Josh Van Veen: On the lifestyle nation and Simon Bridges

Josh Van Veen: On the lifestyle nation and Simon Bridges

How did Simon Bridges become the politician and person he is? Josh Van Veen reviews Bridges’ book, National Identity: Confessions of an outsider.

 

If one were to judge a book by its cover, then Simon Bridges did not write a political memoir. National Identity is a rumination on many different aspects of life, from childhood to marriage, intended to read more like Montaigne than Muldoon. Certainly, the book is more introspective than one might expect from a political figure. However, it is impossible to separate the politician from the private man. The question that runs throughout the book (“Who am I?”) might sound personal but it is inherently political.

As the late Australian political scientist, Graham Little, wrote many years ago, politics can reveal a lot about our inner lives. Little hypothesised that there are two main types of political leader: the strong leader and the group leader. Each represents a solution to what he called the “self/other dilemma” or the question of how individuals should relate to one another. The type of politics a person gravitates to will reflect their own psychology. In this regard, the leader becomes an exemplar of how to behave. One may choose to elevate the self above others (strong), or they may see others as an extension of the self (group). The preference originates in childhood. However, there is also strong evidence that genetic factors play a role in the formation of political ideology.

Although he doesn’t tell us much about his parents’ politics (“We weren’t a political household”), Bridges does reveal that father Heath was a Labour voter. The Baptist minister, who gave up accountancy for God, was likely motivated by Christian social justice. Bridges himself observes in the chapter on ‘Religion’: “The Labour Party was founded on a sort of Christian socialism”. However, any relationship between politics and his father goes unexplored. Rather, he attributes his early political development to books and talkback radio. Curiously, his decision to join the National Party as a 16 year old is described as a “fateful and practical step” but there is no explanation of what it was that inspired Bridges at such a young age to align himself with the right of politics.

In 1992, the first-term National Government of Jim Bolger had become deeply unpopular with a large segment of the electorate. It was a time of record high unemployment. The previous year, Ruth Richardson, then Minister of Finance, presided over massive welfare cuts that became pejoratively known as ‘Ruthanasia’. Those living in state houses began to pay market rents, and user charges were introduced to public hospitals. There was a palpable sense that National had betrayed its promise to restore a “decent society” after years of economic and social upheaval under the Fourth Labour Government. To quote Bridges: “Jim Bolger may be all Green Party left these days, but in the nineties he was what some call neoliberal.” The animosity for National must have been particularly felt in Bridges’ own working-class neighbourhood of Te Atatū.

Indeed, Bridges himself was disadvantaged by the neoliberal turn. As he writes of university: “Law school was hard, and I went through at the worst time. Bolger’s government had imposed fees and interest on loans.” His family, though comfortable, was not able to provide more than a roof over his head. The aspiring politician had to work three part-time jobs to pay for his degree. Bridges’ decision to join the National Party cannot have been made out of economic self-interest. Nor does it appear to have come from a burning desire for social gratification. Throughout the book, Bridges makes a lot of his tendency to withdraw from others:  “One thing that’s been important to me is that when I am alone, I like my door shut.” The joy of solitude has even moved him to tears. “When I read something late at night while my household sleeps happily around me, sometimes it’s so beautiful I cry.”

Why then was this introverted, 16 year old from West Auckland motivated to join the National Party? Bridges is at his most eloquent when he prosecutes the “Grey Lynn tiki-wearing liberal”, exposing the moral hypocrisy and arrogance of cultural leftists who question his Māori ethnicity or mock the way he speaks. Here we get a partial clue as to why the young Bridges might have aligned with the right. In comparing himself to Māori Party MP Rawiri Waititi, a peer at Rutherford College in the early 1990s, Bridges is candid about the fact he chose to steep himself in Pākehā culture rather than tikanga Māori (“and I don’t’ regret this”). From that immersion came an affinity for England and the Westminster tradition. It is perhaps no coincidence that, to this day, National Party members pledge loyalty to the Sovereign.

However, there is another dimension to Bridges. He is a competitive individualist who admires the courage and perseverance of those working hard to improve their lot in life. These essential qualities are at the core of his identity, and it is unsurprising that Bridges would judge us for not living up to them. “The Lifestyle Nation” is an evocative turn of phrase that betrays his contempt for mediocrity. Having realised the 21st century Kiwi dream of “a Ford Ranger and a boat”, many New Zealanders are metaphorically at the beach. Despite a global pandemic, and notwithstanding the current Delta outbreak, the middle-class is happy. Their kids might be leaving school without a world-class education but at least they own a house. Bridges is outraged by this “fog of complacency”. International rankings matter: “There’s a global race on, and we will either be well back in the race or not even on the starting line.”

Education is more than just a pathway to financial success for Bridges. “To me, it’s a means to something even higher: knowledge and wisdom, and therefore power”. We must constantly strive for excellence in order to reach our full potential as human beings. For those who see the world as a contest of individuals, each seeking to maximise their position over the other, strict rules and clear boundaries are needed. In elevating himself above his social background, Bridges found a political party of tradition and hierarchy to impose order on the world. The profile that emerges is of a distinctly New Zealand conservative: opposed to fundamental change but philosophically liberal. It is the only kind of conservatism that most New Zealanders understand.

One is reminded of the 1960s feminist slogan, “The personal is political.” In reflecting on his lived experience, Bridges may be closer to the woke left than he thinks. It is this introspective side of Bridges that could yet see him return to the National Party leadership and become our first Māori prime minister. In Graham Little’s psychosocial theory of politics, Bridges would be the archetypal strong leader. That possibility makes National Identity a fascinating and important read for anyone who cares to think about the future of New Zealand.

 

“National Identity: Confessions of an outsider” by Simon Bridges is published by HaperCollins.

 

Josh Van Veen is former member of NZ First and worked as a parliamentary researcher to Winton Peters from 2011 to 2013. He has a Masters in Politics from the University of Auckland. His thesis examined class voting in Britain and New Zealand.

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.