Everywhere we went during our three week trip to Vietnam fellow travellers from around the globe,but particularly from other European countries, had one question for us. What will happen with Brexit?
Their guess, of course was as good as mine. Trying to keep up with the farce that was continuing 6,000 miles away with a seven hour time delay was not easy. Nor was it good for the soul. But our conversations went something like this. ‘When are you leaving the EU ?’ Answer. ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Are you still leaving the EU ?’ ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Are you leaving with a trade agreement?’ ‘We don’t know.’ ‘Might you stay?’ ‘We have absolutely no idea’ And so it went on. It was totally embarrassing and extremely depressing. We look to the outside world like fools being led by prize idiots (especially when the Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay commended Theresa May’s motion to put back the March 29 deadline to the house. And then voted against it) No wonder the rest of the world is laughing at us. If only it were funny.
And then came the terrible awful events in Christchurch, New Zealand. And up stepped the youngest head of state in the world, to show us how it should be done and restore my faith that another kind of politics can co-exist in a divided world. Jacinda Ardern has already suffered the sexist rhetoric that seems to be part and parcel of being a female leader. If Theresa May is condemned as being a weak negotiator it is in part because she is a woman. What is seen as intransigence in her task would be seen as tough determination in a man. Jacinda Ardern was labelled the ‘pretty communist’ on her way to the top job. Her Labour Party is in fact centre left. She firmly rejects what she describes as a Westminster style of adversarial politics in New Zealand, saying if we teach our children to be kind and compassionate then politics can and should be the same. It is precisely that attitude that makes her weak, according to her critics. Well give me a weak politician any day if that is true. Within days of her becoming prime minister she was asked about her plans to start a family. Who would presume to ask a male party leader the same question? Indeed when she did give birth to her baby girl last year, being only the second world leader to do so while in office, there was the inevitable gossip about the impossibility of combining the two roles. Oh and the fact she was unmarried, her partner a TV presenter being the stay at home parent while she went back to running the country after six weeks maternity leave. Which makes her a female super hero in my book.
But it was her leadership in the wake of last week’s massacre that was so impressive. Within 24 hours she had visited the scenes of the terrible shootings and met survivors and the community that has been targeted. She announced that the funerals of the 50 who died would be paid for by the state and their families provided for. Her act of wearing the hijab was one of respect, not an empty, patronising gesture. And her message to the world that New Zealand will always be proud to be a nation of 200 ethnicities and 160 languages, a powerful one. In coining the phrase ‘We are one. They are us,’ she put this small country at the forefront of international politics and made the world a calmer place.
Without fuss or drama, or allowing debate from the gun lobby, she announced there would be tighter restrictions on gun ownership. In refusing to use the name of the gunman himself she put the emphasis where it belongs, back on the victims. She has also shown she can be a mum and a politician. She has pledged that her daughter will learn the Maori language as a sign that different cultures can respect and live alongside each other. She has turned a tea room at her prime minister’s office into a baby changing room and has breastfed during briefings.
Politically she is succeeding more than her doubters ever expected. Despite an impressive programme of social reforms, economically the government has hit its targets four years ahead of schedule, announcing a larger than expected budget surplus.
But it is her alternative style of politics that strikes a chord in a discordant world. Empathy she says makes her a stronger leader. Hope and belief are most important ideals she believes a politician can offer. Would that there were more Jacinda Ardern’s running the world.