Tuesday, 13 March 2012

A Study In Mauve

Mr Shearer Makes His Stand: Mauveine, the world's first aniline dye, allowed Nineteenth Century textile manufacturers to produce the same washed-out combination of red and blue on an industrial scale and without noticeable variation. A cynic might say it is the perfect colour choice for a modern Labour Party leader.

IN 1856 WILLIAM PERKIN invented mauve. He didn’t invent it on purpose, the world’s first aniline dye was the accidental by-product of a failed chemical experiment involving coal-tar. In fact, young Mr Perkin was on the point of throwing the gloopy substance away, when he became fascinated by its “strangely beautiful” colour.

He wasn’t the only one. Mr Perkin’s new colour – a soft, mellowed-out shade of purple, reminiscent of lavender and lilac – turned out to be a huge hit with the ladies. Queen Victoria chose a mauve outfit for her daughter’s wedding and the fashion-setting French Empress, Eugenie, reckoned the colour matched her eyes.

Soon mauve was everywhere. More importantly, mauve was everywhere the same. Unlike the highly variable and often unreliable “natural” dyes made out of plants, rocks, and even insects, aniline dyes offered the fashion industry consistency on an industrial scale. One person’s mauve was exactly the same as the next person’s.

Within thirty years, Mr Perkin’s patented “Mauveine” dye had become so pervasive that the 1890s became known as the “Mauve Decade”. Mr Perkin’s “applied science” had made him a very wealthy man.

The colour purple (of which mauve is but a pale cousin) is itself a combination of the two primary colours red and blue. So rare and expensive was purple-producing dye that from classical times its use was restricted to royalty and rulers. Being “reared in the purple” meant being born to rule.

In contemporary political terms, purple could be thought of as the ultimate ideological compromise: a regal blending of revolutionary red and conservative blue. In the United States such a politician would be the hybrid offspring of Republican Party red and Democratic Party blue – Bill Clinton, perhaps?

Clinton’s Democratic Leadership Council can certainly lay claim to making globally respectable the long tradition of centre-left and social-democratic parties seeking to smooth-off the jagged edges of socialist politics.

Working from the assumption that it is a lot easier to change a political party’s policies than the public’s prejudices, Clinton re-branded Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal Democrats into a “Republican-Lite” party, pandering to the fads and foibles of suburban “Soccer Moms” and their white-collar professional spouses. Out went social-justice and in came “the era of Big Government is over”.

"Hey, Tony, have you ever thought about mixing Labour Red and Tory Blue and then adding a whole lot of water? Worked for me." "Crikey, Bill, what an excellent idea!"

The British Labour Party leader, Tony Blair, was absolutely besotted with Clinton’s makeover of the Democratic Party and immediately began blending Labour Red and Tory Blue into what became “New Labour”. The reviews of Blair’s purpling exercise were equally mixed. While the Blues hailed him as a statesman, the Reds denounced him as “the bastard son of Maggie Thatcher”.

Long before either Clinton or Blair mounted the podium, the New Zealand Labour Party had recognised the potential electoral advantages of mixing National blue and Labour red. As far back as the early 1960s, when Arnold Nordmeyer was Labour’s leader, there had been calls for the party’s “modernisation”.

The extraordinary success of the First Labour Government’s economic and social reforms had given birth to what the British political scientist, Austin Mitchell, called “the half-gallon, quarter-acre, pavlova paradise”. Kiwis kidded themselves that this was about as good as it got. Post-war electoral contests boiled-down to a handful of “marginal” electorates – most of which encompassed vast tracts of “ticky-tacky” suburban housing chock-full of young families. These middle-class mums and dads held great expectations: both for themselves and their children.

The very proletarian intrusion of Norman Kirk in 1965 was all that prevented Nordmeyer’s modernisation programme from purpling Labour in the late-1960s and 70s. “Big Norm’s” great skill as a left-wing politician lay in convincing New Zealanders they were all entitled to great expectations, and that Labour was capable of fulfilling them. Kirk’s was a manifesto grounded in the abundance of the post-war boom, and when, in 1973, the First Oil Crisis brought that boom to an end, he and his government were doomed.

It was David Lange who finally blended Kiwi reds and blues into the ominous shades of the Rogernomics era. In terms of applied political science, his efforts far outshone those of William Perkin. Looking at New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy, the world saw only red. While the spectacle of a Labour Government privatising state assets was rendered entirely in the deepest shades of blue. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were never so bold.

Nor were Helen Clark and Michael Cullen. Under these two political colourists New Zealand saw a whole lot of water added to Labour’s ideological palette. Kirk’s vivid reds were puddled into pale pinks, and the Roger Douglas blues reduced to something much weaker. Under Ms Clark and Dr Cullen New Zealand experienced its own “Lavender Decade”.

On Saturday, speaking to the big union rally for Auckland’s beleaguered watersiders, Labour’s new leader, David Shearer, spoke reassuringly about “flexibility and fairness”.

He was wearing a mauve shirt.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 13 March 2012.


alwyn said...

I fear you may be awarding too much credit to the First Labour Government.
John A Lee, in 1937 after Walter Nash's budget wrote one of the (many) parodies of the red flag.
"The people's flag is palest pink
It's not as red as you might think
We've heard the budget, now we know
That Nash has changed its colour so"
I think that your comments may apply to all the Labour governments in NZ

Mark Wilson said...

"ominous shades of the Rogernomics era"

Douglas saved NZ from becoming a banana republic. He took us from a failing command economy to a modern competitive economy.The good times that Clark wasted she owes entirely to Douglas and his courage.
Of course the left refuse to admit the truth that none of his reforms have been done away with in her 9 damaging years in office.

Without Douglas's reforms the poor in this country would have the same standard of living as those in third world countries.

Why is it is so hard for those on the left to understand that left wing economics bring you Venuzuala, right wing economics bring you a first world economy.

Victor said...

I think there was a world of difference between the mauve of the post war decades and that of the last quarter century.

Indeed, the policies that made up not just the mauve but the blue of those earlier times would be judged red today.

Anonymous said...

"Ouch" to alwyn, and "ouch" to you Chris.

Nick said...

To Mark Wilson...the bananas before Douglas tasted very good and were in abundance for everybody. Now they come in two categories, fresh tasty ones at great expense being ignored by those who can afford them as being beneath their taste, and a tiny pile of rotten bananas for display to those who cant afford them. Most people now fall into the latter category.

Dont give me any blinkered nonsense about Douglas, his greatest achievement was to create a banana republic.

Anonymous said...

"A banana republic is a politically unstable country that economically depends upon the exports of a limited resource... usually has an impoverished working class who are ruled by a wealthy élite.
In practice, a banana republic is a country operated as a commercial enterprise for private profit."

I think you meant to say that Douglas turned New Zealand into a banana republic Mark!

Mark Wilson said...

If you are so blinkered to not see how Douglas saved NZ perhaps you can tell me why Labour did not undo his reforms in 9 years in power?

Robert Miles said...

I think its a rather superficial analysis Chris, Blair was definitely a left centre labour politician. The Thathcherite crime fighting, pro sun rhetoric provided a front for Gordon Brown to largely turn the structures created by Thatcher, Lawson, and Major inside out and after a few years restraint in the late 1990s massively expand government spending, introduce huge hospital building and state educational expansion, defence cuts and substantially take the railways back into the public sphere. Blairs interventions bombing Serbia and invading Iraq were motivated by far left interventionist do gooder instincts completly the opposite of Cheney, Rumsfield and Richard Pearle reasons and motivation -whose views for the need for bombing nations like Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran I agree with more if not ground troops.Cherrie and Tony were motivated by the need for safe education for girls, human rights for Afghans, Kosovos and Bosnians not oil or power politics or anti islam.
Neither was NZ anti nuclear polices deep red. Recent events in Japan confirm that civilian nuclear power has never been a good idea and frankly when Muldoon decided to invite into NZ US nuclear hunter killer subs like the Pintado, Queenfish, Phoenix and Haddo stopping nuclear powere d visits was sensible, and in itself would not have effected Anzus given all USN destroyers , frigates and cruisers are now conventionally gas powered. They were nuclear targets of the highest priority and my view is that Auckland and Whenuapie airbase would have been always soviet nuclear targets from the mid 1960s to 1985 given the Orions main purpose was to attack soviet ballistic and missile subs and the Soviet subs that would ahve been used in the late 60s and early 70 to hit Australian cities and US bases in Australai would have been older and slower soviet nuke and conventional subs armed with nuclear cruise missiles such as Echo and Julliet subs which were real within the strike capacity of our Orions, given it is a documented fact that NZ was supplied in about 1969 with the most advanced USN lightweight MK 46torpedoes with a speed of 45 knots to drop from Orions and Wasp helicopters and fire from Leander frigate tubes. Nuclear warheads would have been required to attack the faster soviet nuke subs and would also have been necessary to make the Ikara missiles on the HMS Southland effective- but recent publications have made clear that the Orions and even the Skywhawks were supplied to New Zealand fully fitted to triger and go into action with nuclear weapons the following day. These fittings were removed and suppresse on their arrival in New Zealand but according to some sources were put into unrecorded storage on the RNZAF bases.

guerilla surgeon said...

"If you are so blinkered to not see how Douglas saved NZ perhaps you can tell me why Labour did not undo his reforms in 9 years in power?"

Simple - they've lost there way and taken on right wing economics because they're scared to offend business big and small.

If our economy is so good how come we keep falling down the wealth rankings? Under the bad old command economy we were up towards the top.

Anonymous said...

You seem to make sweeping generalisations about New Zealand's past Mark. The label of "command economy"(where prices are controlled by the government) could only be applied the government of Robert Muldoon vis-à-vis the Price and Wage Freeze from 1982-1984. That was only a two year period.

The unemployment rate of 6.2% was considered horrific in 1983. After 7 years of Douglas' economics it had almost doubled. Now 6.5% unemployment is considered “normal". Between 1985 and 1992, OECD economies grew by an average of 20%, while New Zealand's economy shrank.

The transfer to foreign ownership of NZ companies from 1985 to 1991 was more than double the combined foreign "investment" of the proceeding 30 years. Foreign ownership increased from $9.7 billion in 1989 to $82.7 billion in 2006. 80% of the 40 state assets sold ended up in foreign hands.

The Wage and Salary share of GDP has been steadily dropping since 1982 while the percentage disappearing overseas to foreign owners has been increasing. New Zealand is economically and socially in a much worse position after a quarter century of free-marketeers than any stage since the Great Depression.