Political and External Affairs
CHAPTER 5 — Impact of a Labour Government
Impact of a Labour Government
THE critical decision on sanctions made—and accepted—Parliament was dissolved on 26 October, and the general election could be fought, according to custom, on purely domestic issues.1 Neither party's manifesto referred to Abyssinia, and there was no incompatibility in their brief references to foreign policy. The Labour Party stressed international co-operation with economic objectives as well as political, while the Nationalists registered support of the League and its principles, but stressed ‘cordial collaboration’ with the United Kingdom. Candidates' speeches, corresponding to the electorate's predominant interests, concentrated on domestic economic policy and the promotion of secure prosperity. New Zealand voted with its mind full of the depression and wage cuts, the price of butterfat, and the possibility of ‘orderly marketing’. Labour's overwhelming victory of 27 November had nothing to do with foreign affairs.
1 Round Table, December 1935, pp. 202 ff.; March 1936, p. 429.
2 Churchill, op. cit., p. 133.
There is no suggestion that New Zealand pushed her pro-League policy to extremes; to the extent, for example, of actively supporting the tentative moves at Geneva towards enforcing the oil sanction against Italy. Even the fact of her warm protest against the Hoare-Laval proposals was kept secret. Nevertheless, it was clear that just as Massey and Ward had been impelled to speak up in defence of ‘imperial interests’ when Labour had been in power in Britain, so the Labour Government in New Zealand had the feeling that the principles of collective security were taken far too lightly by British conservatism. Moreover, though their novelty has been overstressed, these protests were made more systematically and before long more publicly than ever before. Indeed, it seemed for a season that on all the big issues raised at Geneva, from Spain and China and from the Italian conquest of Abyssinia to the problem of reforming the League itself, New Zealand's policy expressly diverged from that of the United Kingdom.
In the first half of 1936 the New Zealand Government wanted sanctions to be maintained and even intensified, because their removal condoned a breach of the Covenant. In July, while acquiescing perforce in the abandonment of sanctions, it did this on the condition—also stressed at that time by the United Kingdom—that the whole Geneva peace structure should be reviewed at the September meeting of the Assembly. Following this line of thought the Assembly itself in July asked member governments to report by 1 September any improvements they would like to see made in the Covenant. This invitation led to a clear difference of opinion between the British and New Zealand governments. Britain, uncertain as to its own policy and desiring Commonwealth unanimity, suggested that no concrete reply should be made until the Assembly had met and other countries had shown their hands. New Zealand, alone among Commonwealth countries, firmly page 45 rejected Britain's advice and submitted a detailed reply to Geneva by the date set. Further, this memorandum expressed strong and clear-cut opinions which were not in line with British policy.
The fault, argued the New Zealand Government, lay not in the Covenant but in its enforcement, which should be made automatic and overwhelming. New Zealand for her part declared that she would take her part in sanctions, including complete economic boycott and the application of force against an aggressor, and that she would agree to an international force under the control of the League. To these simple and forthright views the memorandum added some characteristic suggestions in detail. Such a scheme would work only if governments had behind them the declared approval of their peoples: therefore it was suggested that League proceedings should be broadcast, and that all peoples in the world should be asked to declare in national plebiscites whether or not they would join in full and automatic sanctions. Though New Zealand did not herself favour regional pacts she was prepared, if a universal system could not be established, to support a scheme by which only the non-military sanctions should be universally applied, and certain countries might confine their duty to use force to troubles within a given area. Again, there should be adequate ‘machinery for the ventilation and if possible rectification of international grievances’; the problem of revising the peace treaties should be cautiously, but broad-mindedly, approached; world-wide survey of economic conditions should be undertaken; and non-members of the League as well as members should if possible be brought into the discussion on this or any other scheme for collective security.1
1 Contemporary New Zealand, p. 196.
1 Minutes of Council meeting, 12 May 1938.
2 Savage to Jordan, 5 May 1938.
In these circumstances divergences of opinion were almost inevitable between a Conservative government in Britain and a Labour government in New Zealand; and these divergences were given unusual publicity because both governments held seats on the Council of the League of Nations. The United Kingdom had a permanent seat as a great power, and New Zealand was elected to one of the temporary seats in 1936: this was taken in New Zealand as a tribute to the activity in international affairs of the new Labour government and to the impression made among the smaller powers by New Zealand's vigorous championing of the principles of the Covenant. When, therefore, the Spanish government appealed to the League, both Britain and New Zealand had to explain themselves in public. The result was a difference in approach even more marked than the difference in action contemplated. Mr W. J. Jordan on behalf of New Zealand spoke with the warmth of a convinced democrat and humanitarian who could not feel that ‘non-intervention’ was the only solution civilisation could offer to suffering Spain. If there were two sides, he argued, let both be stated to the Council and let the Council pronounce between them. Alternatively, let some outside body establish order, and when the storm was calmed, allow the Spanish people to decide their own fate. On the one hand, reason could surely find a way, if its voice were once effectively heard through third-party judgment: on the other, the people expressing their will democratically must be able to find a solution. Better reason than guns: force alone cannot create peace or make a government legitimate.
Here was the expression of a faith which lay at the heart of New Zealand domestic politics as of British. But Britain, unlike New Zealand, had for centuries been involved in the maze of European diplomacy. On this issue she trod the tortuous and unhappy path of ‘realism’: well intentioned, but in caution even outdoing the French. At Geneva, therefore, British and New Zealand delegates spoke with a differing accent, and there was one incident greedily seized upon by journalists, when the British Foreign Secretary was seen to confer with Mr Jordan just before the latter spoke. There is, in fact, no substantial reason to believe that anything was ‘blue pencilled’ at Eden's behest, but the story underlines the admitted difference in viewpoint between the two governments, as well, incidentally, as the close contact maintained. Meanwhile, in the ordinary routine of Commonwealth consultation New Zealand remained ‘unalterably opposed to any action which, either directly or indirectly could be interpreted as, or tends towards, the recognition of any administration in Spain other than that of the page 48 lawfully constituted government.’ She objected, therefore, in March and in September 1937 to the proposal to exchange agents with General Franco's regime and raised objection, too, to suggestions for the grant of belligerent rights.1 At the Imperial Conference in May 1937, moreover, Mr Savage had frankly denounced the reluctance of such conferences ‘to attack and solve difficult problems merely because of their difficulty.’ He feared ‘an innocuous and unhelpful formula’ and said that the ‘improvisation and indecision’ of recent British policy could not be ‘accepted as a sufficient application of the principles of League support accepted as Commonwealth foreign policy.’
In 1936 and 1937 New Zealand was, then, an active champion of the principle of collective security, and urged in Geneva and London that loyal application of the Covenant was the world's best hope of escape from the perpetual threat of war. This policy was a good deal criticised at the time and since on two main grounds. There were still some in New Zealand who argued strongly that public divergence from British policy must be avoided at all cost; and there were those, in New Zealand and abroad, who urged that her reputation for pro-League championship was won a little cheaply and at the expense of other countries no less willing to take risks for human well-being. As acknowledged by her spokesmen, New Zealand was in most ways favourably placed during the sanctions crisis and the Spanish civil war. Her economic loss was small and if the upshot in either case had been a general war, its first impact would have been on nearer and greater powers. Remoteness and inconspicuousness gave opportunities for the assertion of principle and for freedom of action which great powers sometimes complained that they lacked. Similarly, it was argued, a small power in 1936 could make generous offers in support of collective security without great danger of being called upon to honour them, and it could express concern for lifting the living standards of backward people without making notable changes in customs and immigration policy. It was remarked, for example, that New Zealand's energetic participation in international gatherings and the work of the International Labour Organisation did not lead to the immediate ratification of ILO conventions.
1 GGNZ to SSDA, 25 Mar 1937; Jordan to Savage, 16 Jul 1937; GGNZ to SSDA, 30 Sep 1937.
1 NZPD, Vol. 245, p. 154.
Consistent thinking along these lines naturally led to sharp differences over particular issues between the governments of New Zealand and of the United Kingdom. Yet there remained a genuine fundamental harmony. When the Labour Party took office the British Prime Minister was Stanley Baldwin, four-fifths of whose formula for democratic statesmanship fits Savage with uncanny accuracy: ‘use your commonsense; avoid logic; love your fellow men; have faith in your own people, and grow the hide of a rhinoceros1.’ Baldwin, moreover, had made it abundantly clear that in war-making, or even in serious preparations for war, he would not move ahead of public opinion: an attitude shared also by Chamberlain and Eden.2 If the criterion for commitments—let alone war—was plainly acceptability to British opinion, here was ample safeguard for New Zealand. By accepting in 1935 the concept of a sanctionist war the Labour Party had pledged the new regime in advance to accept any commitment which a British government could, in the foreseeable future, confidently present to its own public.
There could be no doubt, then, of the New Zealand Labour Government's acceptance of the Dominion's commitment to Britain, and the exercise of her right to vigorous expression of independent judgment carried no implied challenge to the imperial link. In July 1937 Savage, as Prime Minister, gave in homely words much the same interpretation of the situation as had his predecessors. He was rendering to the New Zealand people some account of the recent Imperial Conference, during which he had sharply criticised some aspects of British policy. ‘We did not agree on everything,’ he said, ‘far from it; but the objective was about the same right along the line, and if Britain were in difficulties tomorrow I don't think there would be much division. I think about the same thing would happen as happened last time3.’ In the following year two key cabinet ministers were even more explicit: ‘in one split second after Britain becomes involved in war,’ said Mark Fagan,4 ‘this country also becomes involved’; and Walter Nash, the Minister of Finance, thus justified a large increase in the defence vote: ‘If the old country is attacked we are too. We hate all this war propaganda, but if an attack is made on Great Britain then we will assist her to the fullest extent possible5.’
1 Young, Baldwin, p. 209.
2 Cf. the explicit statement by Eden to first meeting of Imperial Conference, 19 May 1937.
4 NZPD, Vol. 251, p. 343.
5 Round Table, September 1938, pp. 865–6.
When members of the new cabinet applied themselves with unusual knowledge and energy to the field of external affairs, they were represented in London in an unusually intimate way. William Jordan, who was High Commissioner from 1936 to 1951, was a Londoner who had become very typical of New Zealand. He was kind and naïve, with simple rules of conduct, and was resistant to the diplomatic convention that action need not conform too closely to verbal professions or to consistency. Above all, he represented the faith that the world's worst tensions will respond to straightforward human decency and good will. This general viewpoint corresponded closely to that of his Prime Minister, Savage, with whom he kept in close personal touch, and indeed to that of C. A. Berendsen, who could express in cogent and eloquent reasoning views which in Savage and Jordan were warm and vague. Accordingly, the views of average, kindly New Zealanders—which differed little from those of average, kindly Englishmen—were for a season forcibly expressed in the privileged and semi-private circle of Commonwealth consultation as well as on the ready-made platform of Geneva. There is, of course, no reason to suspect that New Zealand's persistent advocacy of fidelity to principle deflected the forces which were thrusting the world into disaster. Yet it had some importance, if only in the embarrassment of diplomats1 and in a certain encouragement to men of similar impulses in other countries.
1 Cf. Walters, op. cit., Vol. II, p. 736.
Savage and his colleagues had of course no intention of locating their ‘foreign office’ outside Wellington, yet when they grasped the helm they found the necessary machinery, and much of the necessary tradition, already established in London. The main improvement made there was a minor one: the adoption of a device suggested years before by the fertile J. G. Coates, and operated with great apparent success2 by the Australians from 1924 onwards. A New Zealand liaison officer was appointed in 1937 to work with the British cabinet secretariat, and thus supplement documents and official interviews by the intimacy that can only grow through daily working contact.
1 lWilford to Ward, 14 May 1930.
2 R. G. Casey, Conduct of Australian Foreign Policy (1952), p. 16.
Some small but significant improvements, then, were made in the machinery of co-operation in the early years of the Labour Government. There was, moreover, a new and active insistence that New Zealand wished this machinery to be vigorously used. On specific issues she emphatically and sometimes publicly differed from the views of the British government, and on general principles made her attitude clear at the Imperial Conference of 1937. This conference rather characteristically followed the celebrations of the coronation. It took place behind closed doors and its published documents were masterpieces of platitudinous reticence. Yet its discussions were an important prelude to the final crisis. Not only did they help to strengthen one of the most solid factors in Commonwealth relations, namely personal intimacy among key men, but they made clear the attitudes of these men towards general problems of Commonwealth co-operation, and towards a specific crisis, whose shape was already fairly evident.
In this company New Zealand's main spokesman, M. J. Savage, appeared to be concerned primarily with three things. First, he advocated in unfamiliar company New Zealand's formula of kindliness, decency, and economic welfare as an immediate remedy for world tensions. Second, he ardently desired a foreign policy for the Commonwealth as a whole, and evidently felt that agreement could be reached if men of good will would talk honestly and try to keep their conduct in line with their professed principles. Third, however, he said in plain terms that, of recent years, Commonwealth foreign policy had been neither sound nor consistent nor framed in genuine consultation. He warmly acknowledged the admirable stream of information supplied from London. But, he added, ‘information is one thing; consultation is a totally different thing….’ and he complained of recent occasions when British policy had been reversed, ‘without consultation with the Dominions, without one word of warning to the Dominions.’ He confessed himself puzzled by the apparent lack of guiding principle in what had been done. ‘I realise the complexity and difficulty of these questions,’ he said, ‘and we in New Zealand are prepared to go a long way in supporting the principal partner of the Commonwealth in any foreign policy, the general lines of which we have understood and approved beforehand and which is based on principle and not only on expediency. But I consider it essential that an agreed Commonwealth foreign policy should be adopted, that effective page 55 means of consultation must be evolved to ensure that this is observed or to provide for agreed alterations1.’
New Zealand's plea in 1937 echoed that of 1930. The supply of information in itself does not constitute consultation, unless it is supplied in time for considered opinions to be formed and unless it is conveyed in such a manner that comment is made easy even if not directly requested. The British Government was indeed in a dilemma at a time when some dominions claimed an active right to participate, while others rejected participation as possibly carrying commitments. In the upshot, despatches from London to New Zealand in 1937 began to include occasional invitations for the expression of dominion opinion. Further, as the crisis intensified, increased use was made of a device already familiar. The Dominion High Commissioners as a group were summoned to frequent conferences—daily at times—with the British Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs. During the Italian-Ethiopian dispute, therefore, the United Kingdom cabinet, which was necessarily the most active of British Commonwealth governments in the matter, had frequent personal reminders of the existence and importance of dominion viewpoints. The same practice was followed in relation to Spain. Whether these meetings and the resulting correspondence between the High Commissioners and their Prime Ministers resulted in dominion viewpoints becoming incorporated in Commonwealth policy is another matter. In a personal report to Savage after one such meeting, Jordan wrote that he had inquired about the fate of New Zealand's suggestions without receiving encouragement. He had then asked bluntly whether he and his colleagues were there to be consulted, and had been informed with equal bluntness that they ‘were not being consulted but were being informed2.’
1 Imperial Conference, 3rd meeting, 21 May 1937.
2 Jordan to Savage, 16 Jul 1937.
Lord Halifax was perhaps being too absolute. In the long train of events which culminated in war the countries of the Commonwealth had on the whole moved together.2 When there were divergences no dominion criticism lacked responsible support in the United Kingdom. The overseas British in the Dominions had at least as much influence over war and peace as had their cousins who had remained in the Old World. The famous complaint of Andrew Fisher could not have been made in 1940: that as Prime Minister of Australia he had less influence over foreign policy than if he had remained a Scottish miner.3 On the contrary, it could reasonably be argued that in the nineteen-thirties—as indeed during the course of the war-the views of the Government of a million and a half New Zealanders received much more consideration than their numbers and relative importance warranted. The ground of complaint, if such existed, lay elsewhere. It was that in a world of power politics small countries are inevitably committed by the policies adopted by their neighbours and associates: a fact which great countries sometimes ignore and sometimes count upon. And as regards the British countries the fact remained to the end—and Lord Halifax was partly responsible for it—that the consultation clearly provided for in the constitution of the Commonwealth still amounted too often to a mere exchange of information and, more particularly, to supply of information by the United Kingdom to the Dominions.
2 Cf. Elliott and Hall, Commonwealth at War, p. 13. Chamberlain's policy ‘was as near to being a common foreign policy of the whole British Commonwealth as any policy since 1919’.
3 Curtis, Problems of the Commonwealth, p. 9, quoting The times, 31 Jan 1916.