Not yet past his pique

Today’s SST includes an interview (a puff, in truth) with Michael Bassett about his book on the Fourth Labour Government, Working with David. Predictably, it was all her fault. Like the bishop’s wife in Trollope’s Barchester novels, Lange’s love interest Margaret Pope, “started to try to run the diocese,” says Bassett.

Well, it couldn’t possibly have been that there were any flaws in the neo-liberal juggernaut launched in 1984 by Bassett and his cronies Douglas, Prebble and (to a lesser extent) Moore, could it? This continued denial that there may have been good cause to pause the destruction is a little rich coming from someone who said of Lange that, “when he couldn’t deal with the message, he’d attack the messenger.”

He’s one-eyed. “Margaret Pope seems to have convinced Lange that the role he had adopted in selling the government’s policy was belittling of him and of his status,” says Bassett. Note “seems”. Note the absence of any consideration that it may have been the dreadful consequences of those neo-liberal policies — countless farmers ruined, countless workers deprived of their livelihoods — that convinced Lange that it was time for a cuppa and a breather.

Readers of Bassett’s account need to recall that Bassett was not unloyal to his cousin…Lange until the Cabinet was announced after the 1987 election. He had always coveted the Health portfolio, and was duly rewarded when Labour took office.

But he received mixed reviews as Minister of Health in the first term. His television appearances, in particular, were perceived as damaging, not least when Bassett accused a health professional warning of the consequences of health underfunding (as I recall) of “shroud waving.”

Nonetheless, it came as a shock when Bassett was demoted in the new Cabinet and awarded the donkey porfolio of Internal Affairs. Bassett, a “venomous” personality Lange wrote later, never forgave his cousin and never got over his bitterness. (Lange’s famous speculation that, in the light of how he turned out later, Bassett must have been dropped on his head at birth, probably did not help matters.)

My experience of Bassett is not untypical. After Bassett’s demotion I wrote him a letter telling him that he had achieved a great deal as Minister of Health, as he had. Didn’t hear back, but when I saw him a few years later he was calculatedly mean and offensive.

Working with David will undoubtedly shed light on much of what happened in those unforgettable times. But it will also say more about Bassett than anyone or anything else. Anyone who has read Lange’s own account My Life with an open mind will know that any account that brushes over the possibility that Lange took a principled stand out of concern for the human consequences of his Government’s actions is partial and flawed.

My Life revealed that David Lange was more than intellectual lightweight with a gift for a sharp turn of phrase. It is one of the better New Zealand political biographies of recent times, as a friend who was closely involved in these events said on its publication. It is essential reading for those embarking on Bassett’s book.

[OED: “Juggernaut. 2. fig. An institution, practice, or notion to which persons blindly devote themselves, or are ruthlessly sacrificed.”]

[Update: Idiot Savant at norightturn does a “shorter Michael Bassett”, dispensing with Bassett in 4 lines. Brilliant.
Brian Rudman reviews the book and the history in his column, “Sour grapes make bitter whine.”
Gordon Campbell gives a detailed review of the book.]

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2 Responses to “Not yet past his pique”

  1. Sconehead Says:

    Mike Bassett is living proof that it’s hard to be a historian and anything like objective. Doubly hard in Mike’s case as he was 1) so close to the action and 2) in the case of the former PM, he’s dealing with family.

    Mike’s barbed sense of humour – something I’ve always enjoyed – wouldn’t help either.

  2. allmenaregay Says:

    I came over from rogernome’s to check out your blog and I think it sucks. It’s fucken boring, your writing is crap and you sound like a sackless wonder. You should be ashamed of this blog.

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