Larger than life, Simon Upton

Richard Seddon: King of God’s Own – The Life and Times of New Zealand’s Longest-serving Prime Minister
Tom Brooking
Penguin, $65.00
ISBN 9780143569671

I grew up in a very complacent country which didn’t really take its history seriously. New Zealand was the way it was (and it was the best of all worlds) and momentous history happened abroad. I recall the librarian at my secondary school pronouncing with lapidary finality that “New Zealand history is all out of date current affairs”. In the 1960s and 1970s, the evolution of the Cold War was much more exciting and, for the purposes of history teaching, the first two decades of the 20th century were devoted to the causes of WWI. New Zealand was a footnote.

It was, of course, the calm before the storm. The 1980s brought with them the collapse of the providential State, the re-emergence of Māori land grievances and the birth of a self-conscious determination to expunge from any historical narrative the slightest nostalgia for our participation in the Britannic imperial adventure. In short, a brave new world swept away the unspoken certainties of a world which, for less than a century, had been truly brave, new and experimental.

The fact that we couldn’t articulate the roots of what had been swept away said as much about the success of that experiment as it did about our ignorance of them. So, for my generation, the appearance of Tom Brooking’s biography of Richard John Seddon is a welcome account of the genesis of so much that we took for granted. Whether it was old age pensions, industrial conciliation and arbitration, the Māori lands bureaucracy or state rail, so many of the institutions that were consumed by the bonfire of liberalisation had their roots in the years of Seddon’s ascendancy.

The work is palpably intended to be definitive. To 400 pages of text are added 100 pages of endnotes, 35 pages of bibliography and two pages of exhaustive acknowledgments addressed to a large fraction of New Zealand’s historical research community (not to mention three of the authors’ cats). Any reader prepared to linger in the endnotes will imbibe the flavour of countless academic skirmishes.

There is, inevitably, a tension between recounting the life of a populist politician for the general reader and delivering a magnum opus directed at the research community. The former lends itself to a simple chronological account of “the life”, the latter, a more thematic treatment of “the times”. Seddon’s dominance of the political landscape between 1893 and 1906 makes it almost impossible to disentangle the two. In the end, we have a somewhat uneasy amalgam. The first eight chapters carry us through a mass of detail from Seddon’s birth in England’s north-west in 1845 to the completion of his first three terms as premier. There follow five thematically conceived chapters that cover Seddon’s engagement with Māori, the Empire and the labour movement. The final three chapters revert to a more chronological account of his final two terms, culminating in the drama of his death at sea on his way home from a visit to Australia.

The chronological thread can be wooden at times. Brooking frequently resorts to explaining Seddon’s many policy initiatives by way of summaries of parliamentary debates and press reportage. While this will be an easily accessible goldmine for subsequent scholars, it doesn’t make for easy reading.

The thematic chapters are by far the most successful, the two devoted to Seddon’s relationship with Māori being particularly interesting. The 1890s were dominated by issues related to the ownership of land. Laying claim to land for increased settlement was at the core of the Liberals’ concerns. On the one hand they set about the compulsory acquisition and break-up of the large estates that had grown up in the first generation of settlement. On the other, they set about trying to gain further access to the land remaining in Māori ownership.

The twists and turns of government policy as it steered between the rampant desire for land on the part of the Liberals’ North Island rural constituency and a concern not to leave Māori landless are compellingly recounted. When the implementation of a system of Māori Land Councils under the Māori Lands Administration Act of 1900 did not yield up sufficient land, Seddon’s administration responded with a radical recasting of the balance of forces in the Māori Land Settlement Act of 1905 – a U-turn Brooking describes as “nothing more than another concession to the hysterical and racist campaign whipped up by land-hungry North Islanders”.

That is a judgment that will sit comfortably with the (always provisional) consensus of our own times. More perceptive, perhaps, is Brooking’s suggestion that underlying this hysteria were some environmental realities that those land-hungry settlers didn’t want to confront: the serious environmental limitations of steep, forested country with low fertility. Brooking’s familiarity with the ecological history of New Zealand’s settlement ensures that this most unattractive side to Seddon’s swashbuckling view of nation-building is exposed for what it was. An unashamed advocate for mining (no tax break or concession for mining was too big to be advocated by this brawler who sprang from the gold fields of Victoria and Westland), Seddon emerges as the patron saint of a think big, resource-based development credo that is still alive and well.

Whatever the shortcomings of Seddon’s Māori land policies, he emerges as a quick learner in the treacherous waters of bicultural politics. His physical presence on some of the most remote marae in the land must have won respect even where his policies weighed heavily on Māori interests. In our own time, only Jim Bolger and Sir Douglas Graham must have undergone such an on-the-job education. One can only hope that a bright young bilingual scholar will take up Brooking’s call for a serious re-evaluation of Seddon’s Minister and MP for Eastern Māori, James Carroll, whose European and Ngāti Kahungunu descent made him a unique bridge between the peoples of the emerging nation. Brooking must surely be right in describing the absence of such a biography as “a crucial missing piece”.

Equally fascinating is Brooking’s account of Seddon the “nationalistic imperialist”. Seddon’s tireless engagement with the affairs of empire made him an indefatigable traveller and national advocate in a way which would be unimaginable today. Given the time needed to travel by steamer, Seddon was out of the country for months at a time. He attended the Diamond Jubilee of 1897 and the Coronation of 1901, popping up along the way in places as varied as Salt Lake City, Washington DC and Durban. There was the foray to the Pacific Islands as part of Seddon’s preposterous scheme to build a mini-empire culminating in the annexation of the Cook Islands (described by Brooking as “a potent mixture of racism, condescension and ineptitude”).

A host of hugely important policy entanglements, from the Boer War to imperial preference and access to shipping, are dealt with in the two thematic chapters under the headings of “overreaching ambition” and “adjusting to the reality of smallness”. These were the years when New Zealand rejected federation with Australia and asserted itself as the most loyal of the self-governing colonies. These events are engagingly related.

Inevitably, however, seeing the “times” through a larger-than-life individual means that some important historical forces are under-described. Seddon’s ministries coincided with a sustained global economic upturn. As such, he was a “lucky” politician. This is barely discussed. There is a mere paragraph in the epilogue commenting on the favourable world in which Seddon governed. While his boundless energy and endless activism were immensely significant (he seems to have held just about every portfolio somewhere along the way), the achievements of 15 years in office cannot be divorced from the economic tide in this high noon of economic globalisation in the years before the Great War.

Inevitably, the biographer of a national leader will seek comparisons. For at least middle-aged New Zealanders, the comparison with Muldoon is the most obvious. In Brooking’s view, “Seddon always looked forward and committed New Zealand to change whereas Muldoon wanted to retain New Zealand as it was.” That overlooks the fact that much of what Muldoon clung to was the utopian, progressive fabric that Seddon started to weave. But Muldoon governed in a world without a British Empire and in the face of declining terms of trade. These two leaders are bookends for a period of self-conscious national exceptionalism of which Brooking is a product – and from which we are still recovering.


Simon Upton is Environment Director at the OECD in Paris.

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Posted in Biography, Non-fiction, Review
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