Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own:
The life and times of New Zealand’s longest-serving Prime Minister
by Tom Brooking (Penguin, $64)
Reviewed by Simon Nathan
My father grew up in Wellington during Seddon’s premiership and was a great admirer of his. I can recall him standing under the Seddon statue in the grounds of parliament and telling me that Seddon had more backbone than Sid Holland and all his cabinet colleagues put together. I now realise that he was referring to the 1951 waterfront dispute, and his belief that the wharfies would never have dared to defy Seddon. Although this interpretation of history may be disputed, it does help illustrate Seddon’s enduring popularity, and why recent polls continue to put him ahead of all rivals as New Zealand’s most popular Prime Minister. Both the right and left sides of New Zealand politics look back fondly to King Dick and claim him as their own.
Despite his popularity, it is amazing that this is the first scholarly biography of Seddon. R.M. Burdon wrote a widely-read biography in 1955, but this was based almost entirely on newspapers and secondary sources. Historians have researched specific aspects, but Tom Brooking is the first to tackle Seddon’s career as a whole and show how his political beliefs and achievements can be assessed on the world stage. The reason why Seddon has been so neglected probably relates to the huge amount of documentary research involved. Seddon was our longest-serving Prime Minister, from 1893 to 1906, and the effort of going through the official files for this period and earlier is daunting. There is more material for Seddon than many other Prime Ministers, both because of his long career and because he had an enormous capacity for hard work.
In starting this review, it is only fair to note that I am a scientist rather than a qualified historian, so presumably I can be counted as an educated general reader at whom I assume that the book is partly
aimed. Having read the whole book once as well as a second dip into sections that interested me, I found it an excellent political biography, giving a new view of Seddon’s career based on Tom Brooking’s considerable research. The writing is clear and thankfully devoid of academic jargon – in fact, it is a model of how it is possible to write scholarly work without the use of confusing words such as discourse, hegemony, constructivism and paradigm. But the historian can be assured about the credibility of the research with 100 pages of endnotes giving a comprehensive guide to sources.
As a dominating personality, Seddon has not always been treated kindly by historians and writers, who have sometimes used words like anti-intellectual, demagogue, racist, misogynist, bully and jingoistic to describe him, but it is hard to overlook the fact that he won five successive elections. An unashamed populist, Seddon was a polarising personality, disliked by conservatives and the moneyed
classes as well as by intellectuals. In the Preface, Brooking states that he was brought up in a family that admired Seddon, and this is certainly a sympathetic biography that takes the opportunity to debunk some myths. Seddon has sometimes been portrayed as an ignorant oaf, but in fact his parents were schoolteachers, and by the standards of the time he was relatively well educated and well read. Brooking’s research identifies some of the books Seddon read, and the poetry that appealed to him. He was a committed but tolerant Anglican, and Brooking argues that this allowed him to cross religious divides, appealing to both Catholics and Nonconformists. Seddon has always been unpopular with feminist historians because of his alleged opposition to giving votes to women. Brooking analyses the issue in detail, concluding that Seddon, despite his lack of enthusiasm, knew that the act would pass. When it did he immediately started courting the women’s vote, and urged on by his wife and daughters he became a strong advocate for female suffrage on his later visits to Great Britain.
The text is organised into chronological chapters, each one covering steps in his career – for example, Prominent Member of the Opposition 1887-1890; Precarious Caretaker to Relatively Popular Premier 1893-1896; and Relatively Popular Premier to Undisputed King 1897-1899. At this stage, about halfway through the text, the chapters become more thematic, covering topics such as Seddon’s complex relationship with Maori, his changing relationship with the labour movement, his ambitions as an imperialist, and his gradual move to the left in his later years. The coverage is detailed but not comprehensive – for example, Seddon’s period as Colonial Treasurer from 1896-1906 is scarcely mentioned, and there is little mention of economic matters.
As well as being Premier for 13 years and Colonial Treasurer for a decade, Seddon also held the portfolios of Education, Labour, Native Affairs and Defence for lengthy periods. He was always an active minister in every area he worked, assisted by capable public servants such as Edward Treagar (Labour) and George Hogben (Education). Seddon was an action man, and must have been exhausting to work for. Brooking sets a cracking pace, but there is just so much information that weariness overtook me in the second half of the book. I suspect that some general readers may decide to skim some of the thematic chapters which become quite detailed in places, and jump to the last three chapters.
The Seddon biography has appeared soon after David Grant’s biography of Norman Kirk, and there are obvious similarities between the two men. Both were popular leaders, much loved by their supporters, with a vision of how they would like to build a fairer society. Because of Kirk’s early death the comparison cannot be taken too far, but I suspect that Seddon was a much more adept politician, with the ability to patiently turn his ideas into reality without alienating the electorate. But this does make me wonder about some of the issues that are not really covered in this book. Seddon was dominant, but who were his political aides and fixers? How did he manage to stay so in tune with public opinion before the days of opinion polls? How much influence did he have building the Liberal party and selecting supportive candidates?
This book’s production is best described as utilitarian. Because of the wide-ranging nature of the subject it needed to be a substantial book, and Penguin have fitted the text and a scattering of black and white photographs into 427 pages by opting for narrow margins and no wasted space. There are a further 156 pages of endnotes and index, printed in tiny type. It is solidly bound to withstand heavy usage.
Despite an attractive cover, the overall effect is that of a traditional academic book, dominated by solid text. The reader who knows little of Seddon or nineteenth century New Zealand history gets little assistance. To take a tiny example, I was puzzled at the number of different cabinet portfolios that Seddon held over the years, and this could have been easily illustrated by a simple diagram. The layout and appearance of this book would be improved by some of the techniques used by modern public historians, including the use of diagrams and graphs with good captions to replace solid text. The endnotes could have been made available on the internet for the specialists who want to refer to them, thus saving 100 pages.
This will undoubtedly be the standard biography of Seddon for many years to come. When the question of a second edition arises, I suggest that the publisher should consider how to present it in a more appealing way.
Simon Nathan has written an account of the town of Seddonville, named after Richard John Seddon and site of New Zealand’s first State Coal Mine. Visit: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/Seddonville