Bridges’ memoir, National Identity, is out this week. Danyl McLauchlan has questions for the former leader of the opposition.
So the first thing I want to call you out about here is the subtitle of the book. It’s “Confessions of an Outsider”. But aren’t you a consummate insider? You’re an Oxford law graduate and crown prosecutor and you were a senior minister.
Yeah, at a level. I’ve been a member of some of the most exclusive clubs in New Zealand, if you want to put it that way. I mean, I’ve been in the cabinet. So I get that. But what’s also true is that whether you’re an insider or an outsider can be dispositional. It’s how you feel. And I never thought: “I’m going to write a book about being an outsider.” But when I read it back, and when the publisher read it back, it was staring us in the face. Because in the first chapter I’m talking about how I’m not a, quote, real Māori, as many would perceive it. And yet I am Māori. I’m too Māori but not Māori enough. And I’m a westie, I speak the way I do, which gets mocked. Whether it’s not feeling like a real man because I don’t meet a stereotyped idealised view of men in New Zealand. If I can put it as a lawyer, there’s more than enough there to make the case for feeling like an outsider.
I wanted to ask you about that opening chapter on race. Because you’ve got Barry Soper in there declaring in a column that you’re not really Māori because you don’t have the blood quantum, or whatever, and left-wing Māori MPs insinuating you’re not really Māori because you don’t speak te reo, and because real Māori politicians are Labour. Did writing the book help you think through this stuff?
Yes. Because I didn’t think about it growing up. I did a bit, because you get your prejudices from your parents, but later on I was busy running. Uni. Law. Standing for parliament. But becoming leader of a big political party forces you to confront some of these things. Because Barry Soper is having a go from one end, Winston Peters from another. You have to work out what you are. And that’s not very comfortable. But I feel more at peace about it today than I ever have. I think a central point of the chapter about race is that I reckon there are hundreds of thousands of Māori in New Zealand who feel the same way I do; that there’s an ambivalence from their past. And they’re not card-carrying tiki-wearing marae-based te reo fluent Labour Party voting Māori. Doesn’t mean we’re not Māori though.
It sometimes feels like the rules around this discourse are kind of improvised. You were the first Māori leader of a major party, and I think if you’d been the leader of the Labour party that would have been seen as a historic achievement, and we would have had this big discussion: are we ready for our first Māori prime minister? But because you were the leader of a right-wing party it just didn’t count for anything. Is that how it felt?
Yeah. And that grates with me. Because people do want to typecast Māori. And many people doing the typecasting are Māori. We don’t say of Scottish people that if you’re not wearing a kilt and eating haggis every day they’re not the real deal. There are hundreds of thousands who have a similar story to me. And history is what it is: a grandmother, off a marae for reasons of racism or urbanisation – or other reasons that cleverer people can explain better than me – who isn’t too proud of being Māori. And so it’s suppressed. My father was useless and amnesiac about all this stuff. And that’s part of who I am. Now I’m proud of my whakapapa. But I don’t like the typecasting.
Your book is about identity politics. Is it a critique of the way identity politics as it plays out often has this homogenising, flattening effect, and says “this is your group and you have to just be a generic member of it”? Because what I think you’re saying is that identity functions as a stack. That we all have all these different components to our identity and that makes us unique.
I think there’s something in that. I hope people are surprised by the book. Because they will have a view of Tories as, y’know, French cuff shirts, banking, corporate, bread and butter … rugby … whatever. Well that’s not me. And let’s forget those typecasts. You can be a vegan – as I am at the moment – and vote for the right. So I do hope that whoever it is that’s reading it will think about their own identity and realise that maybe some of those stereotypes that we paint about New Zealanders aren’t true for them.
You also write about being introverted. I wrote about introversion in my last book, and now when people come up to me at book festivals they’re very delicate, like I’m a gazelle that might run away if they talk too loudly. And that’s not really how it works.
No. I’m definitely an introvert. No doubt about that. That doesn’t mean I’m shy. Shyness is a cousin of introversion. I think if you’re an introvert who’s shy you’re right at one end of the spectrum of this thing. But that isn’t me. I’m not at all shy. I’m not scared of people. On a bad day I hate people but basically I like people. I would like to, tonight, go out for a meal with a big group. But at the end of a couple of hours of that I’m totally ready to go. I’m peopled out. I’m de-energised, and I’m ready to go home and read a book. Whereas people like my wife Natalie, or John Key who is at the far end of the extrovert spectrum – they love it. They would still be there at 3am if you let them. Again there’s a stereotype there that your successful politician, particularly on the right, is gonna be uber-extroverted. And it seemed to me that if I was talking about my identity, introversion was a really big part of it.
I think people who read this book will say “Simon Bridges is interesting, and also very weird in a way that you totally didn’t communicate to the public when you were opposition leader.” Did you write this book because you felt constrained as leader?
That’s clearly there. It’s so cliched, isn’t it, but there’s no doubt that some of this is self help. I lost the leadership and started writing the book within six months. And I did want to set the record straight. I wanted people to see the real me. What’s true is that … everyone in this age is looking for authenticity – whatever that is – but I know that when I was leader of the National party, if I put it all out there, if I said I couldn’t be bothered with rugby, and can I go home now and read a book, and I’m insecure about this, that and the other thing … that probably wouldn’t have gone real well. Now I’m just a lot more footloose and fancy free and I can say all that. And I am a narcissist – I say that only because every politician I’ve ever met is. But I genuinely hope that it isn’t all about me. Political leaders come in all shapes and sizes. There is a right man or woman for certain times. This idealised conception of what a political leader should be like is overrated. And there’s so many examples of politicians who don’t fit it, whether it’s Bill English or Barack Obama or Angela Merkel.
You have a chapter on class. And you talk about your accent, and how some of the mockery of your accent got under your skin. Back in 2018 The Spinoff published a column by the linguist Elizabeth Gordon arguing that what this showed was that New Zealand was not the classless society we liked to think we were. You were being attacked from the left, which is traditionally the party of the proletariat, yet you were being made fun of for having a lower class accent. And you hint that it signifies something important about class and politics, and then you swerve away, and say “And I could go on about that but I won’t.”
There’s a lot of academics writing about this in the US and the UK, at the moment who are right into this. We are part of a profound shift that’s happening all around the world where the right is becoming more working class and the left is becoming more upper professional class, if you want to put it that way.
The professional managerial class.
Correct. And it’s a really interesting phenomenon. One thing that’s important to me and the reason I write about class is because … I don’t want to say “Woe is me. I’ve got all these grievances.” I haven’t. Life has been good to me, as you’ve acknowledged. But I don’t think we should say there isn’t class in New Zealand. Even today I think there’s a pretty widely held view that we’re this egalitarian country where everyone can go along to the rugby; where Tom from Remuera and Sally from Ōtara can mix in and rub along. I just don’t know that I believe that any more. Again, I’m not saying “Woe is me” but I do think there’s an irony that I’ve been subjected to this class-based sneering from members of the urban liberal intelligentsia who see themselves as punching up and on the right-side of history and all that, but who are actually functioning as gatekeepers.
There’s no chapter on ideology. Do you think your religious faith fills the role of an ideology?
Well I’ve deliberately steered clear of capital P politics. This book was not a hard book to write. I sat down and it flowed naturally. From time to time I do steer into some polemical, ideological stuff. The education chapter. Maybe some other bits. But on the whole I was trying to steer clear of that and be more about good old stories and experiences that point to a wider meaning.
You’re a big reader. What are some books that you’d recommend to Spinoff readers to understand contemporary conservative politics. Or just politics.
One would be Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds. Salman Rushdie’s Languages of Truth. The book I’m reading at the moment that is absolutely amazing is George Saunders’ A Swim in the Pond in the Rain.
What’s your favourite story in that? Is it The Nose? Everyone loves The Nose.
I like the one by Tolstoy. Master and Man. And the reason it’s amazing is that someone like me who isn’t a literary scholar can read it and get it and absorb the deeper truths that these great Russian writers are speaking to. I find it to be a very spiritual book.
There’s not too much about Covid or the leadership coup in your book. You criticised the government during the lockdown, at the height of the prime minister’s popularity, and that made you incredibly unpopular and opened the way for the coup. If you could go back would you change that?
No, I wouldn’t change much. And I’ll tell you why. Because I would have been stuffed either way. If I’d been quiet I was gone anyway. And I am a deep believer that the opposition’s role is to hold the government to account and go at it. It disappointed me that not many New Zealanders valued that. And I get it, right: we were in a rallying-around phase in relation to a national enemy in the form of Covid. I know that with the Covid committee and the prods we gave them made their response better. But as they say in the Lion King, hakuna matata. I don’t regret it.