No Hamlet, Barry Gustafson

My Life
David Lange
Viking, $49.95,
ISBN 067004556X

David Lange was no Will Shakespeare, and his memoir My Life is no Hamlet, Othello or Macbeth. Lange’s prose is distinguished by clever one-liners, not lengthy, self-revealing soliloquies. My Life does, however, have one thing in common with the bard’s great tragedies. The central character, despite many admirable qualities, has a fatal flaw. In the case of Shakespeare’s heroes, it was abnormal indecision, jealousy or ambition, which also wreaked havoc on those around them.

Lange’s flaw was his unwillingness, or inability, to fight for the things he believed in. He chose instead to concede the field to people he grew to distrust and despise and whose policies impacted disastrously on the vulnerable people he claimed to represent. Unlike Shakespeare’s characters, Lange’s political life ended not with a bang but a whimper, not with an unyielding battle against his foes but with unforced resignation, considerable regrets and endless recriminations.

Lange once told me, only half-jokingly, that he would not write his autobiography until after Michael Bassett published his history of the Fourth Labour Government because Lange wanted to refute Bassett’s version, not vice versa. Conscious of his impending death, however, Lange did record his perspective, dictating the chapters and editing them after they were typed.

My Life is an easy and interesting read and amply demonstrates Lange’s great humour, facility with words, and personal courage as his health deteriorated over a long period. It is also a sad story, written by a “loner” who made few close or lifelong friends; was torn between feelings of inferiority and superiority; believed the government he led had, despite its successes, caused considerable suffering to many while enriching unscrupulous businessmen; suffered chronic ill-health and pain; and was conscious throughout his life that he never had his mother’s unqualified love.

Lange loved and admired his father but clearly had less affection for his mother or she for him. He recalls, for example, that in 1990, when he showed her the insignia of the Companion of Honour he had received from the Queen, that “for the first and only time in my life she said to me how well I had done”. A year before, after he left his wife, his mother had commented on television that she wished her son had never been born.

Lange’s early life in Otahuhu is evocatively recalled. As someone who was also involved with Uncle Tom’s children’s choirs on IZB (both Lange and I sang before the Queen at Government House on Christmas morning 1953), was active in the Boys’ Brigade and a nonconformist, evangelical church, and was a dominant public speaker and debater at secondary school and university, I found myself empathising with Lange’s background, socialisation and development of values, perceptions and skills. I could only imagine, however, the trauma he experienced when his beloved doctor father endured a Supreme Court trial before being found innocent of indecent assault on a patient.

After graduating in law from Auckland University, Lange, sought “overseas experience”. He travelled via Asia and started a lifelong fascination with India. In London he met Naomi, whom he says several times he liked, but does not say he loved. Even in retrospect he was surprised that she liked him. He had never had a girlfriend and thought because he was fat he never would. It is clear from comments Lange makes later in the book that, despite marrying Naomi, he had yet to meet the love of his life. He did not until smitten by his assistant Margaret Pope in 1984, although he did not leave Naomi until 1989.

Unlike most Labour MPs, Lange had not been particularly active in the Labour Party organisation. In 1974 Labour found itself short of candidates for its Auckland City Council ticket. I was in the chair when the party’s regional executive discussed the matter, and Bassett suggested that his cousin might be prepared to stand. After being approached, Lange agreed.

At the following year’s parliamentary elections he became Labour’s candidate in the safe National seat of Hobson. Lange claims that, as he watched Bill Rowling open Labour’s 1975 campaign, he prophesied that he would become Labour’s leader and would open the 1984 campaign. For a man standing in a hopeless seat, this suggests incredible ambition matched only by equally incredible confidence.

In 1976 Colin Moyle resigned from Parliament, determined to vindicate himself in a by-election for his Mangere stronghold early the following year. The electorate committee, party president Arthur Faulkner, and the regional executive made it clear that they expected Moyle to be reselected unopposed, despite the fact that a number of former Labour MPs were very interested in standing. To everyone’s surprise, Lange announced he would contest the selection and refused to withdraw. Mike Moore and others became concerned there would be a contested selection and they would not be in it. Faced with the prospect of a number of rivals, Moyle withdrew.

At the packed selection meeting Lange spoke last of 16 aspirants and gave what he claims was “the best speech of my political career”. Certainly it matched the best evangelical preaching I have ever heard. It evoked nostalgia for the values and community of a bygone era, promised a future based on social justice, and inspired listeners to join together in a righteous crusade. It was no surprise when the selection panel declared Lange to be the candidate. Six weeks later he was the MP for Mangere and six years later Labour’s leader.

The memoir is entertaining but disappointingly superficial in covering the politics of the 1980s. Lange states that the book is subjective not objective, and that is understandable, but he could have given so much more detail and informed analysis. Instead he records that he “did not set out to write a history of the Fourth Labour Government”; he “hardly touche[s] on wider social and economic issues”; he does not bother explaining how policies such as the nuclear-free policy were adopted by Labour; and he did not find it “always easy to write about people in the way I saw them at a given time, rather than through a prism of what happened afterwards.”

Lange’s almost universal contempt for his colleagues is one of the book’s features. Only a few, notably Michael Cullen and Geoffrey Palmer, are commented on favourably. He attacks not only those who helped him seize leadership of the party – Roger Douglas, Mike Moore, Richard Prebble and Bassett – and whose policies he uncritically sold to the party and public at the 1984 and 1987 elections. He also could not forgive those like Russell Marshall, who supported Rowling and then stood for the leadership against Lange, even though Marshall, who was never comfortable with Rogernomics, was a natural ally in Cabinet when Lange belatedly decided to oppose its excesses.

Although only in his mid-40s, Lange was not well physically by the late 1980s and he also appears to have been mentally and emotionally exhausted. He had always enjoyed the plaudits of the crowd but disliked and tried to avoid personal confrontation. Lange had neither the energy, the character, the commitment nor the managerial skills to use his position as prime minister and his unmatched rhetoric to mobilise those in cabinet, caucus, the party organisation, the trade unions and the wider public, who felt the Fourth Labour Government had moved beyond necessary and reasonable economic reform to a radical agenda partly designed by, and for the benefit of, a small group of businessmen. On that, he tantalises with comments about the closeness of the Douglas faction to men who became prominent in the Round Table and he also puts some of the blame for the 1984 devaluation crisis, usually attributed solely to Muldoon, onto Douglas, who during the election campaign “could invite profiteering by openly advocating a devaluation”.

Future historians will be pleased to have Lange’s memoirs as a primary source for more detailed and objective analyses of both Lange himself and the dramatic reforms that his government initiated and implemented. But they will be disappointed at the minimal detail he provides and the limited extent to which he develops, substantiates and exemplifies his observations. They will also have to judge the extent to which Lange has been guilty of attempting to rewrite history to distance himself from the effects of economic policies which he initially and enthusiastically supported but whose outcomes, in hindsight, he regretted.

Lange does defend the anti-nuclear policy. He resents suggestions that although he came to personify it, notably through his devastating performance in a televised Oxford Union debate, he was a reluctant convert who had to be forced to take that stand by others in the Labour Party. His recollection on that differs from that of many of his contemporaries, and will continue to be contested.

The government Lange led transformed the New Zealand largely created by the first Labour government 50 years before. Its leader, Michael Joseph Savage, was much more loved than his lieutenants, who claimed with some justification to be more responsible for that government’s policies. So also, Lange, despite his flaws, will be remembered with more affection than those who really devised and implemented the policies of the Fourth Labour Government.


Barry Gustafson is an Auckland historian who is currently finishing a biography of Keith Holyoake. 


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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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