Bruce Jesson: 1944-1999

This is the envoy of The Nationbuilders. The book is now out of print and the chapter is published with permission. Other items on Bruce on the website are as follows:
His Purpose is Clear: Reflecting a Life of Thought and Experience (February 1999)
Global Warning: What would have Bruce Jesson have said about APEC (September 1999)
Nationbuilding and the Textured Society (Bruce Jesson Memorial Lecture, October 2001)

Keywords: History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy; Political Economy & History;

It would be wrong to end this book with the post-1984 colonials. But it is not easy to write about the new millennium nationbuilders for they are still alive and active. Some will try to revert to earlier versions of nationbuilding, with little recognition of the changes which have occurred which make its policies, if not its objectives, obsolete. The significant ones will be those who pursue the aspirations of their nationbuilding predecessors, but recognize the changing economic and social environment. It is for them to tell us about what they mean by their nationbuilding, although they are likely to do so – if their predecessors are any guide – by their actions rather than their words.

Alas their number will not include Bruce Jesson, who despite being a generation younger than the post-war nationbuilders, died in 1999 too early to contribute directly to the new millennium. Jesson grew up in a working-class family in, as he saw it, colonial class-riddled Christchurch.

The English consciousness that pervades New Zealand was a false consciousness. We were colonials not the real thing. The Christchurch, where I grew up, cultivated an English character. The Christchurch middle classes sent their children to private schools and elite state schools which were even more English in their tone than their curriculum. Jerusalem was sung in school assemblies. Girls' schools played hockey, boys' schools rugby. The school structure was hierarchical and authoritarian with a system of prefects and at some private schools even fags. Not surprisingly, the Christchurch middle-classes were exceedingly English in manners, tastes, accents and sense of humour.

Yet this culture was transplanted, not authentic. There was nothing English about the large, dry, flat paddocks spreading across the plains, nor about the braided rivers sweeping down from the mountains, nor about the casual No 8 wire culture of Canterbury farmers and workers. Nor was there anything particularly English about suburban Christchurch with its bungalows and large sections. Even the Christchurch elite, living in ornate two-story houses in Fendalton, showed some signs of New Zealandness in their relatively casual attitudes and lack of pomposity.[1]

In some respects, I think, Jesson is wrong. Like Glover in the 1930s he assumes that what the burghers of Christchurch thought was Englishness, was in fact what was really English. Jesson’s dislike for ‘Jerusalem’ was because he thought the singers were excessively Anglophilic. Yet he would have agreed with William Blake’s general sentiment. The (untitled) poem, from a longer work Milton, is preceded with Blake’s rejection of ‘Greek [and] Roman Models if we are true to our own Imaginations,’ in favour of a local one – precisely Jesson’s concern to create an authentic indigenous culture. No doubt some at his school believed they were singing about ‘England’, while Herbert Parry’s score has an Elgarian pomp and circumstance which Blake may not have approved. But some in the assembly were singing about their ambitions for New Zealand, like Peter Fraser, building Jerusalem in ‘this our fair and pleasant land.’ For them, England was as much a geographical reality, as Jerusalem was for Blake. The universal message of the poem is captured in an American anthology of English language poems which concludes

Blake’s words are very likely the most inspiring ever written by an Englishman for Englishmen. A grand tradition of rugged struggle in politics and religion extends from John Milton and John Bunyan in the seventeenth century, through Blake and Wordsworth in the eighteenth and nineteenth, down to our own time in writers as diverse as W.B. Yeats and Joyce Carey.[2]

Yeats and Carey were Irish.

Even so, there is a truth in Jesson’s observation of a colonial cringe which pervaded much of the society in which he grew up. But if Christchurch was (and is) a bourgeois town, that generates a social solidity and coherence, which gave, I think, the sense of the sort of society which he sought for New Zealand as a whole. You can see Christchurch in two ways. Jesson’s family moved into a state house when he was eight years old, in Ilam half a kilometre from Fendalton’s elite Glandovey Road. Either the social clines in Christchurch are steep, or rich and poor in Christchurch snuggle together, pretending to be different but dependent upon one another. Probably both. Jesson went to the local state school, the elite Christchurch Boys’ High School, where boys from the upper middle class mixed with selected high ability boys from the working class.

He first came into public prominence with the ‘flag burning’ incident, in which a Union Jack was burnt in front of the Governor-General visiting Canterbury University. At that time we all claimed to be ‘republicans’, although the most notable expression was remaining seated for the playing of the British national anthem, God Save the Queen, at the beginning of a cinema show. (It was advisable to check the seat behind was empty, to avoid a sharp jab in the kidneys from an irate member of the Returned Servicemen’s Association.) Jesson lifted the game when he asked why we should get upset by the burning of the flag of a foreign nation, forcing us to question what was New Zealand’s relationship with Britain. His Republican Movement was launched. As he wrote:

The republican arguments that were developed in the 1960s reflected the left-wing nature of protest politics at the time. New Zealand, because of its overwhelming dependence on Britain, was seen to be in an analogous situation to the colonies that Britain had in the not-too-distant past ruled directly. ‘Neo-colonialism’ was a term then in vogue and New Zealand was seen as in this predicament. And independence movement was needed, with republicanism being seen in this light.

Although republicanism focussed on the symbolic dimension, the underlying analysis was economic, with the economic arguments being borrowed from Dr W.B. Sutch. …

Although some republicans were sceptical of Sutch’s goal of an insulated economy and criticised what were seen as contradictory elements in his thought, they shared his desire for an independent New Zealand. Sutch’s arguments set the framework for public discussion about New Zealand independence. Although Sutch was not personally interested in the issue of republicanism, he provided the economic basis for the republican arguments.

Republicanism also reflected the cultural nationalism that was prevalent at the time. … Britain was the source of our culture, the place educated New Zealanders related to and sometimes migrated back to. This caused a deeply-felt conflict; it meant a denial of our own identity. And the obvious response – beginning in the 1930s – was to develop a source of culture within New Zealand.[3]

To the several of threads in republicanism which Jesson identifies – symbolic, economic, and cultural should be added the notion that all men and women are equal, which underpins each of them.

Jesson saw the economic dimension as salient. Yes, he was a Marxist a sophisticated and subtle one. (The shortest definition of Marxism is ‘it’s the economy, stupid’.) One might have thought he was born one, given his family background, but until the age of fourteen Jesson was an active Baptist. Then he read Charles Darwin’s The Origins of Species, and became a Marxist, but

I was at odds with the rest of the Left because I never believed in the Marxist revolution. I never had any faith in a messianic communist movement and had no sense of dogmatic certainty. I felt no sympathy with Russia and after the Cultural Revolution in China I turned right off. But Marxism did provide a philosophical, analytical way of looking at the world. It was a model which teased out logical complexities. I believed that the radical movement had to have New Zealand origins as a defining thing. I had the nationalistic view that overseas stuff was frippery. I also saw the New Zealand left as moralistic, and hopeless on economics their eyes glaze over.[4]

The penultimate sentence is probably not fair to Jesson, even in the 1960s. It is true he had little overseas experience no more than the odd trip abroad in later life. But he was a keen reader, travelling via books. He came upon Georges Hegel, who inspired Karl Marx, although most Marxists have not given his attention to the inspiration. He thought ‘Hegel was in fact a much better philosopher than Marx,’ revelling in his logical purity.[5] Perhaps it was no accident that his hero was a Continental. He was saying ‘look outside the Anglo-American canon – not all the wisdom of the world was initially written in English, nor all the relevant experience of the world occurred in only one or two countries. Look most at New Zealand’.

Jesson completed his law degree at Canterbury University. (Why law? His great love was history, which he read even in his last days. Perhaps the working-class boy thought it was safer to get a ‘proper’ job.) In 1967 he moved to Auckland, spending a few months in a law firm before the partners discovered his republicanism.

More than Christchurch, Auckland is a hollow society, if only because its population growth makes it difficult to consolidate its social institutions. (Wellington is the most hollow of the three, for the government pervades almost every Wellington social institution.) Auckland lacks the solidity that gives social coherence. Rather, as the joke puts it, it is 34 villages connected by a sewer pipe, a multitude of communities with a common environment and infrastructure. If Christchurch’s class structure is based on status, Auckland’s is based on money (and Wellington’s on politics). Bobby Dylan says that ‘money does not talk, it swears’, but it also gives a forward looking vibrancy. Auckland is not only the most significant New Zealand centre of economic growth, but as the most Pacific of New Zealand cities is alive with Island and Asian migrants, and Maori.

Perhaps Jesson hoped that one day Auckland would couple its vibrancy with the social solidarity of Christchurch. He spent the second half of his life there, marrying Jocelyn. At first he did a number of jobs such as working in the freezing works at Pokeno, in South Auckland, but when their two daughters came along in the 1970s, Joce continued teaching, and Jesson became a househusband, at a time when the concept hardly existed. The child- and house-care were combined with active independent scholarship, at a time when that concept hardly existed in New Zealand either. He read widely, and spent an enormous amount of time in the Companies Office. (He was irate when the government began charging a search fee, for it meant he could no longer afford to investigate particular companies.) From 1974 to 1995 he produced the monthly The Republican, ostensibly to promote republicanism, but it was also a vehicle for Jesson’s ideas, where he learned the craft of journalism, and it became the centre of a network of people, who eagerly read his articles for their quality and insight. (The many hours he spent talking in pubs added to a particularly simple direct presentation, although its casual simplicity was a consequence of considerable thought.)

In the late 1970s, the family moved into Auckland, living first at Otahuhu, later at Mangere Bridge looking across the Manakau Harbour. (He loved fishing.) He went public in 1981, when Warwick Roger asked him to write a political column for Metro, the monthly journal which captured the vibrancy of the upper income end of Auckland so well. (Roger would have had little truck with Jesson’s politics but the, arguably, best editor of the 1980s could identify quality.) The independent scholar had a platform.

There are not a lot of independent scholars in New Zealand, if we exclude those who have retired on a pension. Their scarcity is an example of the hollow society, the lack of social institutions which are reasonably independent of government. (There is a parallel, and larger, group in the arts world.) Jesson’s first loyalty was to the intellectual work he produced, even if he modestly described himself as a ‘journalist’. Independent scholars are not well paid. As is often the case in the world of arts, the spouse has to be very supportive. The size of the country limits the market of those willing to pay to support the independent scholar, say, through royalties. (In a larger country, a collection of Jesson’s writings would already be published as a book.)

One might have thought the universities would have promoted independent scholarship. Jesson did spend a period as an (unpaid) visiting scholar at the Department of Political Studies at the University of Auckland. They gave him a room, access to the university library, and colleagues. (He learned he was as intellectually as good as a tenured academic, better than most.) Such opportunities were rare.

In the 1970s his interest in the cinema had led him to investigate the Kerridge-Odeon Corporation. He went on to Fletcher Challenge Ltd, and wrote the self-published The Fletcher Challenge, which led to the successful 1987 Penguin Special, Behind the Mirror Glass: The Growth of Wealth and Power in New Zealand in the Eighties. This was followed in 1989 Fragments of Labour: The Story Behind the Labour Government. Today’s readers may miss one of the achievements of that book. It was published in the same week the Richard Prebble was sacked from the Labour cabinet. Thus the foresight in Jesson’s analytic framework now appears with hindsight, just as he presaged the 1987 financial sector collapse in the earlier book.

It is not only the quantity of his writings which are impressive, but the quality. Jesson introduces analytic concepts for which future academics who develop them will receive doctorates and chairs. He proposed the ‘historic compromise’ of Chapter 5. The ‘hollow society’ has been used throughout this book. These two fundamental notions are worthy of placing Jesson in any pantheon of thinkers about New Zealand.

If Jesson loathed the colonial cringe, he detested cant, including the political correctness in the left. An earlier quotation portrayed his wrath over the failure of the left to think systematically about the economy. A little earlier in the interview he had condemned various communist sects as ‘authoritarian in structure, apologists for mass murderers, and no feeling for the New Zealand situation.'[6]

The abandonment of the historic compromise by the Fourth Labour Government after 1984 gave Jesson much pain. There was passion just beneath his steel-cool analysis. He joined the NewLabour Party, which was formed when Jim Anderton abandoned the Labour Party (or the other way around). Joce reports that he saw it as ‘the hope that a real democratic alternative could form for our country. Even then our children warned, “it will all end in tears”.'[7] Jesson found considerable conflict between his role as an intellectual and independent commentator on one hand, and membership of a party on the other.

He won a place of the Auckland Regional Council (ARC), as a NewLabour candidate. In the next elections, he ended up chairing the Auckland Regional Services Trust (ARST) which the government had established to hold a number of public enterprises and assets, previously owned by local authorities. Jesson had a room in the Trust office, but as chairman he was the lowest paid of the staff. It was the one time in his life he received a reasonable remuneration for his contribution to New Zealand. His constituents were well rewarded. His party ticket had been elected on a platform of maintaining public ownership, whereas the legislation which governed the Trust required privatisation. Jesson delayed, arguing there was a conflict in the law. His letter to the minister hit the too-hard basket. So ARST did not privatise while Jesson was in charge. Aucklanders benefited. For instance ARST’s politicians had been told the Yellow Bus Company could be sold for $35m. Hanging on to it, over the following six years ARST received in dividends about the same as the expected capital sum. It was sold in 1999 for $111.6m. The ARST was expected to pay off all its debts over a fifteen-year period. It paid them off in three. The value of the assets will be used to fund Auckland’s infrastructure. They should name the second harbour bridge after Jesson.

This politicking meant Jesson did not have time in the early 1990s to write his next book. He did not seek re-election in 1995, planning to write a ‘kind of travelogue’ about Auckland, of how business had changed the city he loved. Almost simultaneously, he learned of the cancer which was to kill him, and turned to writing his last book about the political economy of the 1990s. It took a while to start it, and there was always the hope the cancer would be cured. (The waiting time for his radiography treatment was far in excess of recommended clinical standards. Jesson may be another victim of the health reforms.)

Only Their Purpose is Mad, published months before his death, is both an important book about New Zealand, and a unique account of how the financial community worked, drawing on Jesson’s ARC and ARST experience. The advice he was given was misdirected because as he reports in the case of the Auckland Ports Company, ‘not only was most of the argument political in nature, but there was also no analysis of the commercial advantages and disadvantages to the ARC of a sale.’ It proved grossly wrong. ‘None of the ARC’s highly paid [$2000 a day plus expenses] advisers told us it would be the height of commercial folly to sell the Port Company for $200m.'[8] His detailed account in the book of the collapse of the private corporation, Maine Investments, reminds us not only of another massive failure in financial advice (with no penalties on the faulty advisers), but Jesson’s willingness to do the footslogging involved in commercial analysis – for no reward (certainly not $2000 a day) other than the satisfaction of getting something right.

Encapsulated in the book’s title is its theme that the financial sector is extremely capable but, like Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick, its purpose is mad. Ironically, although Jesson was too modest to say this, his chairing of the ARST demonstrated that when financial advisers were given a social purpose, as occurred at the ARST under him, their financial skills could contribute to a socially effective outcome.

Jesson saw Only Their Purpose as an analytic book about the past, and he wanted to write one about the future. His strategy was to write a series of articles for Political Review, to be reconstructed into a book later. Alas only one article appeared in the month of his death, and that is reflective rather than forward looking. It argues that globalisation is a material force of history like industrialisation was in the nineteenth century (although Jesson would have put this less crudely). The freezing worker’s son said he would prefer to demonstrate with farmers against US farm protectionism, than with the general public and its vague sentiments against globalisation. He was not driven by a nostalgia for a past, unattainable today, and which probably never existed. He saw the issue as how to respond to the opportunity, to enable globalisation to lead to a better New Zealand. That last essay began to explore how to build a New Zealand nation that could benefit from the opportunities that globalisation creates.

The first step would be to develop a nationalism, without being isolationist. I do not think he would have insisted one had to be a Marxist to do this, even if his Marxism gave him some distinctive insights. But it would involve an understanding of economic theory and developments. At the foundations of any nationalism he would have had economic republicanism, based on a commitment to his country.

Jesson had a delightful sense of humour. He asked that the Bohemian Rhapsody, by Queen, be played at his funeral the republican wanted royalty at his funeral, didn’t he? Its opening word probably express his view of living – and of himself:

Is this the real life
Is this just fantasy
Caught in a landside
No escape from reality
Open your eyes
Look up to the skies and see
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy
Because I’m easy come easy go,
A little high, a little low,
Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me.

Jesson was a man of the people, not in a charismatic sense, but he loved to spend time with ordinary New Zealanders. (He was buried with his billiard cue from the Otahuhu Working Men’s Club.) He never forgot his soil, nor those from whom he came and the gift they had given him enabling him to spend what he thought a marvellous life. While we may regret that his life was cut off in his fifties, this child of the New Zealand welfare state saw it differently. Shortly before his death he told a reporter:

If you had said to me, when I was 17 or 18, ‘you’ll spend your life writing, you won’t make any money, you’ll publish magazines, you’ll publish books,’ I’d have thought: ‘Wonderful. What better a way to spend your life?’[9]

He may not have approved Bernard Shaw’s definition of socialism as doing what one could do well. Yet he practised it, for he was good at being a New Zealand intellectual, by no means an easy task, and all the harder without a sinecure. He wrote in his last essay

You can see my problem as a New Zealand nationalist. How do you develop a sense of identity among people who lack any originality or confidence in themselves? Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that we are entirely a nation of mediocre and timid conformists. I have known plenty of New Zealanders who have been well-read, intellectually-stimulating, non-conformist, courageous and sometimes eccentric. They have tended to be marginalised, however. There is something about the structure and culture of this country that fosters the mediocre conformist.[10]

(Do we hear Keynes murmuring ‘worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally’?)

Alas, Jesson did not have time to go on to answer how do to develop this sense of national identity. Except he has done so – as did the other nationbuilders – by the example of his life, committed to building a Jerusalem in this our green and pleasant land.

Go to top

Easton, B.H. (1999) ‘His Purpose is Clear’, Listener, Feb 13, 1999, p.56.
Jesson, B. (1985chx) The Fletcher Challenge , Auckland.
Jesson, B. (1987) Behind the Mirror Glass , Auckland.
Jesson, B. (1989) Fragments of Labour: The Story Behind the Labour Government , Auckland.
Jesson, B. (1996) ‘Republicanism in New Zealand’ in L. Trainor (ed) Republicanism in New Zealand , Palmerston North, p.47-59.
Jesson, B. (1997) ‘Foreword: The Role of the Intellectual is to Defend the Intellectual’, in M. Peters (ed) Cultural Politics and the University in Aotearoa/New Zealand , Palmerston North, p.9-14.
Jesson, B. (1999a) Only Their Purpose is Mad , Palmerston North.
Jesson, B. (1999b) ‘To Build a Nation’, New Zealand Political Review , April 1999, p.24-33.
Jesson, B., A. Ryan, & P. Spoonley (1988) Revival of the Right , Auckland.

There is no biography but I have a file of obituary and related material more than a centimetre thick, copies of which will be deposited in the files of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography .

1. W. Harmon (ed) (1990) The Classic Hundred: All-time Favorite Poems , New York, p.105
2. Jesson (1999b) p.30.
3. Jesson (1996) p. 50-51. (I am not sure Sutch was quite as ‘insulationist’ as Jesson portrays here, given his commitment to export diversification. )
4. Quoted in C. Guy, ‘The Republican’, Listener , May 1, 1999, p.27.
5. Jesson (1997) p.13.
6. Reported in C. Guy (1999).
7. Letter in Watchdog , 92, December 1999, p.35
8. Jesson (1999a) p.170.
9. Interview by Michele Hewitson, Weekend Herald , April 3-4, p.J2.
10. Jesson (1999b) p.30-31.

Go to top