Tony Simpson is best known for his history and non-fiction writing. This book is a self-published autobiography, more than a memoir. There are many personal aspects and reflections which are interesting, but the personal is not always political.
I will nonetheless treat it as a political memoir, and concentrate on the central chapters. As with other memoirs of those active in politics in recent decades, the earlier years always seem more interesting. Simpson was certainly at, or near, the centre of things in the 1970s, and his lively writing style makes these chapters the most interesting. He certainly encountered some of the political heavyweights of the era, including a perhaps inevitable confrontation with Muldoon, during his time as the ‘man from the wireless’. There is also some reflection on the key figures in his historical works, Jack Lee, and Bill Sutch, of whom he was obviously an admirer.
Following an interesting interlude as a trade unionist in the United Kingdom, and witness to the idiosyncrasies of the royals, it was back to Wellington in time for the Springbok Tour. The chapter on the strange decade of ‘reforms’ in the 1980s is an excellent analysis for the most part, only marred by the reliance on ‘neo-liberalism’ as a description of policy, a term which was not used by contemporaries. In particular, some of the detail on the State Sector reforms and the fundamental change to the public service are well calibrated. Simpson finds his role in the P.S.A. union ever more difficult by the end of the decade, and with unions being unable to confront the 4th Labour Government effectively, given the compliant attitude of the leadership.
There is a certain irony in this view, especially when the boot is on the other foot, once Simpson begins work as a parliamentary strategist. It is rather obvious that he works for Jim Anderton, rather than the Alliance Party, and finds himself trying to control the party members within that want to stand up to the cautious leadership over matters of principle. Once the Alliance implodes he relies on the continuation of Jim’s career. These chapters tend to make for rather less interesting reading, particularly when trying to highlight the policy wins, such as Anderton’s triumphant Kiwibank.
Simpson engages in some historical context for a new State-owned bank which relies more on myth than fact. In particular, he seems to think that the Reserve Bank was set up in 1932, and a devaluation of the new currency was then imposed on an unwilling finance minister, Downie Stewart. In actual fact, the ‘raising of the exchange’ as it was known, took place in early 1933, before the Reserve bank was created in 1934 (the timing of which is significant since the trading banks were directly funding the government up until that time, and they opposed a central bank). Besides being an odd oversight for a historian, it indicates how he links policies to particular individuals. His adherence to the views of Lee and Sutch was not really shared by other historians.
The insider political role ended, Simpson continues on with advocacy, especially as President of the NZSA. Indeed, the chapter on ‘the politics of scribbling’ will be of interest to all those engaged in writing and publishing, if not those making a living from it. Overall, Tony Simpson emerges as a reluctant player, and keen observer, of the New Zealand political scene, and emphasises how it all went wrong in the 1980s.
Reviewed by Simon Boyce
Along for the Ride: A Political Memoir
by Tony Simpson
Published by Tony Simpson