Upton-on-line - Diaspora Edition
7th June 2001
In this edition
How the French spend their holiday weekends, a new sub-plot in the long-running Opéra de Chirac and related scandals; and some (far too lengthy) ruminations on the report of the National Party’s Constitutional Taskforce (not exactly a triumph), Maori Representation in Parliament and Simon Schama on British history.
Practising for holidays
As New Zealanders mark the lonely outpost of Queen’s Birthday weekend with a stretch as long as Siberia until the next long weekend, other people in warmer climes are getting into holiday mood. Upton-on-line reads that the Finance Minister, Michael Cullen and Opposition Spokesperson Bill English are agreed that productivity is New Zealand’s number one challenge (at least that’s Colin James’ judgement). They would both be in the intensive care unit if they were contemplating the French approach.
France, like most of Europe, shuts down for August when the heat of the Mediterranean expands northwards and causes a continental scale siesta. But it seems as though one has to limber up for the big holiday. Certainly, May has all the appearance of being a month in which the French practise at being on holiday very seriously indeed.
In just four weeks, upton-on-line’s productivity has been massacred by serial holidays called (ostensibly) to pay tribute to a mixed bag of religious, patriotic and political events. First there was May Day, taken rather more seriously in a country that still has a real live Communist Party. (In truth, the communists – despite being in the Government – are on the point of evaporating: if they survive, it will only be because the French love of putting things in museums will ensure that they are housed in a secure, temperature-controlled environment. In the meantime Prime Minister Jospin has given them temporary shelter inside his Government although opinions are divided on whether or not this mightn’t be the kiss of death, much as Jim Anderton’s fate is giving New Zealand’s Greens cause for reflection…)
Then came Victory in Europe day to celebrate the end of the last war in Europe. This is done rather stylishly. All through the streets of Paris are unassuming little plaques commemorating the sites where people were executed by the Nazis during the occupation or otherwise despatched in the cause of the patrie. On the morning of the 8th May, each is adorned with a small spray of flowers. The preceding night, there must be a mammoth flower drop bringing to every quartier a floral tribute to otherwise ordinary lives lost in the fight for freedom.
Then there are two religious festivals – Ascension and Pentecost. For a steadfastly secular country, this adherence to key New Testament events is rather touching. Now four public holidays isn’t much. But it’s what you can do with those four days that’s really impressive. By building bridges to the nearest weekend, you can give yourself virtually a month of three-day weeks. France has officially moved to a 35-hour week. But May has struck a blow for the 27-hour week. And everyone is smiling.
Except, that is, motorists whom upton-on-line unwisely joined at Pentecost weekend for an imagined quick spin into the depths of Normandy for the day. Thinking that the middle day of a long weekend would be easier going than the days either side he blithely advised luncheon host that he’d be there before midday. But midday arrived somewhere on the A13 on a gridlocked, six lane autoroute, somewhere rather close to Paris as thousands of Parisians who were either naïve or dumb or both, looked at one another through stationary car windows and exchanged looks of despair as bored children variously vandalised the car interiors or each other.
This, apparently, is quite normal. Escaping from Paris (which many do every weekend) is a bit like an up-dated version of Friday penance. Before the joys of the weekend can be savoured, tens of thousand of families submit themselves to motorised purgatory. Each week a few are literally martyred in the act. (Once the péage (toll stations) are passed, speeds rise from 10 km per hour to between 120 km and 160 kms with a different, and more deadly set of perils). The only difference with Mediaeval observances is that the self-flagellation is repeated again on Sunday evening.
Upton-on-line can but reflect that, notwithstanding the Los Angelean chaos that attends Auckland’s northern and southern motorways on holiday weekends, the quality of life for the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders is infinitely higher than the car bound, pollution-saturated corridors in which most Parisians (and Londoners and others) spend so much of their time. Notwithstanding that, cars, particulate and crash barriers seem to exercise a narcotic influence over millions.
On the other hand, the French take their gîtes (baches) every bit as seriously as the Waikane/Omaha set. And the country is full of decaying rural dwellings that are lovingly restored so that city people can play at being simple country dwellers (much as Marie Antoinette once played milkmaids in the dairy at Rambouillet). It’s just that the whole phenomenon has been inflated from the fantasies of the Royal family to half of the middle classes in a city of 8 million.
Not very sustainable, upton-on-line could not help thinking, as countless stationary cars vented their greenhouse gases into the brilliant summer’s morning!
The plot unfolds
Upton-on-line has previously drawn attention to the political machinations surrounding attempts to impeach President Jacques Chirac. While French citizens have been flocking in droves to watch the intimate tedium of half a dozen young gallic men and women living under lock and key in a make-shift loft, observed by hundreds of television cameras, microphones and infra-red devices 24 hours a day, upton-on-line has been feasting on the almost round-the-clock attention being paid to the President who is coping with the embarrassing revelations of a single, posthumously revealed video tape.
Readers will recall that when the curtain fell on the last act of this irresistible opera-in-progress, a pesky socialist Deputy was causing consternation all round by threatening to take the President at his word and convene the High Court of Justice (a parliamentary tribunal) which, Monsieur Chirac claims, is the only body entitled to judge his untouchable eminence. Readers will recall that political corruption a decade or more back was so widespread that not even the President’s opponents are particularly eager to trigger this spectacle. And with the President relying on constitutional immunity, the courts have declared a stalemate.
Well, M Arnaud Montebourg, (who is young enough not to have any restraining memories of the bad old days) has defied the party whips and launched his petition for the signatures of MPs of which he needs 58 to convoke the High Court. With a wonderful sense of irony, he has gravely invoked the reasoning of the President himself in making the case for a specially convened Star Chamber. In fact, he points out, anything less would be unfair to the President himself:
“In representing himself as being unable to defend his honour by way of ordinary procedures, and in recalling that ‘if the Head of State has erred, there is a specially mandated procedure which is the High Court of Justice’, the Head of State has placed himself – both by the spirit and the letter of his own declarations – in the position of claiming justice for himself in front of the only competent jurisdiction, the High Court of Justice. There remains, in effect, only one way now to overcome the denial of justice brought about by the discontinuation of the court procedures and to avoid the dishonour that would otherwise be done to the Head of State himself if it should prove impossible to do justice to the suspicions and accusations of having committed serious contraventions of the law, and that is: the commencement of proceedings by the High Court of Justice.”
Unlike the vast bulk of the political establishment (which seems to be finding terribly complicated legal problems under every carpet in sight), M. Montbourg seems to be possessed of a startling simplicity of insight. “How”, he asks,
“can we explain to our citizens that the criminal acts committed by presidents Joseph Estrada, Alberto Fujimori and Richard Nixon – the last, notwithstanding that he was the leader of the most powerful country in the world – were subject to the rule of law but that in France it is not possible to find a single judge who can examine President Chirac and the serious criminal actions which he is suspected of having committed.
How indeed? Although his 31 signatories to date are almost exclusively first termers, the Socialist Party’s leadership has been embarrassed into action. Having said that voters would determine the President’s guilt in next year’s presidential election (in which Mr Chirac will be seeking re-election), Socialist Party leaders have now come round to proposing an amendment to the constitution that, from after the 2002 election, would allow the President to be charged with crimes allegedly committed prior to his election to the office or unrelated to his presidential duties.
This seems to have got the President’s supporters rather jumpy. Why is there such silence from the Elysée Palace? Why couldn’t he set up, they urge, a grave, high-powered commission of wise men to report (in the fullness of time) on how presidents might in future be investigated? All sorts of notables on the Right are reported to believe some such initiative is needed to preserve public confidence in the President’s repeated statements that he has nothing to hide. If the socialists are just playing politics, wouldn’t it be truly statesman-like for the president to take a bold step that removes any shadow of doubt about the purity of his motives?
Well it might be, but to date it doesn’t seem to have commended itself to M. Chirac whose enthusiasm for making chinks in the legal wall he has built around himself is in striking contrast to the robust way in which he is advocating all sorts of exciting policy initiatives in the environment, education, social affairs and the integration of Europe. In fact, M. Chirac is, in every other respect, busily listening to the French people. It’s driving the governing socialists crazy. As two socialist deputies complained in Le Monde the other night:
“If there were electors on Mars, we bet that the President would have expressed his solidarity with them for the lack of water and called on the Government to put in place a system of extra-terrestrial diversion channels between the Somme [where there has recently been chronic flooding] and the neighbouring planet.”
It’s nice to see that people still have a sense of humour about it all. But the sense of comedy must have been wearing thin for the President last week when a distinguished former Foreign Minister of the Mitterand years, Roland Dumas, was sentenced to 6 months in prison plus a one million franc fine for having received all sorts of goodies (including lots of expensive shoes, apartments and restaurant meals channelled through his mistress) that were paid for by the state-owned petroleum company, Elf. Some of the more serious charges of corrupt influence weren’t proved but for anyone like the President being pursued by investigating judges, it’s all a bit too close to home.
Oh, by the way: guess who was President of the Constitutional Council when M. Chirac received his legal ruling that no President in office can be pursued in the ordinary courts? None other than M. Dumas!
READERS UNINTERESTED IN NZ’s MUCH TAMER CONSTITUTIONAL DEBATES CAN BALE OUT HERE…on the other hand, if you’re a kiwi it might be good for you!
Tinkering with a constitutional debate
Last year, the NZ National Party set up a task force to consider the issues that the Party might have to debate in the next election. It has recently produced its report (which has been the subject of some debate over recent weeks as the Party grinds through its round of Regional Conferences).
The Task Force included some pretty substantial people in Warwick Cambridge, Chris Finlayson, Denese Henare ONZM, Peter Shirtcliffe CMG, and in the chair, Rt Hon Sir Douglas Graham KNZM. They are all people for whom upton-on-line has considerable respect, which is why his disappointment in their output is all the more keenly felt. Here was an opportunity for some really original thinking and, more importantly, a laying bare of arguments that are too often taken for granted. It was not to be.
This issue of upton-on-line critiques some of the Task Force’s thinking. Before doing so, a pre-emptive defence of such temerity is probably warranted. First of all, why should upton-on-line have a view? The short answer is that he remains a financial member of the National Party and considers that leaving Parliamentary affairs to younger, more vigorous people should be no bar to his continuing to take a humble interest in the affairs of his country.
Secondly, what right do diasporans have to comment on the affairs of la patrie? That’s an interesting question that would require a separate issue all of its own. Upton-on-line’s hunch is that small countries need their diasporas more than big ones, and that small country exiles probably feel greater umbilical ties than those who leave hulking great countries whose cultural imprint is inescapable anywhere on the planet. (Americans abroad must feel they have never left, given the reach of American laws, courts, intelligence and, of course, global corporate reach…)
Whatever the case, diasporans are probably a useful source of opinion if only because, outside the hot house of New Zealand political debate they can probably take a slightly more detached view. Certainly, those of us living in other democracies can only note that all constitutional and electoral arrangements are fallible and that there are no nirvanas to be dissected by itinerant parliamentary committees or Royal Commissions.
Enough of that: down to the analysis.
First, a (small) bouquet
In case what follows seems uncharitable, upton-on-line proffers a bouquet. Good on the National Party for actually trying to debate an issue seriously. And good on the individuals for devoting their free time to it. In common with most New Zealand political parties, National has for years coasted through the policy formation process reactively. No-one has got themselves too bothered about researching issues carefully in advance. As a Party with many years in government, National has had relatively few reflective moments in Opposition. The seat-of-the-pants approach has been all too easy to justify as one of the unavoidable burdens of being in government.
Now there’s a moment to draw breath, the Party has finally acknowledged that it has to do some thinking and for that it deserves a big pat on the back. But that’s where it stops.
The future of the Monarchy
Here’s how the Taskforce opened up:
“The task force believes it is only a matter of time before New Zealand will have to decide whether to become a republic. It is hard to judge when that issue will need to be addressed. There is no strident call for change at this time, and the current monarch is clearly held in great respect. This creates something of a dilemma. While there is a temptation to do nothing at this stage and treat the matter as too delicate, that could generate major problems later when he issue does arise. This is because there is thought to be poor public understanding of constitutional matters generally, and what a change to a republic would involve in particular. It seems to us that this topic can no longer be put to one side … we consider the time has come to acknowledge the inevitability of the question arising.”
Upton-on-line is even now boggling at the sheer absence of analysis provided. To state that the topic “can no longer be put to one side” is a triumph of conservatism when most people have been happily debating it for seven or eight years. But one might have expected a slightly more daring justification for opening the debate than the sheepish and clichéd prediction that ‘the time has come’.
Like many in the National Party upton-on-line is prepared to admit that he has no enthusiasm for change. But that’s beside the point. If his betters have decided that the game is up and it’s time to change the crest on the letterhead at Government House (not to forget asking the NZ Woman’s Weekly to leave Prince William alone and start doing more profiles on Ben and Anna Shipley), they should spell out just what’s inevitable about republicanism.
Upton-on-line can think of lots of possible reasons (none of which he thinks is very persuasive). Here are some of them:
1. New Zealanders want an elected head of state. (Do they really? Another whole field of party political wrangling?)
2. A number of high profile New Zealanders like Jim Bolger have said it’s inevitable so it must be. (Why are their views on inevitability so much more persuasive than views to the contrary?)
3. A head of state resident in another country is a slight to our nationhood. (Granted that may be a psychological problem for some, does it outweigh the practical advantages of the status quo?)
4. The Queen doesn’t have much in common with ordinary New Zealanders. (Also true, but then again do people like Jonah Lomu or Kiri te Kanawa have much in common with most of us as they retreat to their gilded private lives – or in other words, is it o.k. to be rich and famous as long as you can chatter on to a talk show host about what it was like growing up in Whanga X or Roto Y.
5. A hereditary monarchy is out of step with the times. (Well they’re certainly not making many more of them, but it doesn’t seem to worry the zealously progressive and egalitarian Swedes, Norwegians, Danes or Dutch).
6. Is it that the Head of State can never be a Maori? (Never heard this one but it could be argued that the Treaty should be re-negotiated to allow for a sort of revolving deal)
7. Are Queen Elizabeth and the House of Windsor wanting to throw the towel in? (There’s no evidence for it but if they did get bored with the arrangement they’d only do so very politely on the advice of Ministers).
8. Britain might become a Republic. (Well, it might but shouldn’t we cross that bridge when we get to it? And if we did get to it, we could always suggest the reigning monarch came and settled in at Government House – the upkeep would be much cheaper than Buckingham Palace and a non-elected Head of State far cheaper than running elections for one).
9. A constitutional monarchy isn’t rational. (The Treasury has probably done some preliminary work on this one. Trouble is, there are plenty of ‘rational ‘ solutions that seem to have caused all sorts of problems. Upton-on-line got caught up in one called the Global Stop Loss in another life.)
10. If we were starting from scratch there’s no way you’d start with a constitutional monarchy these days. (But we’re not starting from scratch. And the Spanish went back to a monarchy in the 1970s so it’s not totally beyond the pale).
One could go on inventing reasons. Some are better than others and ultimately, in a democracy, the people will decide. But if we’re going to have a debate about it, surely the National Party can do better than troop out a palid little statement of inevitability.
People who talk about inevitability are generally scared to front up with their real reasons. The National Party should have no such fears. And of course, if it hasn’t got any reasons, it should be asking why we should change anything. Nothing appears to be broken and conservative parties aren’t generally tinkerers. Upton-on-line has great respect for principled republicans. But go-with-the-flow timidity seems a bit short on rigour.
Getting rid of the Maori seats
The Taskforce doesn’t make much more sense on this issue although its recommendation to either have a referendum among Maori or introduce legislation to ditch them will have a lot more supporters out in the undergrowth. Again, the issue is not so much whether one agrees with the conclusions of (in this case the majority) of the Taskforce but whether their handling of the issue does justice to the subject matter.
Take this piece of reasoning:
“It would be possible to defer the question further until more MMP elections have been held. But against that is a feeling amongst some [but not all of the task force], that with the greater visibility of Maori in almost all walks of life today, with the increased willingness on the part of the Crown to comply with its Treaty obligations to Maori, and with Maori MPs now equating to the population percentage, the Maori seats can be viewed as rather unnecessary, separatist and potentially divisive. There is perhaps a growing conviction amongst some of us that the time has come to re-examine a number of policies and institutions that manifest a different approach to Maori. Some of us think much of the well-intentioned affirmative action in the past has proved to have been patronising and has not produced the outcomes hoped for. So in considering whether to support the abolition of the Maori seats it is not the intention to ‘punish’ Maori in some way but rather the reverse. Provided they are properly represented in the House as they are, there is no longer any need for the seats.”
If you thought you heard a fence collapsing while you were reading that extract, it wasn’t so much that anyone was trying to sit on it but rather that the authors forgot the posts. Just what is the problem? The seats “can be viewed as rather unnecessary … and potentially divisive”. “There is perhaps a growing conviction amongst some of us [who?] that the time has come to re-examine a number of policies and institutions [which ones] that manifest a different approach to Maori.”
The objection can’t be that New Zealand doesn’t have ‘one person/one vote’ because that’s exactly what we do have. And since the determination of the number of Maori seats has been linked to the number of New Zealanders who wish (entirely voluntarily) to register on the Maori roll, all votes have equal value (within the 5% margin allowed for variation in constituency populations).
As with the Monarchy issue, the Taskforce fails to spell out clearly articulated problems that can be advanced in support of the case for change. Here, instead of relying on “inevitability” as the engine for change, the Taskforce relies on “a growing conviction” (“perhaps”). This is the intuitive non-rational side of political conservatism carried to the point of caricature. As Denese Henare rather brilliantly puts it in her minority dissenting argument “feelings are one thing, evidence to support such feelings another”.
More worryingly, the Taskforce is happy to cite the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform in support of the view that the move to proportionality makes the case for distinct Maori constituency seats obsolete but then fails to state whether its recommendation for abolition would endorse the Royal Commission’s recommendation that the 5% threshold rule not apply to Maori parties. If the Taskforce majority really is worried about “a different approach to Maori” it would surely, in logic, have to oppose this ‘different’ approach. Was its failure to do so an oversight? Or was it a little uneasy about the likely reaction? Perhaps the current system, on reflection, isn’t so hard to justify after all?
A missed opportunity
On the basis of the good conservative precept that we shouldn’t be trying to fix things that aren’t broken, upton-on-line respectfully suggests that the angst expended on producing an equivocal and divided recommendation on the Maori seats wasn’t worth it. Something that is broke – the quagmire that is rapidly developing around the place of the Treaty of Waitangi in domestic law – did deserve serious attention. Instead, the Task Force could manage only this:
“We found it a challenge to fully grasp the implications of referring to the Treaty in the preamble to the Constitution Act 1986 or indeed adopting it fully in that Act. Suffice to say there was a general feeling that this matter should be deferred at this time as the courts and the Parliament exercise their respective roles in the interpretation of the Treaty in the modern world.”
Upton-on-line is lost for words. Is this all the Taskforce could say on one of the most challenging issues faced daily in the Parliament and in the Courts? If political parties (especially in opposition) can’t develop coherent views on whether and how it makes sense to carry treaty clauses into statutes like the Resource Management Act and the Hazardous Substance & New Organisms Act, or social legislation, who is going to? This has to be the most concerning swerve of all.
Facing up to the nation that we are
Of course it would be easier for the National party – or any political party for that matter - to take a robust view on such things as Treaty clauses if there was a more mature and phlegmatic understanding of how constitutional arrangements come about. They don’t come into being as academic exercises foisted on people because they’re rational. They do come about because they’re seen to be a workable way of reflecting and accommodating the bottom line interests that often very different groups want to protect.
There’s nothing special or unique about the forces that made the Treaty of Waitangi a convenient fix in 1840 or which motivate the desire to re-define it all in the wake of the move to proportional representation and the alleged gathering of republican sentiment.
Most nation-building exercises involve compromises between different groups. When, for instance, the ancient Scottish Parliament was abolished in the Act of Union of 1707, the Scots gained 45 MPs in the House of Commons and 16 peers in the House of Lords. Similarly, the 1800 Act of Union between Ireland and Great Britain gave the Irish 32 peers in the House of Lords and 100 MPs in the Commons. History has amended those arrangements in different ways but it’s worth recalling them since the Treaty of Waitangi was written at a time when these constitutional manoeuvres were still much more recent events.
It is true that no particular parliamentary representation was envisaged at the time of the Treaty (the British were establishing a colony, not a democracy). But the creation of Maori seats in 1867 undoubtedly grew out of a realisation that had existed from the 1840s that Maori were a constituent ‘nation’ within a nation and that some expression had to be found for it.
All sorts of schemes were mooted. There was Article 71 of the 1852 Constitution Act with its (never to be used) provision for runanga government discussed in upton-on-line last year. 1858 saw the Native District Courts Act and the Native District Regulation Act. In the 1860s (before hostilities broke out) there were, briefly, plans for a Native Provinces Bill which would have given Maori who had adhered to the King Movement, the same semi-autonomous powers of provincial government that Auckland, Otago and Canterbury Provinces had, for example. (Except for the fact that they didn’t have representation in a federal second chamber, New Zealand’s provinces up until 1876, had the same powers as the Canadian Provinces and most of the powers of the states of the USA). So the proposal was actually quite generous (if questionable in terms of workability). Moreover, the Superintendent of the Auckland Province, Hon John Williamson, appointed a Maori, Paora Tuhaere to his Executive in May 1867. (It was Williamson who introduced the Maori Representation Bill into the House of Representatives). So it’s not as though this isn’t an issue our forbears wrestled with.
(Interestingly, the final solution – universal male franchise for all adult male Maori on special rolls with special seats – was not, at the time, seen to be the leading edge of liberality in the Empire. That honour went to South Africa where the so-called Cape Franchise gave males meeting a minimum property requirement the right to go on general rolls. The black and coloured vote became quite influential – which is probably why the franchise, created in 1853 was finally axed in 1936 (after various tightenings along the way). The property franchise never flew in New Zealand in part because communal land tenure made it impossible to operate. But it was mooted. Prior to 1967, if you were predominantly Maori you had to be on the Maori roll – a sort of electoral en-ghettoment. The removal of the requirement – and the move to seats with the same number of electors as any other finally made the seats genuinely equal. But they weren’t always that way or intended to be. We should be very thankful the principle of universal enfranchisement was hit upon right at the outset – otherwise the South African process of truncation and elimination might well have been easier … perish the thought.)
Notwithstanding the fact that New Zealand didn’t take this disastrous path, unease has persisted. It’s worth asking whether that isn’t a result of our no frills single chamber legislature. Economy class uni-cameralism may seem a lucky escape in comparison with the mind-bending over-load of legislative machinery in a country like Australia or Canada. But it can severely limit the options for pulling some interests out of the mire of majoritarian dictatorship in a single chamber.
No-one queries the validity of geographically constructed second chambers in countries like Australia or the US where, for instance, (almost) people-free Montana supplies the same number of senators as New York or California. Spain has an even more complicated senate that contains a senator each (plus one for each million inhabitants) to the 17 autonomous regions. This neatly ensures that places with fractious irredentist tendencies like the Basque Country have their own platform in the Spanish Parliament.
Of course it’s much easier to accommodate special interests when they are neatly confined to a geographical area. That has never been the case in New Zealand where Maori have been spread, more or less, throughout the physical length and breadth of New Zealand. But eliminating on the one hand Provincial Government and on the other the Legislative Council at national level meant the only place for Maori to be accommodated was the House of Representatives.
A second chamber does allow for what one observer described to upton-on-line as the corporate box approach to parliamentary representation. There are all sorts of models to choose from. (The Irish senate has to be the most bizarre – or enlightened depending on your viewpoint – with special seats for key sections of society including the National University of Ireland and Trinity College Dublin. No doubt New Zealand, had it toyed with this formula, would have had a special slate for Federated Farmers and the NZRFU).
The second chamber solution (which Jim Bolger alone was brave enough to champion in recent times) would be a more intelligent alternative for the National Party to be toying with than the simple expedient of trying to knock Maori seats on the head. It simply won’t happen. And by failing to think it through from the standpoint that some constitutionally respectable arrangement is needed, National has no counter to the latest piece of constitutional lego - Maori representation on Regional Councils. Is this really the way of the future?
Putting ethnicity in its place
The foregoing is probably anathema to political liberals of a puritanical stripe who can only conceive of democracy in strictly formal terms whereby individuals enter into contracts as though history hasn’t happened. So to balance things up, upton-on-line urges those who want corporate boxes – or more – to reflect on the big sweep of history and ask how important ethnic identity really is, particularly if we want to live together peaceably.
This has all been brought home to upton-on-line as he has devoured Simon Schama’s new History of Britain – the book that partners the new BBC series. It has had some rough treatment at the hands of the academic elite but one suspects Professor Schama is distinguished enough to go to sleep at night without so much as a thought for his detractors.
For non-academic readers (i.e. most of us) this book is strongly to be recommended. And particularly for New Zealanders. Because, like it or not, it is either the history of most of us (Pakeha), or (if you’re Maori) the history of those who came among us. And that history is not one about happy homogeneous families.
For his entire parliamentary career, upton-on-line encountered pakeha New Zealanders who – frustrated by the claims of some Maori to unique, hard-wired genetic identity – burst out with a cry of “what about the Danes or the Vikings: who are we going to go after to seek compensation for what got raided back then?” At the time, upton-on-line suppressed a superior smile and changed the subject. How could one possibly compare the events of 19th century New Zealand with those of north western Europe a millennium earlier.
But reading Schama has re-connected upton-on-line with that mongrel, north west European heritage of his. It’s not some strange, exotic world inhabited by unintelligible people. It involves the very same corner of the gene pool at a distance of say 30 – 40 generations. And the kiwis who utter that reflex challenge are actually saying something that is historically relevant to contemporary times.
Britain was a cockpit of tenuous allegiances in the years after Rome evaporated. Raiding hordes swept in and out. Danes were still making a nuisance of themselves in the eleventh century even after the Norman invasion. (That’s only a couple of hundred years – if that – before Maori first arrived in Aotearoa for the long haul.) The truth is that that chaotic melting pot remains to this day a part of the mental co-ordinates of many New Zealanders. They – like so many people on this planet – have been part of the spreading and mixing of peoples in the 10,000 years or so since the end of the last ice age.
Choose a narrow time horizon and the shape of things look set in granite (like the iron curtain did for 44 years). Choose a time frame more biologically and culturally relevant and nothing looks immutable. There may still be people living in some distant mountain fastness or deep forest keep who remain untouched by these waves of radiating humanity. But that is not the history of any of the people who have arrived in New Zealand over the last thousand years. They have all been explorers and settlers.
Upton-on-line considers that the kiwis whose views he tended to dismiss were expressing as valid a viewpoint as any. History will be used creatively by any people to anchor themselves. And while the descendants of British culture in New Zealand cannot disown the legalism and constitutionalism with which they mounted their claims, neither should they flinch from embracing a history that has entailed every bit as much accommodation and adaptation as Maori have had to face. And, from time to time, real culturally rooted resilience in a good cause:
History as an historian feels it
The most moving bit of Schama’s first volume is his Preface, in which he ponders the ‘correct’ account of British history in the light of the two defining public events of his early life – the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965. (Upton-on-line remembers the event on a crackling car radio late one holiday night somewhere near Te Teko). Sometime between those dates, British historians set about the (inevitable) deconstruction of the triumphalist account of British destiny that leads finally to Schama’s history of “alteration, mutation and flux rather than continuity and bedrock solidity” as he puts it.
But for those who would completely re-write history – or attempt to forget it – he offers a personally-rooted anecdote that says more about the way history can matter than acres of turgid theory and hectic ideologising. It’s very moving:
“All the same, back home for the funeral [Churchill’s] and moved partly by furtive piety and partly by curiosity as to what it had been in Churchill’s A History of the English-speaking Peoples, which my father had given me many years before, that first kindled my passion for history, I dusted off the red volumes. Passages read at random duly made me squirm with embarrassment, but just as many startled me with bursts of irresistibly gorgeous rhetoric and unimpeachable common sense. The only possible, unanticipated, response, was mixed feelings. On the one hand, the unblushing Churchillian epic of progress, much of it inherited from Macaulay – a bullishly insular, romantically princely, axiomatically Protestant, Whiggishly parliamentary, English-speaking Britain, cast as the nursemaid of democracy, the hope of the West, the guardian of the moral genius of the common law and perennial hold-out against fanatical tyrannies – couldn’t possibly be sustained as the definitive ‘meaning of British history’. But then again, neither could it be airily dismissed as a deluded anthology of patriotic fairy-tales. It had been when my father explained to me that the ghostly letters ‘PJ’, dimly outlined in white paint on the railway-cutting wall in the seaside town of my childhood, meant ‘Perish Judah’ and warmed to his speech, explaining that Churchill had been what stood between the Mosleyite slogan and its realisation, that I properly understood that for his generation the belief in the island fortress of freedom had been less a hollow platitude than a necessary article of faith. Buried within the fabulous mythology, could there be, I let myself wonder, if only for an instant, a gritty little nugget of truth?”
Unimpeachable common sense and mixed feelings
What a quintessentially British reaction. And, frankly, a New Zealand one too. New Zealanders have never had the energy for zealotry. And they have inherited (often quite unconsciously) much of the mythology Schama refers to. Common sense and mixed feelings are going to be as good a guide for dealing with our constitutional arrangements as any. Ethnic identity as a source of shared historical experience is a cultural good. Ethnicity as the basis for constitutional engagement is a cultural toxin. Maori seats in Parliament (for example) were a pragmatic way of ensuring that Maori were never lost sight of, even in the worst of times. They reflected the fact that the new nation wasn’t just a homogeneous blancmange but embraced peoples of quite distinct custom, tradition and terms of association.
Those who would sweep them away are historically and culturally illiterate. On the other hand, those who would set about the conscious reconstruction of our constitutional arrangements along ethnic lines are sectarian, narrow and have no historical sense of their own adaptability. We are only here today – and able to reflect on our mixed feelings – because all our forbears (of whatever race) were resilient and adaptive. And, in the face of sometimes appalling adversity (sometimes self-inflicted, sometimes externally imposed) took common sense decisions that worked for the time being. That’s not a bad outcome if the alternative is permanent dysfunctionality.