One Question Quiz
Nothing conveys the nitty gritty detail like a good old fashioned book. (Image: Alessandra Banal)
Nothing conveys the nitty gritty detail like a good old fashioned book. (Image: Alessandra Banal)

OPINIONPoliticsAugust 25, 2022

Politicians owe it to us to write more books

Nothing conveys the nitty gritty detail like a good old fashioned book. (Image: Alessandra Banal)
Nothing conveys the nitty gritty detail like a good old fashioned book. (Image: Alessandra Banal)

MPs love to decry the soundbite-driven media and the combative interviews that come with it. But few take up the chance to explain themselves at length. Henry Cooke thinks they should.

Back when I was a political reporter, new colleagues in the gallery would occasionally ask around for a reading list.

Was there a book, or series of books, that would give them a bit of a grounding in the political events of the last several decades? As the median age of journalists appeared to trend downward this question only became more relevant – there were simply fewer and fewer reporters who’d been working in the media during the Key years, let alone the Clark or Bolger years. 

I always found myself struggling to give a good answer. It isn’t just that there is no “one great book” – of course there isn’t – it’s that there are basically none. I ended up half-heartedly recommending the few bits of good political history easily watchable online (Revolution and Campaign), which are passed down like relics from POLS 111 student to POLS 111 student, and then perhaps a Colin James or Rebecca Macfie book.

Instead New Zealand’s recent political history is largely scattered around the broken archives of news websites, badly-cited Wikipedia articles, and Hansard. If you are, like me, a true sicko who wants to understand more than the broad-brush achievements of a government that reigned before you were a conscious adult, you’re mostly out of luck. 

This ahistoricism is a failure of many of our country’s institutions. Professional historians prefer the comfort zone of the not-so-recent past, meaning we get interesting articles about tax policy in the 1980s published in 2015. Journalists only draw on the past when they need to for a story, and even then they often forget to. And politicians are never that happy to remind you of how many different positions their party may have had on a policy issue – they’ll put up a portrait of Michael Joseph Savage, but they won’t talk to you about how they felt about the foreshore and seabed debate.

My solution won’t fix this entirely, but I think it will help: Politicians need to write more books.

The last prime minister to write a book about his or her time in office was Jim Bolger in 1998. Not only has John Key not written a book, he didn’t even sit down with Guyon Espiner for his 9th Floor interviews that other Prime Ministers used to go over their time in office. Even Bill English, who is intimidatingly smart and clearly felt that he was leaving politics with unfinished business in the social investment space, has not found the time to write something. 

I’m not saying any of these books would actually be good. The recent crop of books by former politicians – I’m thinking of Christopher Finlayson’s Yes Minister, Michael Cullen’s Labour Saving and Marilyn Waring’s The Political Years – all lacked the narrative tension and zoom-out research that truly great non-fiction requires. Instead these books all acted as essentially lists of events and policy issues, with context given by the politician – whether it be the cabinet mood at the time, what they regret or don’t regret about a decision, or how their thinking may have changed over time. 

But while these books may not be fantastic literature, they are valuable. Giving a politician the space they will never get in an interview or a press release to really explain their decision-making, with the wisdom of hindsight and no pressure to conform to a party line can yield results that should be interesting in the present and to future historians. 

Often what’s most intriguing is what’s left out. In David Lange’s memoir, the most talented writer to ever reach the ninth floor simply glides over his own role in allowing his government and party to fall apart, resorting to hilarious insults instead. Barack Obama, another talented writer, seems to just accept that the pharmaceutical industry’s demands of his healthcare bill have to be implemented, even with a filibuster-proof majority in congress. These omissions give us a real insight into both men’s brains.

Then prime minister David Lange and his finance minister Roger Douglas peruse a copy of Douglas’ book, 1987. (Photo: John Nicholson for Evening Post via National Library)

It isn’t just prime ministers or even elected MPs who should write more – it’s all political actors. The Tony Blair years in the UK are perhaps best understood through the diaries of his staffer Alastair Campbell, much as Margaret Hayward’s diary of her years as Norman Kirk’s secretary are invaluable. 

If these people at the height of power keep good enough notes, they can open up a series of rooms that the New Zealand public deserves some entry into. What were the discussions like in the immediate hours after the Canterbury earthquakes? What was the first thing Clark thought when she woke to the news of 9/11, or the Israeli passport scandal, or Tariana Turia leaving to start a new party? How exactly did Bill English process not just the grim economic picture he inherited as a new finance minister, but the news that John Key was stepping down? We have glimpses of some of this in bits of journalism or oral history, such as Andrea Vance’s excellent Blue Blood or the Inside Stories book by Claudia Pond Eyley and Dan Salmon on Helen Clark – but history deserves fuller accounting.

It’s easy to see why these books have dried up. Publishing a book used to bring in some income (which people like Lange needed). Nowadays social media gives former politicians like Clark a far more direct way to let her views be known, and none of them seem to be really hurting for cash. 

But nothing beats a book for explaining oneself at length. And if we are going to fix the ahistoricism that pervades our country, locking so many out of detailed knowledge of the recent past, we should start at the top.

Follow our politics podcast Gone By Lunchtime on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast provider.

Keep going!