Bookcase: Man for all seasons: The life and times of Ken Douglas

• By David Grant
• Random House New Zealand
• RRP $45

The life and times of former New Zealand trade union supremo Ken Douglas effectively parallels the life and times of trade unionism in New Zealand over the roughly 40 years to 2000. Historian and first-time biographer David Grant makes reasonable fist of relating the story of both man and movement – though I struggle with the Man for all Seasons title.
The book is hardly, despite the author’s claims, ‘warts-and-all’ biography but, his superlatives aside, it is an interesting account of the life so far of an interesting and somewhat enigmatic man. From truckie to trade unionist, communist to Labour Party political aspirant, from Federation of Labour and Council of Trade Unions leader to corporate board director, Ken Douglas influenced and shaped – for better or worse, intentionally or otherwise – the fortunes of the nation’s trade unions and the industrial legislation that dictates their current place in the economy.
Douglas was, and is, the product of his ‘working class roots’ and the author spends considerable time describing them and how they shaped his personal philosophies of life. Effectively abandoned by his alcoholic mother, his father’s mother became his guiding spirit. Understanding the background from whence he came is relevant but it is, at times, poorly recounted.
The Ken Douglas story comes to life with the tales of personal ambition, political intrigue, ideological conflict and the portrayal of events that delivered the man to activist and leadership roles in sometimes seemingly slow moving but always steadily changing working-class world.
Ken Douglas is an enigma. David Grant explains the many ways in which Douglas’ personal contradictions manifest themselves, but offers few convincing explanations of why. Perhaps it is simply because his view of the world in which he operated changed and he chose to turn his leadership, negotiating skills and increasing global grasp of people, politics and economic matters to account.
Some observers, according to Grant, think Douglas ‘grew’ to become more rounded, though still grounded, leader. Some fellow traveller socialists and committed trade unionists, on the other hand, still hold that he abandoned his principles and has moved to the dark side of the class struggle.
That both Douglas and trade unionism changed significantly under his watch is everywhere apparent. How the man of – rather than for – many seasons really feels about those changes cannot be read in this biography. For students of an era of industrial relations, political deceit and take-no-prisoners leadership styles, this book is well worth dipping into.

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