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Scoop Review of Books: Proudly Partisan NZ History

'NO LEFT TURN' By Chris Trotter

Random House 2007 ($37) Reviewed by MARK DERBY for the Scoop Review of Books

1869418093.jpgChris Trotter's been addressing us from a distinctly gauche perspective for a long time now, but this is his first venture into authorship. How does it stand up beside his many pronouncements in shorter and more disposable forms, and how does his courageous attempt at a wholly reconsidered history of this country compare with existing versions? In a word - triumphantly.

This is a truly valuable, proudly partisan and exceptionally readable addition to our national historiography.

Years back, when Trotter was still a gadfly rather than a heavyweight, his mentor, the late and genuinely great Bruce Jesson, singled out that quality which most distinguished him from fellow political commentators. 'Trotter loves good writing,' said Jesson (and I'm quoting from distant memory.) 'He delights in it.' Indeed he does, and here he gives himself full rein to quote from favourite and highly eclectic literary sources, to excoriate his rightwing villains and champion their (rather rarer) chief opponents, and to indulge in some portentous yet undeniably stirring 19th-century-style political rhetoric.

The result is a work of political history like no other, a sort of historical courtroom drama in which the national impulse for equality lays charges against the forces of power and wealth. Each of Trotter's early chapters opens with an unashamedly dramatic confrontation between his protagonists, beginning with the well-born land-sharks of the New Zealand Company facing the muskets of Te Rauparaha's men, and their Pakeha allies, upon the Wairau plains. His account of this ugly incident in our early colonial history is one of the better descriptions of it in print, and provides a strong and resonant statement of his central theme, the struggle between 'the progressive aspirations of settlers who came seeking a better life, and the greed of those who sought to replicate the worst aspects of British culture in a new setting'.

That theme is then developed through the land wars of the 1860s (for which Trotter proposes the useful alternative term of 'Sovereignty Wars'), the union-busting of the early 20th century, the Depression and first Labour government, and the 'fear and loathing and gut-wrenching stench of betrayal' that was Rogernomics, to the 1999 anointing of the present government. Throughout, Trotter's prose is unapologetically vigorous and his sympathies overt as he outlines, with persuasiveness and considerable subtlety, the laying down of the antagonism between rural landowner and urban worker which still largely bifurcates our national polity.

His book does a good deal more than cover well-trodden ground - the Waihi strike, the 1951 lockout, the '81 Springbok tour - from a leftwing vantage point. Many of Trotter's findings are fresh and rewarding, for example his well-argued case that David Lange was no well-meaning defender of the people against the ravages of Rogernomics, but that he actually made the whole monstrosity possible. In the process, some all-but-forgotten yet exceptionally colourful figures are rescued from undeserved obscurity, such as the New Zealand Company's 'Radical Jack' Lambton, land reformer Jock McKenzie, devious backroom election fixer AE Davy and William Robertson, the tragically thwarted advocate of Hutt Valley worker co-operatives.

In a work drawing mainly on well-known sources, the most fascinating chapter relies instead on some unfamiliar journal articles and unpublished papers. These reveal Labour's 1940s plans for a democratic and visionary long-range strategy for the growth of Auckland based on public transport and quality public housing. This project was decisively scuppered by the incoming National government in 1949, a decision demonstrating a primal difference between the two political traditions, one planning for the long-term benefit of society at large, the other delivering a quick return for a monied few.

The election of 1949, which ended a long and productive run of Labour victories at the polls, is seen in this book as a particularly significant political juncture, when the nation veered to the right to long-lasting deleterious effect. As Trotter shows, a world-leading series of provisions to ensure a just and egalitarian society was systematically smashed under successive National governments, and the casualties are with us still.
Trotter's analysis of the 1949 election creates an unavoidable sense of déjà vu in the run-up to a similarly pivotal election this year.

It's unfortunate that this undoubtedly ambitious work lacks such basic scholarly foundations as footnotes or clear referencing, making it difficult at times to tell where Trotter's quotations end and his analytical riffs on them begin. There is a bibliography (of impressive length, until you realise that one page of it is printed twice), but that's not enough to follow up most of Trotter's intriguing leads. These include his atypical excursion into the terrain of conspiracy theory, when he touches on Jim Anderton's sudden, short-lived but damaging and inexplicable 1984 decision to resign as head of the Alliance. This final section of the book, detailing the disintegration of the labour left under the impact of New Right economics, is disappointingly sketchy given Trotter's own central role in the events he describes.

He also outs himself as a psephological trainspotter, obsessed with electoral statistics which are only occasionally as revealing as he seems to believe. And for all its impressive historical sweep and wide reading, the eight-year delay between the events in its last pages and the date of its release reduces the book's impact somewhat. The publication of The Hollow Men a year before No Left Turn rendered the latter instantly dated, and raises hopes that its author is losing no time in preparing his next fullscale work. A central running theme of No Left Turn, the place of the union movement as a bulwark against the 'greed, bigotry and right-wing politics' of the book's subtitle, deserves further exploration, especially as new-wave unionism typified by the UNITE union of low-paid, predominantly young workers is breaking with the outworn and discredited structures of the past.

Any criticism I have of this book is greatly outweighed by my admiration for it. In the grand tradition of socialist economic historian Bill Sutch, whom he openly admires and repeatedly quotes, Trotter has written a work of lasting influence, lying bare the fundamental dichotomy 'between those who see New Zealand primarily as a good place to make money, and those who see it as a good place to live'.

Other reviews

Nick Hager in the Listener, Rightwing commentator David Farrar, Critic feature


Mark Derby is a Wellington writer and researcher. He is editing a history of New Zealand's response to the Spanish Civil War, to be published later in 2008 by Canterbury University Press.

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