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The Long White Cloud

Chapter XXIV — “King Dick”

page 295

Chapter XXIV
“King Dick”

One of the people, born to be
Their curious epitome.

When Grey's followers met and deposed him after his defeat by Sir John Hall and Sir Harry Atkinson in 1879 a few of them stood faithful to the fallen chieftain. Among these was a young miner's agent just returned to Parliament by a Gold-fields district. He was noteworthy for a fine chest-girth and an equal measure of self-confidence; also for an aptitude, quite striking in a novice, for mastering the forms of parliamentary procedure. His head made one think of iron wedges, stone axes and things meant to split and fracture. And the pallor of his face was lit up by two alert blue eyes and by a peculiarly pleasant—nay, sweet—smile playing round a well-shaped mouth. He looked as though he might be handy with his fists, as indeed he could be. Most things about him appeared big, vigorous, restless: you thought him a man made for drums and tramplings. Only the skull was small. It was dolicho-cephalic and held one of the most sleepless brains in New Zealand. The owner had an instinctive understanding of tactics and a glorious disregard of hard knocks. He sometimes winced a bit under sarcasm, for to meet that he was unable; but to personal abuse, or the angriest denunciation, he was or, what is just as useful, seemed to be, indifferent. His understanding of tactics took time to show itself in any higher way than in the art of obstruction. Of his power to endure pommelling he had need early. During his first decade in the House he was chiefly known by his much speaking. Of his speeches, enough to say that their number, bulk and lack of quality were a serious obstacle to his rise in page 296 political life. It is something of an enigma that a man of his shrewdness, industry and lively appreciation of political realities should have managed for eleven years to talk so much and say so little. It should be noted, though, that he avoided acidity and insult. He was no swordsman and, if he sometimes laid about him with a club, the hearty fashion in which he swung his weapon caused more smiles than resentment. He went his way, emptying the House and filling Hansard, just as the humour took him. He had to take harder knocks than he gave: he took them. Newspapers wrote of him contemptuously. Triumphant respectability, after defeating a man like Grey, was not inclined to be forbearing to troublesome persons whom it held much cheaper. Seddon became respectability's favourite butt and bête noire. When he stopped Government business, as he often did, he would be pelted with threats, imprecations, entreaties and groans, of none of which he took the faintest notice. He went doggedly on, and in the scuffles of the years that followed Grey's eclipse it began to be understood that this athletic talker, though not a condensing engine, might be a considerable motive power.

It is usually said that he shouldered his way to the front. It was not all mere shouldering, however; even in his early years in the House he knew his way about. When you came to talk confidentially with him about the political position, you found, perhaps to your surprise, that he understood every move on the board. He grasped the relative importance of things, could come to the point quickly and kept a cool head. When action was called for he could tell you what to do. It may be added that when a Liberal principle was in question he was scarcely ever found in the wrong lobby.

In the Ballance Cabinet he was given the portfolios of Public Works and Mines. Having at last responsible work to do he showed that he could do it. He threw himself into the business of his departments and mastered it almost as well as he had mastered the standing orders. He proved himself a capable administrator and took care that the public knew it. Even at that early stage of his official career he travelled about the country a great deal, but there are reasons in New Zealand which justify a Minister of Mines and Public Works in doing a good deal of travelling. He also demonstrated that he could
A Black and White photograph of some Maori males


a Black and White photograph of a Male


page 297 get his business through the House. An active Opposition, regarding him as a poacher turned gamekeeper, promised themselves much sport in “sticking up” his Bills and estimates. They reckoned without their host. The inexhaustible stone-waller entered into the fun of the game and thought nothing of turning the tables on his assailants by throwing off a trifling speech of an hour or so in the small hours of the morning. More than once he talked his tormentors into flight.

When Ballance died in 1893, Seddon was in a position to grasp the Premiership, and did so. His party acquiesced. The country gave a little gasp of mingled amazement and amusement, but on the whole was disposed to give the daring man a chance. He took office in May 1893 and stayed there till his death in June 1906. Though in some respects a lucky Premier, he had difficulties to face. To take the luck first. It may be pointed out that he inherited from Ballance a party united as it had hardly ever been united before and with a spirit which it never quite possessed again. In addition to able colleagues and a strong majority, Ballance left him a really fine policy which had captured the imagination of the country. It was pretty plain that he had only to go ahead to win; he could make a flying start. Fortune also favoured him from 1896 onwards by making New Zealand prosperous once more after sixteen years of continued depression. The good times certainly softened political animosity and furnished a practical reply to the constant prophecies made in New Zealand and outside it that the Liberal experimental laws would bring ruin. The success of these laws, which turned out to have been careful, as well as beneficial, supplied Seddon and the Liberals with a capital which it took a long time to spend. Again, the South African War, the local enthusiasm excited thereby and the cordial feeling with which England saw the much-suspected, almost Socialist little democracy throw up its hat for the Empire and dispatch twelve contingents of shooting, riding men to South Africa were very helpful. Patriotism and Imperialism came into fashion. People forgot local feuds. The old Conservatives did not like subjection to the rule of “King Dick”; but as one of their leaders said to the writer at the time: “I would sooner have Seddon with prosperity than anyone else without.”

page 298

On the other hand, he had much to fight against during the first five of his thirteen years. On becoming Premier he was instantly attacked by the newly arisen Prohibitionist movement, then and now the strongest social agitation ever known in the Colony. They had able spokesmen and gave him and his no quarter. Ultimately this helped him, because it obliged the main Liberal force to rally round him, while it also assured him the support of the liquor trade. But in his first year it seemed likely to overwhelm him. What saved him was that he went doggedly on with the Liberal policy and with the help of his colleagues forced it through Parliament. Then in 1896 and 1897 came his most difficult years. The rush of reform was over and he was not yet as popular as he afterwards became. In 1896 he lost both Sir Joseph Ward and Mr. Reeves and his side was left terribly weak in debate. Against him he had Sir Robert Stout, the best debater and platform speaker at that time in the country, a well-read Liberal with a grasp of principles, the leading advocate in New Zealand, an experienced, clean-handed politician and a “bonny fighter.” The Opposition were otherwise well supplied with speaking power, while outside were the Prohibitionist orators. Seddon's big majority shrank, and at one time, in 1897, it looked as though his opponents would get him down. The ground was moving under his feet; it was time to do something big. With acuteness, indeed, real wisdom, he decided to pass the Old Age Pensions Bill. The measure was his own and was his greatest feat. He gradually shaped it until he made it what it was and long remained, the best of its kind in the world. Then he took care that it was well and economically administered, and its success was complete. On the heels of it came the retirement of Sir Robert Stout from public life, and thenceforth Seddon had little trouble. For the last eight years of his reign he was the most popular man in New Zealand. It is noteworthy that his great popularity began after he had been Premier for five years. Of most Premiers it may be said that before they have been in power for five years they have no popularity left.

His special achievements in law-making, apart from the Old Age Pensions Act, were considerable. There were his two Local Option laws, his share in the Bank of New Zealand Act, page 299 and several important Labour Acts amending the Labour laws of his predecessor. Without being adventurous he was a good Minister of Labour. To the Government Life Insurance he added the business of Accident and Fire Insurance. His Public Health Act was a distinct advance. In opening a couple of State coal-mines, chiefly for the supply of Government railways, he merely did what any private railway company, operating throughout New Zealand, would have done. Though criticized, it was a natural and proper thing to do and turned out successful. His concession of a preference to British importers in his Protectionist tariffs was a wise step, and whatever Free Trade newspapers may say, has been of value to the British exporter. New Zealand has thriven exceedingly by using the open door provided for her products by English Free Trade and may well make some slight return.

It is interesting to note the very great difference between the Liberal policy of the eight years 1891–8 and that of the eight years from 1898 to 1906. The policy of the first period might have been adopted by Mr. Sidney Webb. That of the second might have been fathered by Sir Julius Vogel. It was, of course, passed by Seddon with the help of Sir Joseph Ward.

An undoubted and very great service rendered by Seddon to the social experiments of the eight years 1891–8 was that his comparatively quiet reign during the next eight years gave them time to settle down. Had the Conservatives ousted the Liberals in 1896, an effort might have been made to repeal the progressive laws. At any rate, these would not have had the advantage of many years of friendly administration and amendment. When the Liberal Party had shot its bolt and had to go, the experimental legislation had on the whole been accepted as a success, and outside the Land System the Conservatives did almost nothing reactionary.

As Treasurer he did not waste any money to speak of or borrow, on the whole, too much. You could scarcely call him a financier in any strict sense of the term. He had, however, a very sound appreciation of the difference between a surplus and a deficit. There were no deficits when he was at the Treasury and the surplus was usually very substantial. If he relished spending public money—well, it is pleasant to be a special providence! Speaking broadly, the spending depart- page 300 ments of his Ministry distributed their money fairly enough. True, if anyone were to plod through the newspaper files of the nineties, he might be led to suppose that the Colony was obsessed by a dark and sinister system called “Seddonism,” overshadowing and portentous, and demoralizing with the corruption of Walpole. But that sort of thing, looked at through the vista of years, need not be taken too seriously. It must be remembered that in New Zealand, in the nineteenth century, there was no remunerative market for local fiction or verse; any imagination or fancy that our writers possessed had to find an outlet through journalism.

The part played by Seddon as a law-maker, leader and contributor to the success of the Liberal policy of his time, appears—as sketched here—large, meritorious and highly successful. The outlines of his figure, as drawn in this book, are not perhaps as grandiose as his enthusiastic friends might wish. That is because the pictures of Seddon and his times, sometimes painted by friendly hands before and at the moment of his death, rather resemble the wall-pictures seen in Egyptian temples or tombs, depicting the victories of the conquering Pharaohs. In these battle-scenes, one gazes on the gigantic figure of a triumphant Seti or Rameses standing or driving in a royal chariot and towering over pigmy followers and dwarfed enemies alike. Seddon, however, was not, until his latest years, a Gulliver among Lilliputians. His dictatorship, such as it was, began at the earliest in 1896; his special and important legislative work began in 1893. The Liberal-Labour policy submitted by the Ballance Government to Parliament in 1891 would have been thought out and submitted almost precisely as it was if Mr. Seddon had never been born.

For his speeches on Imperial matters in England there is not much to be said. The Imperial policy that he supported was patriotic and arguably reasonable. It was that of Mr. Joseph Chamberlain. If Mr. Chamberlain was wrong about fiscal reform and other matters, then Seddon was wrong. Most colonists, however, do not think that Mr. Chamberlain was wrong. Sir Starr Jameson once commented to the writer on the great superiority of Seddon's doings and proposals at Imperial conferences to his speeches outside. To some extent that was true generally of what he said and did. He was page 301 almost the converse of the merry, witty king who never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one. It may be pointed out, moreover, that Seddon in Imperial matters was not always a mere echo. He had the nerve to protest against that lamentable blunder, the importation of Chinese coolies into South Africa, and found several other Colonial Premiers ready to support him.

He was neither a Labour leader nor a Socialist he was not even very closely in touch with organized Labour generally. He was neither a Trades Union mechanic nor a collectivist doctrinaire. The popular leaders of New Zealand in the future seem likely to be men with definite theories of Government and Society up to which they mean to work. Seddon was not encumbered with either theories or ideals. If you had spoken to him of Utopia, he would have asked where it was. On being told that it was “nowhere,” he would have sharply answered that he had no intention of going in that direction. I never knew him read a Socialist book, though he did things that Socialists noted and admired, doing them as they came into his day's work. His sympathy with the people was undoubted; his ideas he picked up as he went along.

The latter part of his reign has often been called a dictatorship. The expression is hardly correct. A dictator is a ruler who governs a people as they like or as they do not like, according as he thinks proper. Seddon held power as the result of a long and untiring effort to find out what the people did like, and then, if it was at all reasonable, to do it for them. If he was a dictator he was a dictator with his ear to the ground. He may have been a dictator in his Cabinet; he may have been a dictator in his party; outside Parliament he was the assiduous, though wary, servant of the people.

It has been complained that the latter years of his Premiership were an era of political vulgarity from which New Zealand public life has not yet quite emerged. It is true that from 1898 to 1906 the House of Representatives was scarcely a spiritual home for a cultured mind; nor did it become so later on. But to make Mr. Seddon responsible for this is hardly fair. The New Zealand Parliament was always a very mixed assembly. There had always been a very strong contingent of what may be called anti-intellectuals there. Before 1898, page 302 this had been to some extent held in check by a large sprinkling of men of cultivation and strong ability on both sides. The Conservatives chose to pit themselves against democratic reform. At the beginning of the nineties nearly the whole of the educated and wealthy in the country were massed on one side. They were badly beaten and some of their better men were thereafter shut out of Parliament. That may be the fault of the democracy; it may also be the fault of the wealthy and better-educated classes for setting themselves against reasonable change in the uncompromising fashion in which many of them and their newspapers fought it. As for the Liberals, it is true that Seddon was not over-fond of intellectuals and had a propensity for breaking with the clever young men of his party. He had an exceptional power of attracting and managing ordinary men, and usually preferred to trust to that. But, if the bulk of the Liberal Party in the House and country had really wanted stronger Ministers and members, they could have had them. The truth is that a curious and important change of feeling was coming over the New Zealand public. It came from the people themselves, grew more apparent about 1898 and lasted for a number of years. It coincided with the return of the material prosperity that endured till 1921. It may have had something to do with the increasing strength of the farming class. Whatever its causes, its result was to make a fetish of the commonplace in public life. That mainstay of his country, the farmer, set small store in those days by sparkle or vivacity: he pinned his faith to butter and borrowing. Nor in other classes did Prosperity trouble itself much to be lively. The conventional became a tyranny: bright people tried humbly to seem dull. The last legislator known to have made a good joke died quietly at Wellington in 1897. New Zealanders appeared to distrust distinction, dislike brilliancy, and doubt originality. Their idol in those years was honest, wholesome Mediocrity—that which sees clearly but not far, and walks steadily because it never looks aloft.

Of his habitual semi-regal progresses throughout his dominions something must be said; they were a standing New Zealand dish. I once heard Sir William Harcourt observe that Mr. Seddon seemed to have obtained perpetual power by page 303 means of perpetual motion. At any rate, there is no doubt that his people liked these genial excursions, and as they had to pay for the journeys and listen to the speeches that diversified them, a critic need say little. There is no doubt that his audiences, especially in the provinces, welcomed both the visits and the oratory. They liked to hear their own views, feelings and wishes—one would hardly say ideas—given back to them in language not too far removed from their own. They liked the comforting official statistics, the patriotic platitudes, the inevitable reference to “God's own country.” Still more and most undoubtedly they liked the figure on the platform. They saw New Zealand being ruled at last by one of themselves, and relished it greatly. They liked the big, smiling man with the flushed face and powerful voice; they liked the swelling chest, the energetic arm, the flapping coat; and when next morning the untiring monarch sped on to the next township, he left contentment behind him. If a few sturdy recusants walked away from the meeting muttering darkly, and hinting sullenly that certain persons “could talk the leg off an iron pot,” what did two or three matter? If, moreover, some of the audience were vaguely conscious that during the little provincial comedy a very shrewd brain, watching them through a pair of blue eyes, was quietly taking their measure and calculating to a nicety how much it was not necessary to do, they did not mind that. If “Dick” was “Downy Dick.” so much the better!—“Good Old Dick!”

So the man for the masses went about; so he went on, year after year, making laws that were sound for the most part and speeches that were, for the most part, sound.

To see Seddon at his best you had to sit opposite to him in a small room and talk with him openly about some matter that he thought important. Then, if it were at all intricate, it was a pleasure to mark how quickly he could come to the point and separate the essential from the unessential. Under such circumstances he could be brief, plain, one could almost say incisive. He was particularly worth watching in some moment of pressure and confusion in Parliament. Then amid the small welter of Lobby intrigues, grumblings from supporters, opposition attacks and newspaper “rumours” and page 304 prophecies, he remained perfectly collected and usually took the right course. To the writer he sometimes seemed to manoeuvre overmuch and to give himself more trouble than he needed by “tactics.” Still, it must be admitted that the tactics usually worked. It was said of Mr. Gladstone when an old parliamentary hand that he trusted in Providence, but kept an ace up his sleeve. Doubtless Seddon had his share of faith, but he kept a pack of cards handy.

He scarcely ever asked for advice, but was prepared to listen to it, and sometimes took it in important matters. In unimportant matters he thoroughly enjoyed having his own way. Owing to a narrow training-ground and incomplete education, he was, for a long time, not much more than a man of details. As he rose and had to take responsiblity and deal with affairs of moment, his mind expanded, though whether he really ever cared for large questions as much as for details one is not quite sure. In confidential discussion he could understand anything whatever, if it were put to him clearly and in something like sequence. The reader who imagines that this power is universal among men of position may rest assured that it is not. He was usually cautious in what he did, though not always in what he said, and would often hesitate almost curiously before taking a political step with any sort of risk attaching to it. When once he had made up his mind he hardly ever hesitated. He was not one of those exasperating leaders who agree with the first persuasive supporter that gets at them, and then with the next, and then with the next. He had the invaluable quality in a chief of almost always expecting to win. Nor after a tussle did he ever blame himself for not having taken a different course. If he ever thought he had blundered he did not admit it. It used to be said that he was never known to apologize for anything; the writer, however, has known him try and do a substantial kindness to a friend after getting him into trouble by thoughtlessness.

His mistakes, such as they were, were nearly always traceable to the handicaps at which I have hinted—a useful but limited education, small knowledge of books, and the narrow training-ground in which much of his life was passed. A man of his strong, restless, self-assertive nature should have lived in page 305 a wider atmosphere where he could have met men from whom he was ready to learn. The result of these cramping influences was that he did not always know in politics what was important and what was not, and that he made blunders—sometimes rather bad blunders—over things when he did not think they mattered. This was the case with political and minor appointments. The important non-political appointments made by him were nearly always good. He concentrated absolutely on politics, seeming to live, move and think for them alone. Books, save blue-books, he ignored. Diversions he appeared neither to have nor want. I cannot recall hearing him talk of any non-political subject for ten minutes. Added to this, his restless energy, physical and mental alike, was almost uncanny. His extraordinary power of defying fatigue—joined to a supreme carelessness for form—helped to explain his prodigious speeches, also his general air of hopeful good-humour. In days of old it was written of the kings of Judah and Israel that when dead they “slept with their fathers.” To those of us who knew “King Dick” it does not seem possible to imagine him asleep, inert, or passive in any world, however vast and remote. We cannot picture him submitting to immobility. The shade of Richard Seddon, one may be sure, wasted no time over regrets for a vanished earth. Could the swiftest journey beneath the stars surprise that undaunted ghost? I trow not. Arrived on the banks of Styx he at once found plenty to do. One can hear him commenting promptly on the inferiority of Stygian river-scenery to that of the sunlit streams of romantic New Zealand. Noting Charon's leisurely methods of transport, did he suggest, good-naturedly, to the aged ferryman the propriety of retirement on a suitable Old Age Pension? Did he take the helm when crossing the river? One likes to think of him as happy—not in the enjoyment of rest, for rest he could not enjoy—but energetically happy, smilingly haranguing Elysian mass meetings in fields of amaranth and asphodel, where there is no time-limit for speeches.

Mr. Seddon in private life had the stay and happiness that are given to a husband and father by a devoted wife and by warm family affection. In his own home he lived simply and quietly, the head of a well-ordered household, without the page 306 slightest attempt at luxury or display. He welcomed old West Coast friends after becoming Premier precisely as he always had before. He took no title. Most of the funny stories that used to be told about sayings and doings of his were either inventions or distortions. One or two of the best known were quite correct, but not of him; the heroes of them were obscure New Zealand politicians, now long dead.

When, active and popular as ever, he was snatched away by a death that might almost be called accidental, New Zealand honoured him with a burst of regret such as no other of her public men has ever evoked. The absolute sincerity of the feeling was beyond question.

His highest and most honourable quality as a public man was his genuine sympathy with the poor and weak, the victims of ill-luck, failure and old age. He did not shrink from weakness or even inefficiency. Clever men might sometimes excite his jealousy. The poor, and especially the aged who had not won in the struggle of life, drew his pity; a strong man felt for those who were not strong. It was this easily noticeable quality that explains why his chief measure was the Old Age Pensions Act. He wanted to help the less fortunate, and his notion of help was practical. When touching on his failings, as one must, one counts them very small when compared with a humane, indeed noble, enactment such as that which first laid down the principle of Old Age Pensions for the Poor in the English-speaking world.

When Seddon became Premier, New Zealand commercially was at low water; there was bitter anxiety on all sides; times were very bad indeed. When he died the country was more prosperous and in a sounder and more comfortable position than it ever had been before or has been since. Prices of produce were excellent, but not artificially high; labour was well paid and quiescent under the justest conditions known. There was no unemployment and there had not been a strike or lock-out for thirteen years. The cost of living was reasonable, trade was brisk but not inflated, and the mischief of land speculation not yet very great. Moreover, let it be noted, the National Debt was nothing alarming and taxation was light. The banks were quietly strengthening their position. The settlement of the country was going on apace; so was the page 307 organization of rural industry. The quality of the immigration had for years been better than usual. Public servants were at last receiving adequate pay; even schoolmasters were getting a living wage. The Oligarchs themselves fared comfortably under the easy yoke of the jovial Tribune. They shrugged their shoulders and made hay while the sun shone. In older lands men heard of far-away little New Zealand and envied its people. That is how Seddon left his country, and of how many statesmen can as much be said? I have dwelt on the contrast between his laws and his speeches. It may be as well to emphasize, therefore, that laws that endure are of more consequence than speeches —things that go past as the wind goes past.