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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 13 June 18, 1968

An honest politician

page 5

An honest politician

The ritual tributes to Sir Walter Nash all sound off-key Sir Wallet designed the welfare state, we are told—we all know how bad Welfareism is Mr Nordmeyer has chosen this occasion to reveal Sir Walter worked his staff far too hard. Broad hints have been dropped that Sir Walter was not, well, all he could be in his last year Finally comes the last resounding deflation—"the verdict on Sir Walter must be left to the historians." It is evident that the press did not really like Sir Walter.

The historians should already be making their asessment—it is now almost twenty years since the end of Labour's first period power, long enough for the contemporary to have receded sufficiently to qualify as history. And, surely history has not all that much to record in Sir Walter's disfavour. He is one of the few politicians never to have claimed to be more than he was—a liberal-spirited, humanitarian social reformer. Virtually alone in the Labour Party he was never an extremist, entering the 1935 cabinet with no Marxist past to forget or recant Pitching his political expectations at a moderate level, he had no striving for utopia to undo, unlike some of his colleagues he never looked the disappointed visionary or the idealist turned utopian. He was an honest politician by the grace of history exactly suited to the mood and moves of his period.

Honesty and fashionableness are shortlived virtues: the man who has them may have adjusted too well to his own time to win the admiration of his descendants, and this is the reason, perhaps, why the press has labelled Sir Walter's post-1950 career anachronistic. This is too easy: the 'thirties did not end in 1939, they still survive in Norman Kirk's speeches. The thirties were the period of greatest social inequality in New Zealand's history: the politics of the 'thirties therefore had to be, in Leslie Lipson's phrase, politics of equality. This meant that the central concern of the 'thirties was money, the structure of the financial system, the lending policy of the banks. Its key measures were Government control of the Reserve Bank, the guaranteed price for dairy products, the guaranteed benefit for social security recipients—greater Government control of the distribution of the wealth coupled with redistributive payments to the least wealth. Sir Walter Nash, in an age whose central concern was the social justice of society's distribution system, was the man chosen to preside over the taming and Christianising of the money power. The coupling of humanitarianism and budgeteering which now, in the years of Piggy, seems odd if not off-colour, was in the thirties, natural. Labour was lucky: it came to power in years when, as Dr. Sutch has noted, the depression was receding, but to achieve as much social reform as Nash did in those years was still an achievement. Nash did not stimulate employment drastically there were still 22.800 unemployed in January 1931: he did not stimulate exports greatly, but he was not primarily trying to do either of these things. He was trying to even out the spread of income within the framework of the existing economic system and the limits of New Zealand's depleted economic system; and he did exactly that, to the extreme limit possible. Those, like Lee, and Dr. Macmillan, who wanted more social security, and more money on housing, could have succeeded as Lee was warned as early as 1931 only at the cost of dedt repudiation. As it was Nash, secured enough loans to avoid a really serious balance of payments crisis in 1939 only by the skin of his teeth, and it is arguable that even then the situation would have been worse had it not been for the war. Redistributive measures, though socially justified, in creating an "effective demand" for goods stimulated the demand for imports and so worsened balance of payments. Here one can see the beginning of the New Zealand economy's present rooted structural flaws. But that is not the point. Here was New Zealand's return from the extremes of social inequality to the extremes of social equality, and they were extremes for we have never been quite so equal since, the beginnings of affluence cutting at what was then brotherhood of poverty.

This brought us nowhere close to socialism, for socialism means a change in the structure of capitalism, and Labour, and certainly Nash, never dreamt of withdrawing industry from private hands. Nash far less than his Cabinet colleagues, never had an idea that anything else was possible. A Christian Socialist, a former member of George Fowlds' right-wing United Labour Party, Nash unlike Fowlds opposed conscription and so found his way to the post-1916 Labour Party—he was so pacifist he opposed New Zealand defending herself by arms in 1923. His conception of Socialism had always been distributive — the search for the just price and the just wage like that of the mediaeval church in Tawney's Religion and the Rise in Capitalism. He worked out the Labour Party's guaranteed price policy, spelling out the social credit implications of this policy at the 1931 and 1935 elections. Nash, was Labour's first social crediter, Lee the propagandist of Nash's gospel who tried blasphemously to be more orthodox than his scriptures. What for Nash was a slightly exaggerated version of a just price theory became a doctrine of unlimited money in rural electorates, but Nash himself, except in his pamphlet on the Guaranteed Price scheme, was always restrained in his statements about it. describing it as part of a plan for socialising distribution. It was Nash's religion — he sold books for the Student Christian Movement in the twenties—that made currency reform respectable, though, along with Savage and Uncle Serim, Nash preached a [unclear: non-denom] Christian paternalism toward the unemployed, offering New Zealand a moral not a social revolution, a change of heart not the overthrow of capitalism. Labour dropped the ideology of non-Leninist Marxism Harry Holland had favoured for a religiose humanism. In a period when conventional wisdom in economics and politics had completely failed, the only conventional wisdom left to fall back on was that of morals and politics, and Labour, making itself the vehicle of a politico-moral fundamentalism made the thirties nearer a second Reformation than a repetition of 1917. Economics in the world-view of the 'thirties could be made over by a few good men: and Nash, in his platform appearances, the epitome of the generous and devout, was as close to the ideal politician of his time as Savage in New Zealand or Eberhardt in Alberta. Nash typified a parly which, finally, was neither left nor right, but wanted politics to be based on the teachings of the Good Book and the Old Time Religion.

Photograph of Sir Walter Nash

As a party of spiritual renewal, Labour did reverse the economic trends of the 'thirties' and was certainly the only Government would or could have goverened New Zealand in the 'forties; but like most new religions, it gradually lost its charismatic personality, of which Nash was the last, and rejoiced too early in the politic edifice it had left. By the late 'forties Labour looked less like a religion than a badly run business and the electorate, tired of uplift. especially familiar uplift tossed it out. It still regarded Nash as a secular prophet, a role he knew very well how to play, preaching for international harmony and charily by by the world's rich to the world's poor. Characteristically, though the 1957-1960 Government was a failure. Nordmeyer got the blame, not Nash. As long as New Zealanders were prepared to look to authority for pronouncements on political ethics, it was to Nash whom they looked. His ethics may now seem vieux jeu—ethics always date quickly —but they opened the way to the most honourable kind of conservatism in the 'thirties. It may be that we needed something other than conservatism but. as nobody then offered it. Nash can hardly be blamed for not taking an option not on offer.