A passionate politician

Dr Oliver Hartwich
Insights Newsletter
16 February, 2018

Almost a century ago, the great sociologist Max Weber defined the ideal politician in his lecture Politics as a Vocation. As Bill English just announced his retirement from politics, we may well measure his record by Weberian standards.

English entered Parliament twenty-seven years ago. Staying in any one job for such a time span is unusual these days. In the tough world of politics, it is an eternity – particularly considering his time in high offices.

Politics can have a deforming effect on personalities. As Weber put it, “the knowledge of influencing men, of participating in power over them, and above all, the feeling of holding in one’s hands a nerve fibre of historically important events can elevate the professional politician above everyday routine even when he is placed in formally modest positions.”

It is because of these temptations of office that Weber explained what three qualities were essential to be a good politician: “passion, a feeling of responsibility, and a sense of proportion.”

English has all three qualities in spades.

In Weber’s words, passion is not blind excitement but “devotion to a cause”. English’s cause was most obviously to improve the lives of the most vulnerable in society. Anyone who has ever heard him speak about the Social Investment Approach knows how deeply he cares about this issue.

In Weber’s view, such genuine passion had to be coupled with a cool head. This is where ‘responsibility’ and ‘a sense of proportion’ come in.

Weber was adamant that “Politics is made with the head, not with other parts of the body or soul.” In English we could see a politician who finely exemplified what Weber meant: a leader passionately driven by his personal values and pursuing them with perspective.

As Finance Minister and later as Prime Minister, English championed the use of data and statistics to promote better social outcomes. He took the cold hard facts available to government to inform policy, leading to better, more targeted and earlier interventions.

English followed his life-long passion for politics through a career of highs and lows. But, as Weber said, “only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer.”

New Zealand can be grateful for the contribution Bill English has made. We wish him well for his future. 

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