Counterpunching King, Stevan Eldred-Grigg

No Left Turn: The Distortion of New Zealand’s History by Greed, Bigotry and Right Wing Politics
Chris Trotter
Random House, $36.99,
ISBN 9781869418090

This book is a riposte, a counterpunch in a sparring match between spokesmen for two ideologies. It’s a slightly odd sparring match in that one of the spokesmen is dead and probably wouldn’t even know he was in a fight if he was alive. But that doesn’t make the fight any less hard-fought. Chris Trotter, very likely the most well-known voice of the socialist Left in the mainstream media, is the living spokesman. The dead spokesman is the late, great (or at least perceived as such) Michael King. Unfortunately for King, his Penguin History of New Zealand was not, believes Trotter, sufficiently focused on tension between employees and employers, or rather “workers” and “bosses”. No Left Turn is nothing less than Trotter’s attempt to set the record right.

I can’t see anything wrong with this goal. I’ve already reviewed King in this journal and wholly agree with the implied critique of the Penguin History. Few would think it controversial to say that for King the main conflict within New Zealand was always between groups holding opposed ideas of what it might mean to be a New Zealander. Trotter asserts correctly that different ideas of what it meant to be a New Zealander (or perhaps, for both Maori and Empire loyalists, not to be a New Zealander) were less the causes of conflicts than ideological weapons deployed in conflicts fought over wholly different issues. The question of whether a true New Zealander is an industrial labourer or a pastoral dairy farmer has more to do with who gets how much money, than it has to do with ideas of self-knowledge or national identity.

Perhaps it should be taken for granted, yet I can’t help noticing that the years 1840, 1914 and 1939 are frequently referenced in the national dialogue, at least at the level of mass politics and the mass media, while the years 1913 and 1951 are spoken about seldom. True, the industrial conflicts of the latter two years only involved a limited percentage of the population. The percentages tramping off to the wars in Europe were not much greater, though, while next to nobody gathered outside the Treaty House. The assumption is that soldiers shipping out for Gallipoli, or chiefs (both Pakeha and Maori) mustering on the lawn at Waitangi, represented to some degree all New Zealanders, while striking or locked-out workers represented only themselves.

In other words, a New Zealander is a Maori, a Pakeha or a patriot, but not a worker or an owner. Capital can make a real profit by promoting such assumptions, and this book is a much-needed attempt to point out the discrepancy.

Unfortunately, while Trotter’s project is necessary, it’s not competent. King’s book has many weaknesses but is written in a considered and measured way. Trotter’s isn’t. It’s polemical, visceral and emotional. While I can appreciate that discussing poverty and government violence is likely to provoke emotion in a writer, the reader is not being trusted to come up with her or his own emotional response after being presented with an argument based on data chosen widely and balanced carefully. The reader feels ear-bashed. While this is unlikely to have been Trotter’s aim, he’s at risk of preaching to the choir. No Left Turn will be read with alacrity by the (sadly few) people concerned with class conflict in New Zealand, folk who will work their way staunchly through Trotter’s Disneyish hand-wringing over the 1951 industrial dispute, nod knowingly, and say to some  like-minded soul nearby, “Why doesn’t anybody care about this?” The author always offers the answers to the questions he hopes readers will pose.

It would be drawing a long bow to accuse Trotter of perpetrating a lack of awareness of class issues in the national historical and political dialogue, but it would be just as long a bow to praise him for doing anything other than stabbing amateurishly in the dark at promoting awareness.

First of all, whether for reasons related to his personal feelings or due to a cold-blooded wish to soft-pedal his ideas to his readers, he’s not willing to abandon the patriotic-bicultural theory of New Zealand history. Dollops of it are dropped into the narrative, often a chapter at a time. The first chapter deals wholly with interactions between Maori and Pakeha. It’s here, incidentally, that the comparison with King is most jarring. I couldn’t blame anybody who abandoned the book midway through the first chapter, calling it a dumbed-down dim-bulb rewrite of the Penguin History of New Zealand. Similarly, the section on Gallipoli reminds me of an unwanted movie interval, particularly when Trotter, having stumbled about the familiar mental landscape of the battle-battered peninsula, complete with obligatory retired-colonel ramblings about military might-have-beens, brings the story to a sharp close, as if he felt that a New Zealand history book without Gallipoli wouldn’t be taken seriously.

But even when cutting into and forking up the meat of his argument, Trotter just gets too muddled, too often, about whether he’s chewing flesh or fowl. Sentences comparing Massey’s Cossacks with Italian blackshirts are as strained as those of writers on the right who like to link Helen Clark with Kim Jong Il. The author dwells with great pathos on the death in 1913 of Fred Evans, a striker beaten to death by scabs. I’m not saying Evans’ death should be treated without sympathy, but beyond illustrating the fact that employers were in fact willing to kill to keep their profit margins (even if they weren’t often required to), it’s questionable how important the beating was on a national scale.

Industrial accidents caused by cost-cutting employers have killed far more employees, over the years, than Boys’-Own industrial stoushes. Forty-one were burnt to death by “the bosses” in only 10 minutes one afternoon in 1947, thanks to the fire that laid waste to Ballantynes. Trotter consistently refuses deep analysis, preferring always to offer portraits of individual hardship or ruthlessness which might be moving if they weren’t so plainly at odds with what the book is trying to do.

Political tension at any given point in the history of the country is described in No Left Turn as taking place on a robust axis, that of the poor against the rich. This can be a persuasive model. Trotter often shows convincingly how it worked on any given day. Yet he doesn’t cope well with change. The reforms of the Liberal government of the late 19th century were praised by a visiting American commentator, whom Trotter quotes approvingly, as “a revolution”. A wave of the wand – or a turn or two of the page – and the institutions set up by the Liberals, such as the Arbitration Court, are being denounced as instruments for holding down rather than lifting the living standards of the poor.

Similarly, Trotter describes the transition from social-democratic Labour of the 1970s to neo-liberal Labour of the 1980s, but he only tentatively tries to explain it, and his explanation leans heavily on personalities – hardly groundbreaking, fundamentally unsatisfactory and utterly out of place in a book that’s supposed to be about classes, not individuals.

If Trotter really does intend his book to be a rallying point, or at least a discussion-provoker, among those who are Left or Leftish, then he needs to offer some sort of starting point for a systematic and sustained analysis of the ways in which gains won by the poor have often been rolled back, and what potentially could be done to stop it.

I realise that he is not trying to set himself up as some sort of Pig Island Che Guevara and that this book is more about outlining the problem than suggesting solutions. As it stands, however, it’s pretty much useless to anybody who does want to start thinking positively about ways in which to get the Left going again and, far more crucially, how to win something like better health, more wealth, more warmth, more freedom, more fun, more light, more laughs, more room to manoeuvre, for the poor. The only advice Trotter seems to offer is to avoid voting for the bad guys and to vote for the good guys. Thanks, Chris, but while the things that made Mike Moore unsuitable as a champion for those short of the ready are easy to see with hindsight, I’d really like something that would help me understand the economic and societal dynamics that allow the Moores of this world to elbow their way to the front of the rank when taxis line up outside the concourses of power or money.

I wanted to like this book. At some points I did. I’m not sure to what degree it’s relevant, but I have to admit I got a great thrill from reading Trotter’s heartfelt dumping of the blame for Rogernomics on David Lange, who continues to enjoy an essentially undeserved reputation on the Left. Other readers may find similarly satisfying insights, but even when No Left Turn gets on message and drives its point home, I couldn’t blame anybody who threw this book at the wall and congratulated Michael King’s ghost on another challenge to his hypothesis handily seen off.

 

Stevan Eldred-Grigg’s new social history of the gold rushes will be published later this year by Random House.

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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