Not quite Camelot, Simon Upton

For the Record: Lange and the Fourth Labour Government
ed Margaret Clark
Dunmore Publishing, $34.95,
ISBN 1877399108

The hold-a-conference, publish-a-book industry continues in full swing with the appearance of For the Record: Lange and the Fourth Labour Government. This volume, edited by Margaret Clark, follows on from five previous ones that have come out of conferences organised jointly by the Stout Research Centre and the Association of Former Members of Parliament. The book’s title is something of a misnomer since the conference focused only on the first term, 1984-87 – an artificial boundary that many contributors understandably ignored.

With so many ringside observers not just alive but still professionally active, the conference provided a useful way of getting down on paper observations and insights that might otherwise have evaporated with fading, ageing memories. The flipside is that a still relatively youthful band of cheer-leaders (or former critics) were tempted to be cautious about saying anything that might inflict collateral damage on their own still-pending reputations. Having David Lange still alive (though seriously unwell) at the time of writing must have added its own complexity for those contributors contemplating where they might stand as history’s shadows advanced.

I have never met anyone who encountered Lange who did not acknowledge his astonishing verbal reflexiveness. The quality of his flow – and what a flow – could flag; it wasn’t an uninterrupted string of pearls. But his capacity for instantaneous ripostes was unmatched. And his ability to land so many telling retorts without malice is attested to by the almost universally gentle way in which the contributors to this volume treat him.

Gentle, but not suspending of judgement. The man’s flaws were of a piece with his mercurial brilliance. The criticisms are telling: “David was easily bored” (Geoffrey Palmer); “not prepared to fight for what he wanted” (Gary Hawke); and “too introspective, too vulnerable, too brittle for the long haul” (Stephen Levine and Nigel Roberts). The flaws in the brilliance made a person who would otherwise have been cruelly clever, human in a way most contributors found hard to resist. The only resister in this volume is Margaret Wilson, who tenders a cold apology to “those who seek character analysis of the chief players at the time”, claiming that “individuals are driven by complex motives and that simplistic judgements on others reflect more on those making the judgement.”

Be that as it may, the character judgement of then US Secretary of State George Schultz to Denis McLean, “your Prime Minister could not keep his word”, looms large in all of the contributions which deal with the ANZUS debacle, and which form the intriguing core of an otherwise uneven collection. Gerald Hensley, Denis McLean and Merwyn Norrish all shed polished and professional insight onto the events of the 1984-85 melt-down.

Norrish’s verdict, in particular, has weight. Accepting the legitimacy of the Government’s desire to demonstrate its opposition to the nuclear arms race, he concludes:

It [the Government] had the opportunity to square the circle by accepting the Buchanan visit. Good policy, in my view, would have meant taking that opportunity. The kind of fundamentalism involved in turning it down is seldom a profitable basis for foreign relationships.

 

The fundamentalism referred to here was the Government’s insistence that any ship should not only be non-nuclear powered and non-armed but “non-nuclear capable” – a requirement so tight that Lange famously said it caught the Cook Strait ferries. The source of this fundamentalism has been described by Michael Bassett in his 2002 Fulbright Lecture The Collapse of New Zealand’s Military Ties with the United States. In his view it was the Labour Party leadership to whom Lange capitulated as a way of healing the rift within the Labour Party opened by Rogernomics.

This deserves to be the title of a separate conference, with Bassett’s lecture included. Certainly, its absence from this volume is felt keenly, particularly when confronting John Henderson’s apologia which, in his eyes, sets the Bassett record straight. The notion that Lange was finessed by a determined party leadership that wanted no compromise is categorically rejected. In Henderson’s view it was public opinion, pure and simple, that forced Lange’s hand. Proof of this, he claims, is the fact that Jim Bolger didn’t force the issue.

While the strength of public opinion was – and remains – beyond doubt, that isn’t really the point. The question is why did Lange not use the capital any leader has to challenge his party – and sometimes, even, public opinion? If it was clear that the Buchanan was neither nuclear-powered nor nuclear-armed, Lange would have been absolutely within his rights to clear the visit and assert the integrity of his position to the public. The fact that his party had tightened the noose a notch by requiring that the ship not be “nuclear capable” was something a strong leader would have swept to one side.

The fact that he didn’t suggests he had already spent his capital on an economic policy so radically at odds with anything his party believed in that he couldn’t face another fight. (Bolger, incidentally, found himself in a not dissimilar position with the public, though not his party. Ruth Richardson’s radical measures left him wary of taking on too many other causes.) Michael Bassett’s claim that Lange was ultimately driven by a desire to heal the rift within his party is not dented by Henderson’s assertions. Bassett’s lecture is meticulously footnoted, and his description of Lange’s behaviour in front of his colleagues squarely consonant with Hensley’s judgement that “there was clearly a lack of frankness in the PM’s dealings with his advisers, but I doubt that there was deliberate deception; rather … he disliked showdowns and was content to go with the tide.”

The same goes for Lange’s dealings with George Schultz. Henderson puts it this way: “Schultz can be forgiven for not understanding ‘Lange speak’. Lange seldom made definitive statements. Lange no doubt did agree to work for a solution – but this is not the same as promising a successful outcome.” It is a more charitable verdict but consistent with repeated observations that Lange lacked the toughness that much more durable leaders like Helen Clark and Robert Muldoon have displayed.

Of course, there was more to the first term of the Fourth Labour Government than the ANZUS affair. As befits a conference sponsored by an association of ex-MPs, there is a goodly array of short sketches from politicians of the era. None are particularly memorable, although Geoffrey Palmer’s made me laugh with his straight-faced observation that “David and I had different speaking styles. Mine was more analytical and didactic. It also had greater precision.”

A clutch of contributions from Roger Douglas, Graham Scott, David Caygill and Gary Hawke cover the economic revolution. It is a story that has been told many times before and none of these accounts really ignite on the page, however well they may have travelled in a conference hall. Gary Hawke’s lengthy piece is notable for an outbreak of undisguised exasperation with teachers who apparently didn’t appreciate the sophisticated thinking policy reformers like Picot were trying to undertake.

The collection reaches an undoubted low point in Ross Vintiner’s hagiographic account of Lange the communicator. Did we really need to be told that “it was his staff’s job to seamlessly expose his talent and interpret it to the media”? That said, Jon Johansson gives him a run for his money with a sententious piece on rhetoric in which Lange’s “cognitive acuity” is compared with Shakespeare’s Falstaff. (One feels sure that the assembled audience was immensely grateful to avoid the rarefied pothole signposted by Johansson that this is the Falstaff of Henry IV, not the “much paler imitation found in The Merry Wives of Windsor”.)

But without question the two best contributions are those that frame the book – Peter Lange’s fraternal account with which the book opens, and Stephen Levine’s and Nigel Roberts’ closing chapter entitled “Not Quite Camelot”. The Levine and Roberts piece is a perfectly pitched, unsentimental account that lays bare with their usual forensic precision the verdict that voters delivered in 1987. Their warning against allowing nostalgia to give rise to myth is a necessary antidote to the inevitably self-interested accounts of so many of the contributors (especially the politicians). And by launching their analysis with Lange’s savage valedictory verdict of his own government’s performance, they remind us that whatever his weaknesses, Lange possessed an inner integrity that meant he would never find politics an easy, self-justifying business.

The book is worth buying for this essay alone. But Peter Lange’s account of the family universe in which David grew up is priceless. Try this for size:

There was probably a perception of us as local gentry, but if living in a house full of kitsch, and if getting long trousers well after the last boy in class has got his, and going to school with a biblical text (“honour thy father and thy mother” is one I remember) painstakingly engraved on your hardboiled egg is privilege, then forget the revolution. Some of those eggs would be a hit on the Antiques Roadshow now … “Tell me sir, where did you come by this fine piece of mid-20th-century eggshell calligraphy?” “My mum put it in my lunch when we went to the 1950 Empire Games but I hid it under my bed and found it just last week still in good shape and as relevant today as it was then.”

 

That sense of the absurd lurked never far from the surface with David Lange. Peter Lange’s sketch of “A Life with David” is tossed off with perfect sureness of touch. Its subject would have approved.

 

Simon Upton works from Paris on sustainable development issues.

 

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