Rob Hosking has had a few columns in the NBR (paywalled) advancing the theory that:
because most or all writing about New Zealand’s political history was written either from a pro-Labour perspective or, if it criticised Labour it was from the Left, it means there is a colossal ignorance about half the New Zealand political scene
Hosking argues that the left does not understand the ‘traditions of New Zealand conservatism’, which makes the left blind to National’s strengths and renders themselves unable to counter their arguments. And he recommends several books people could read, like Gustafson’s books about Muldoon and Holyoake, or Michael Bassett’s The State in New Zealand to deeper understand the traditions of kiwi conservatism.
Firstly, I am guilty of the lack of perspective he’s writing about, and I plan to finally getting around to reading some of those books – the Gustafson ones especially. (I feel like I wasted enough time reading Bassett’s ridiculous tantrums and rants in The Dominion to ever trouble myself to pick up one of his books.)
But, secondly, while I agree that not many left-wing MPs or activists are familiar with this New Zealand conservative tradition Rob is talking about, I doubt many of them have read many books about left-wing traditions either. And I simultaneously doubt that many National Party MPs or activists have read many of the books on Rob’s reading list. Most MPs read a lot but they tend not to get through many weighty books, mostly because of the endless reams of other crap they have to read. And I’m not convinced that many people on the right share Rob’s adherence to this tradition. Rodney Hide, who writes a column every winter about how global warming is obviously wrong, because he is cold, seems to be a greater influence. This indicates that intellectualism does not closely correlate with political success and, I feel, invalidates a lot of Rob’s thesis.
Thirdly, I am dubious about the idea that the relative lack of historical writing about conservative New Zealand governments is about the bias of left-wing historians, so much as the general bias of all historians to privilege things that are interesting over things that aren’t. Are there more books about the first Labour government than the first National government because historians are left wing, or are there more books because Savage’s government is much, much more interesting than Holland’s?
Fourthly, what even is the ‘tradition of New Zealand conservatism’? Rob’s answer to that would be, I think, go and read the books I talked about. And I will – some of them. Eventually. But I am always suspicious of an argument that merely instructs you to go away and read a lot of very thick books. Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies is arguably the most influential work of political philosophy in the twentieth century: it consists of two large volumes, but can be summed up in one sentence (democracy is the best form of government, not because it guarantees good government but because it is the only way to non-violently remove bad government ). Other political traditions – environmentalism, neoliberalism, identity politics, social democracy – can all be effortlessly summarised by anyone familiar with them. Why is New Zealand conservatism so deep and nuanced that only lengthy study can elucidate it?
Rob’s argument strays dangerously close to ‘The Courtiers Reply’, a term invented by P Z Meyer’s in the wake of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion, in which many religious critics simply dismissed Dawkins as not qualified to discuss religion because he wasn’t trained in theology. To mock this argument Myers imagines a courtier replying to the outrageous claim that the Emperor is naked:
I have considered the impudent accusations of Mr Dawkins with exasperation at his lack of serious scholarship. He has apparently not read the detailed discourses of Count Roderigo of Seville on the exquisite and exotic leathers of the Emperor’s boots, nor does he give a moment’s consideration to Bellini’s masterwork, On the Luminescence of the Emperor’s Feathered Hat. Until Dawkins has trained in the shops of Paris and Milan, until he has learned to tell the difference between a ruffled flounce and a puffy pantaloon, we should all pretend he has not spoken out against the Emperor’s taste.
Fifthly, while I am admittedly ignorant of the New Zealand conservative tradition, I’m very familiar with the UK tradition, famously summed up by Oakeshott:
To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.
Although I think conservatism is useful as a critique, or a temperament I have never been able to take it seriously as a philosophy, or even a tradition. Strip out the rhetoric and it amounts to a declaration by people privileged by the status quo that the status quo, and therefore their own privilege, must be preserved (although some conservative thinkers argue for the odd incremental reform, to forestall any violent revolutions). Which, of course they’d say that, but let’s not pretend that this is a philosophy or a tradition in the manner of liberalism, or neoliberalism, or Marxism, or social democracy or any other political tradition. Marx nailed it, I think, when he wrote:
Thus the Tories in England long imagined that they were enthusiastic about monarchy, the church, and the beauties of the old English Constitution, until the day of danger wrung from them the confession that they are enthusiastic only about ground rent
But maybe the New Zealand conservative tradition will be more convincing?
Sixthly, I think that what sparked all this off is Rob taking umbrage at various lefties attacking the Key government as neoliberal. I don’t think they are, although neoliberal beliefs in the efficacy of the market are definitely in the mix when they’re forced into policy development. They’re primarily conservatives, but the most important thing to preserve is their own government and in that sense they’re populists who prefer market-based solutions when their focus groups compel them to do something. Maybe that’s what the New Zealand conservative tradition is? I don’t know yet.
Seventhly, a conservative-populist is a smart thing to be if all that you really want to be is in government for as long as possible, but not do very much. But it’s not something that future historians are going to be inclined to write about.