Finlay Macdonald reviews the confessions of Simon Bridges
The cover might claim this is “not a political memoir” but the contents page sure reads like a manifesto. Single word chapter titles – Race, Nationality, Class, Politics, Crime, Religion – suggest the reader is in for a bit more than a light-hearted romp through the life and times of an ordinary apolitical Kiwi bloke.
And yet there on the facing page is an arresting photograph of the author aged six “dressed up as a pretty lady by my older sisters”. I was tempted to turn immediately to the chapter titled “Masculinity” in search of clues. But Simon Bridges is a lawyer and surely likes to build a case, so I opted instead to begin at the beginning.
The beginning is: “I love New Zealand.” It’s the kind of thing politicians say in their sleep, and surely a little conventional for a book subtitled “confessions of an outsider”. Within a few paragraphs we are told “New Zealand can be even better”. No prizes for guessing who wants to help make it better.
Not a political memoir, then, but very much a memoir by a politician. Readers hoping for a backstage pass to the National Party’s recent decline and fall be warned, this isn’t that book – if such a book were even necessary, given how sordidly public that tragi-comic soap opera has been. At the same time, it reads very much like a response to National’s crisis, and as a form of personal political rehab for Bridges.
Bridges settles into an easy, reflective style that only occasionally feels like being assailed by a conservative uncle at the family barbecue
Perhaps taking a leaf from Robert Muldoon’s first book, The Rise and Fall of a Young Turk, the member for Tauranga uses anecdote and memory to frame and filter his world view. Pleasingly, after those early, anodyne professions of love for his country, Bridges settles into an easy, reflective style that only occasionally feels like being assailed by a conservative uncle at the family barbecue.
The first chapters on race, nationality and class are possibly the best. Bridges manages to address his own ambivalent feelings about having both Māori and European whakapapa, without playing footsie with any binary iwi-Kiwi crassness.
His admission that he suffered a form of cultural cringe as a New Zealander in Britain, and “wasn’t sure I could foot it in a society so much bigger than the one I was from” is disarming. And his dislike of that patented middle-class English combination of smugness, reserve and resignation is bang-on.
Alas, for every nicely turned anecdote about being snubbed for his gaucheness by a pompous Governor-General at a law school function, there’s a cheap swipe at “urban wokesters” or “the Grey Lynn tiki-wearing liberal who is one thirty-second Māori and spends all their time thinking about their Māori identity”.
It’s not unexpected for a politician to chuck the odd bit of uncooked offal to the base, but it’s oddly jarring from a self-professed “outsider” who elsewhere plays against easy stereotyping. He is thoughtful and sensitive on not being a quintessential male, on his relationship with his father, on his love of classical music, and on the hurt he’s felt at the jibes about his accent. Naturally, those most guilty of mocking his vowels were “fully paid-up life members of the liberal intelligentsia”, but in this case his aim is probably true.
And where is all this homespun musing and confessional yarning leading us? After a somewhat tiring trudge through the author’s rise up the ranks of the Young Nats it’s a relief to finally arrive at his Gettysburg Address. “I’ve written this book because we are in a cultural fog,” he writes. “And it’s a fog of complacency among the overwhelming majority of Kiwis.”
The problem, as Bridges sees it, is our she’ll-be-right approach to life. We could be overrun by foreign invaders, he reckons, but as long as we can still go for a fish, no worries. There are many explanations for this national sclerosis, including our tendency to “whine about identity politics” and attraction to single-issue causes such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter.
There’s an odd whiff of contempt in all this for his fellow Kiwis
But the greatest enemy of promise, as Bridges sees it, lies in the decline of that traditional grassroots party system that once connected national politics to ordinary communities, and which thrived on the mass membership of community-minded people. The “rise of the Beehive politician” – grown in a petri dish at university, nurtured by internships, rewarded with list positions and devoid of real-world experience – has broken those vital connections between Wellington and the heartland.
It’s hardly an original observation, but that’s not to deny it holds elements of truth. And we can forgive Bridges his partisan suggestion that his own party cleaves closer to those traditional values than the identikit middle-class urbanites in Labour or the Greens. Machine politics is a problem everywhere, and party memberships have been withering for decades. But whether “cultural fog” is cause or symptom remains unclear – a bit typical of a book that flirts with big ideas but avoids genuine eye contact.
Bridges bemoans the yawning wealth gap, unequal educational opportunities, and the rise of selfish individualism at the expense of a collective ethos, without ever really examining the possible origins of our malaise in the neoliberal tide that first washed ashore in New Zealand in the 1980s. Reject the notion by all means, but ignoring it seems a little cognitively dissonant.
More than that, though, there’s an odd whiff of contempt in all this for his fellow Kiwis. Note that “overwhelming majority” in Bridges’ assessment of our failure to thrive — that’s an awful lot of voters for a politician to be calling ne’er-do-wells. There’s an echo here of the political tin ear that led him so disastrously astray when Covid hit, and which panicked his caucus into dumping him.
Maybe it’s just about reading the room a little better. What he’s really arguing for is a “deeper civic engagement” among his fellow citizens, and who can argue with that? Maybe he’s just the guy to lead us out of the cultural fog, who knows? Throughout these often-engaging pages there is a nagging sense of a nicer – and better – politician jostling for a turn at the keyboard. I wish that Simon Bridges well and look forward to seeing more of him.
National Identity: confessions of an outsider by Simon Bridges (HarperCollins, $35) is launched by Steve Braunias and Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey on Wednesday night, and will be available in bookstores nationwide.