Brian Easton Reviews the Nationbuilders

Letter to “N.Z. Political Review”, Autumn 2002.

Keywords: Political Economy & History

While there is some dispute as to what a reviewer owes an author there is no doubt that he or she has obligations to the review’s readers, obligations which Simon Boyce manifestly fails to meet in his so called ‘review’ of my The Nationbuilders (Nov/Dec 2001).

At the very least, readers of the N.Z. Political Review would expect to have it mentioned that the book’s Envoy is devoted to the life of Bruce Jesson, and that his ideas play a central role in the thesis the book develops. Many readers would be interested that the book includes the lives of F.P. Walsh, Bill Sutch, Norman Kirk, Sonja Davies, and Bryan Philpott, among others. They are likely to be interested in the book’s theme of how some New Zealanders sought New Zealand solutions for New Zealand problems, rather than adopting a colonial mien, and how they were betrayed after 1984. The theme is illustrated with economic development, cultural policy, foreign policy and union, among other examples, all again of interest to N.Z. Political Review readers. They may also want to ponder on the story the book tells of the rising of the women’s, Maori and environmentalist movements.

Yet there is not a single hint of any of this in the Boyce review. Indeed it hardly touches on the book at all, instead wandering in areas of arcane monetary policy, so distant from The Nationbuilders, one fails to see the connection with the book. It would be most regrettable if readers thought The Nationbuilders focussed on the issues with which Boyce is obsessed. It hardly mentions them.

The occasional points where there is a touching usually involve Boyce making gross or misleading blunders. It would be tedious to deal with all them, so I confine myself to but two.

Boyce says that the book included Bernard Ashwin because of an ‘apparent conversation with Coates in which he decided to found a Reserve Bank.’ That is simply not true: the book does not say that, offering a totally different story of Ashwin’s significance, and in fact the incident is recounted in the chapter on Gordon Coates, not the one on Ashwin. (Boyce compounds the calumny by a pseudo-academic footnote referring to a secondary source. If he had bothered to look at the book’s citation, he would see it uses the primary one of Ashwin’s account. What is the point of citing a secondary source except to mislead the reader?)

Boyce complains that The Nationbuilders does not give a chapter to Walter Nash, leaving the reader of the review mystified why. Readers of the book would have no such difficulties. Peter Fraser, who is not mentioned in Boyce’s review, was chosen from the triumvirate of himself, M.J. Savage and Nash. (While the Bassett -King biography has done much to redeem Fraser, he is still undervalued, and I hope my chapter helps further remedy that.) Boyce’s contrasting of Rob Muldoon and Ashwin is an inept reading of the book. Readers will see it brackets Fraser and Ashwin, and Muldoon and Henry Lang.

It is generally not the done thing for an author to complain about a review, even one as manifestly as incompetent as Boyce’s. Perhaps I will be forgiven if I explain the book began in part as a dialogue between a number of intellectuals, one of whom was Bruce Jesson. I tested out many of my ideas on Bruce, for his knowledge was wide, his counsel perceptive, and his enthusiasm for the thesis encouraging. The Nationbuilders is not his book, except where I specifically cite his ideas, but he influenced it directly and indirectly. He often told me how much he was looking forward to its publication. Regrettably he never saw it on this earth. I know he would have been appalled by that review in a journal of which he was a proud editor.

This won “N.Z. Political Review’s” prize for the best letter for the issue