In this Note, Cameron Bray offers up their thoughts on a very recent example of someone with power making a decision to give it up.
Last week, Jacinda Ardern sent shockwaves around the world when she announced that she would be stepping down as Prime Minister of New Zealand. This is what she said at her press conference:
What I want to talk about in this Note is how quite a lot of the emphasis has been placed on the latter half of this paragraph, and what that might mean for our relationship with power. There has been no shortage of critics lining up to crow about what they see as a lack of achievements in office, her ‘burnout’, and an inability to fight and win the upcoming general election. I won’t do them the service of driving traffic to their pages but they’re easy enough to find.
While there is undoubtedly a strong vein of misogyny running through a lot of the criticism sent against her, there is also a baked-in assumption that the resignation itself merits critique. Indeed, as Géraud reminded me while I was writing this article, the recent passing of Pope Emeritus Benedict threw up similar stories from the time of his historic decision to stop being pontiff.
Ardern became Prime Minister in October 2017, meaning that she held power for about five-and-a-half years. To me, this feels like a good chunk of time to be in charge of anything, let alone an entire country. Even had she had enough in the tank to do the role justice for decades, I contend that her decision was still the correct one. It’s important that power is seen as something that ought to be stepped away from, in all walks of life. Getting there won’t be easy though as it’s both a cultural and a systemic shift that is needed.
In the Roman Republic, a man would be elected as dictator in times of great need in order to streamline the state’s political decision-making. Once peace and stability resumed, the dictator would give his powers back to Senate… until a man named Julius Caesar came along. While he himself was never Emperor, his actions as dictator laid the foundations for his nephew Octavian to eventually take up that mantle in 27BCE. It’s quite a remarkable impact then, when you consider that there were still people fighting to be known as Roman Emperor until 1804, several years after the American Republic had sprung into being.
For about 150 years, the precedent set by George Washington in refusing to run for President a third time meant that no-one after him became a three-term President. That is until the immensely popular Franklin D. Roosevelt won not only a third term but a fourth. Had he not passed away in 1945, he may have even won a fifth. The Republican Party took the opportunity to ensure they would never risk another FDR and ratified the 22nd Amendment in about two years (for some perspective on this, an Equal Rights Amendment was introduced in 1923 and has still to be ratified). While I disagree with the motive for passing the Amendment, I nonetheless think it was a good thing.
While I hope any attempt by a future President to pass a new amendment that overturns the 22nd would fail, you don’t need to look back to the Roman Empire for an example of supposed checks and balances failing. As recently as 2020, Vladimir Putin changed the Russian constitution again to circumvent term limits. If the power that you hold in office is enough to change limits at will, then they weren’t limits.
As Géraud highlighted in the previous Note, private players in social infrastructure do not face any kind of democratic oversight. It’s therefore all the more important that those of us in this position model behaviours and practices that we want to see across the system. That means taking up different roles and adapting to the needs of those around us, rather than clinging on to existing in the same capacity that you always have.
Indeed, it’s what will happen with Ardern. Despite the framing of the story of her resignation, she’s not lost to public life – her energy, intellect, emotions and drive will continue to be put to use. It’s an attitude that we hope people feel when they encounter BD Giving, and one that forms a big part of our upcoming strategy.
There is no magic solution here, no process that we can implement that will repel anyone that wishes to use power for entirely selfish reasons. What we need is to slowly embed a healthier relationship with power. It needs to reckon with why people seek out and cling onto power, provide alternatives and be brave when they refuse to step down. As Ursula K. Le Guin put it, “any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings”.
BD Giving Notes is a weekly blog aimed at sharing some thoughts on running a social infrastructure charity. Each post focuses on a couple of things we have learnt or done in the previous week; what’s gone well and what didn’t.