. Sometimes it appears left, sometimes right, sometimes conservative, sometimes not.

Our views are influenced by our collective experiences. In my case, that includes quite a wide range of experiences in public and private sectors, as a policy adviser and consultant, as an economist and historian, plus the simple day to day things of life.

In all this, many of my political values and views were formed during my childhood and younger adulthood and then refined through experience. I grew up in a household that was, in retrospect, intensely political.

On one side, there was the Country Party and New England New State Movement. My grandfather, David Drummond, was a senior Country Party politician and a leader of the New England New State Movement. On the other side was an internationalist, academic and, in today's terms, left tradition whose roots lay in the industrial towns of Lancashire transmuted through New Zealand and the close-linked world of the Empire and Commonwealth universities.

These traditions may seem very different, but they actually coalesced around a series of common concerns and values. In some ways my father and grandfather were very different and certainly did not always agree. Yet there was a remarkably high degree of overlap in many of their core values and concerns, with one core unifying feature their concerns for social justice, for education and community development and for the development of Northern NSW.

I absorbed all this and was actively involved. Then I moved away. In the intensely fascinating world of Canberra, the very specific and apparently New England issues that had concerned me seemed less relevant.  

It is hard to escape one's past. I started writing a biography of my grandfather as a PhD topic. I had planned to focus on his public career and especially his role as NSW Education Minister. As I researched, I found that Northern NSW, the broader New England, moved to centre stage.

Drummond had a very troubled childhood, including a period as ward of the state. In his partial autobiographical manuscript he describes his early childhood and his first period as a ward in detail, and then there is a gap until his arrival in Armidale in 1907 as seventeen year old farm labourer.

It is from this point that the troubled child found success and, in a sense, redemption. In this process, the North (the broader New England) became central.

As first a farm labourer and then share farmer, Drummond became involved in the Farmers and Settlers Association and the agitation that would lead to the formation of the country parties. He shared the ideal of country, of an oppressed country and oppressing city. He also shared some of the radical and populist views that marked the early country parties.

In New England, the exact expression of country ideals was affected by a parallel movement that arose at the same time, that seeking statehood for the North.

Both the Country Party and New State Movement drew from common perceptions and grievances, but they were not the same. Concerned to address specific regional grievances and to force change in constitutional structures, the New State Movement crossed party divides and drew support from town groups not necessarily aligned with the emerging farm movements. Further, it had a very specific focus on constitutional issues.

The Country Party proved best able to capture the new sentiments in political terms because it was not then bound to existing political structures, but the distinction remained.

What I call New England populism is an amalgam of the different threads in the political history of New England. In that amalgam, Drummond played an important role because he articulated the constitutional views that, with some arguments over time, formed a common base. New England populism is a populist movement, but one with its own very specific constitutional base linked to separatist arguments and the need to justify the separatist position.

As I researched my grandfather’s life, I found the past flooding back. The thesis became, in part, an exploration of my own history and views.

I was now looking at the evidence and arguments from my position as a reasonably senior SES level Commonwealth Public Servant, judging the arguments from my experience in politics and policy. I found them good, quite unexpectedly so! That set me in new directions for both better and worse.

Well, what is New England populism and why is it still relevant beyond my own beliefs?

In terms of what it is, you won’t find it in any history books. It’s actually not recognised as a formal form of political expression. It just doesn’t fit in with conventional frames. However, I have given some of my posts at the end of this post that will give you an idea.

Is it still relevant?

Well, try Tony Windsor. I don’t think that he would call himself a New England populist, that’s my term. Yet he fits squarely in the New England populist tradition.

There is great debate within New England about the role played by Messrs Windsor and Oakshott because they cut across local political divides. New England itself had diminished, absorbed into conventional frames.

Outside New England, the support that Mr Windsor has gathered across the conventional political and ideological divides, the reason why Mr Windsor seems so fresh, lies in the fact that he is not bound by conventional divides.

Past posts on New England populism

On some of Drummond's constitutional views:

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