Political and External Affairs
CHAPTER 3 — The Radical Criticism
The Radical Criticism
WITHIN the broad stream of New Zealand's external policy up to 1935 there were small elements of independence, which were potentially important, though in general courteously concealed from publicity. It made no great difference which of the two parties held power; they were not deeply divided with regard to external affairs, or indeed (after the death of Seddon) in internal affairs either. During the 1914–18 war, however, a third political party emerged which neither in domestic nor in foreign policies shared the basic assumptions common to the two older parties.
The Labour Party had its formal origin in July 1916. It drew together existing left-wing groups and was led with great energy and resource by H. E. Holland and the men who, after his death in 1933, were to govern New Zealand during the Second World War. Behind the political party stood the trade unions, still smarting from the severe defeats of the pre-war strikes. The leaders of this Labour movement, if the term may be used to cover groups which only gradually gathered cohesion, had a strong traditional suspicion of Imperialism as exploitation, and of war as a deception practised by governments. In 1914 they had, like their colleagues overseas, recognised the call of a national crisis; yet radical suspicion remained, and an anti-war tradition. Suspicion naturally ripened into outright dissent, and by 1916 the leaders of the Labour Party had become bitterly critical of the Massey government's wartime policy. In that year, out of a combination of personal judgment, radical tradition and the needs of political controversy, the leaders of the movement formulated clearly a threefold wartime policy which deeply influenced the Labour Party's thinking well into the period of the Second World War.
Naturally enough, Labour's attitude was publicly denounced by spokesmen of other parties as unpatriotic to the verge of sedition; yet it received considerable if unpublicised support. Sir Francis Bell himself was more than doubtful about the proceedings against the imprisoned Labour leaders,4 and a series of remarkable Labour victories at by-elections in 1918 suggest that by that time war-weariness was sufficiently general to make Labour's wartime policy a political asset rather than a liability. In its context, the attitude between 1914 and 1918 of the men who were to be New Zealand's cabinet in September 1939 was not a violent aberration from the country's normal trends. It was rather the ardent expression of viewpoints which, by and large, were even then regarded as not wholly unreasonable by many of those who rejected them.
4 In his correspondence Bell, at that time leader of the Upper House and shortly to become Attorney-General, emphasised the distinction ‘between advocacy of the repeal of the Military Service Act and advocacy of resistance to that Act. The first cannot be sedition however you take it, and yet in my view the Magistrates are dealing out the same sentences in respect of speeches which to my untutored mind do not seem to go beyond the constitutional right of advocacy of repeal’.—Stewart, Bell, p. 135.
Conscription of wealth was defined as meaning that ‘the land, mines, mills, factories, ships, banks and all the collectively used means of wealth production shall be seized and operated for the collective benefit of the people during the war, and shall remain the property of the people after the war4.’ Needless to say, this proposal was made for the purpose of discomfiting the advocates of conscription rather than with any serious expectation of its adoption. The phrase was also used by Labour speakers in the 1914–18 war with some vaguer and apparently less drastic meaning than that given to it in the manifesto. In its origin it was less a practical proposal than a rhetorical device to hammer home the Labour charge that the Government ‘fastened the chains of militarism on the young life of the Dominion, but … cringed and grovelled before the profiteer and exploiter5.’
2 McCombs, NZPD, Vol. 176, p. 507.
5 Maoriland Worker, 13 Feb 1918.
It really is an insult to Britain to accuse her of mere practical nationalism. To their credit it can be said that the force which moved the British people was mainly their sympathy with Belgium. Britain is more international than ever she was.
Before the war many things advocated by Social Democrats were said to be Utopian. Today they are accomplished facts. Only by adopting instalments of State Socialism could the Allies carry on the war. The failure of private enterprise has been an outstanding feature of the situation, hitherto. Who can doubt than one reason of Germany's success on land (now probably nearing its limit) was her superior State organisation? The pity is that there should be such splendid organisation for such base ends. When the nations are as well organised for peace and economic justice as Germany was for war Social Democracy will be even to its opponents something more substantial than a dream.
It is true that certain prominent Labour men were pacifists, and that the party took up the case of certain conscientious objectors who had been maltreated. It is true, too, that in the first years of peace the issue was complicated by vehement expressions of anti-war sentiment. These, together with the personal pacifism of some individuals during the war, created the traditional belief that in this ‘free lance period’ the Labour Party was marked by ‘militant pacifism’.1 Yet there is little proof that at any time it departed so widely from a ‘responsible’ attitude. On the whole, its criticism of wartime policy in 1914–18 arose from its political suspicion of its own and other Allied governments (a suspicion shared by the Australian Labour movement) rather than from doctrinaire pacifism.
1 Round Table, Vol. 97, p. 215, December 1934.
In considering the resolutions of the 1920 conference it should be remembered that they were passed at the time when the British Labour Party was threatening a general strike in the event of British intervention against Russia4 in the war between that country and Poland. That the passage of the extremist resolutions in 1920 was largely due to what seemed the imminent possibility of further British military operations against Soviet Russia is suggested by the 1921 conference's shelving of a resolution on war similar to that passed in 1920, but milder in that it omitted the proposal for a general strike.5 After two or three years of uncertainty the 1924 conference came out with the declaration that it ‘wholeheartedly supports the British Labour Government in its efforts to secure disarmament by agreement among the nations, and declares that it will be prepared to face the problem of defence on assuming office as the Government of the Dominion in the light of that policy, and will be guided by the circumstances prevailing at that time as to the extent to which disarmament can be achieved or defence is necessary6.’
1 Maoriland Worker, 6 Aug 1919.
2 Ibid., 8 Sep 1920.
3 Ibid., 15 Sep 1920.
4 The conference passed a resolution condemning the Allies' attempt to restore the Tsarist regime and a cable congratulating the British Labour Party on its stand in the matter was signed (among others) by the President of the New Zealand Labour Party.—Brown, Labour Party, p. 160, and Maoriland Worker, 8 Sep 1920.
5 Maoriland Worker, 7 Sep 1921.
6 NZ Worker, 11 Jun 1924. The Maoriland Worker became the New Zealand Worker in February 1924, which was in turn succeeded by the Standard in October 1935.
In the nineteen-twenties this was a matter of principle rather than of political substance; for there was little immediate hope of deflecting New Zealand policy or of modifying significantly the normal preoccupation of most New Zealanders (including members of the Labour Party) with domestic economics. When Labour's core of seasoned political leaders treated world issues as being of practical concern to the intelligent New Zealander, and discussed them with knowledge and conviction, they were scarcely representative of the Labour movement, and still less of New Zealand as a whole. Behind the scenes New Zealand prime ministers might occasionally express candid disagreement with British policy when it veered to the left, just as Labour leaders openly denounced it while it kept to the main road; but for the great majority of New Zealanders world history was a drama to be observed from a distance without any notion of audience participation. The results of the play might, indeed, impinge on New Zealand, but among the actors was a hazily conceived entity, the British Empire, into whose practised hands most New Zealanders, by deliberate choice or by lethargy and acquiescence, resigned their country's interests. It is difficult for members of a dissenting minority to alter so predominant an attitude. However, by challenging it they can bring it to the surface and once this is done it may lose, for a while at least, something of its power. By the example of persistently continuing to exist they may keep open the possibility of alternative forms of action. By continuing to assert a reasonably coherent point of view they may gradually accumulate a body of inaudible but potentially powerful and disciplined sympathy.
1 P. Fraser, NZPD, Vol. 200, p. 788.
One significant symptom of new developments was a trickle of intellectual criticism directed at New Zealand's traditional acquiescence: her ‘Mother complex’ was described as such to be derided. Another and more significant fact was the conscious development, in a generation which had known war (and later depression), of something increasingly resembling a New Zealand attitude towards life in general. It would be too ambitious to speak of a New Zealand culture. Yet something was stirring, to find expression among writers and painters, among scholars and journalists as well as among politicians, which produced a sharper mental climate. The difference between Allen Curnow's Book of New Zealand Verse and its predecessor, Kowhai Gold, shows that it was not only in politics that the ferment was working. There was in the politics of men like Holland and Fraser and in the writings of Mason and Sargeson and Glover, of Lee and Mulgan, something which we now think of as typical of the place as well as the time.
1 McKeen, 1933, NZPD, Vol. 233, p. 231.
4 Ibid., Vol. 240, p. 381.
5 Falls, War Books, p. ix.
1 Hansard, Vol. 317, cols. 1144–5.
2 Round Table, Vol. 13, p. 452.
3 J. G. Cobbe, Minister of Defence, NZPD, Vol. 225, p. 303.
In brief, by 1933 and 1934 it had become not only possible but almost conventional for New Zealanders to speak with scepticism of modern warfare and even use terms of outright pacifism which would have been wholly out of key ten years before. It is not surprising that these ideas were still to be found in the utterances of the Labour Party. In the debate on the 1934 estimates Labour speakers criticised the Government for spending money ‘to defend the people against problematical attacks’ by foreigners instead of against ‘the certain and continuous ravages of poverty and distress3.’ New Zealand should keep out of ‘the competitive armaments campaign’ which would inevitably lead to war, as in 1914: she could thus help to frustrate the armament manufacturers who here, as elsewhere, were ‘stirring up enmity, discontent, and distrust4.’ Yet the remarkable thing is that on the whole the pacifist and radical tendencies were becoming subdued in the Labour Party in the same years that they were infiltrating into the very citadels of conservatism.
1 Jenkins, Social Attitudes in the New Zealand School Journal.
2 Jenkins, op. cit. p. 18.
3 Barnard, NZPD, Vol. 239, p. 755.
4 Armstrong, NZPD, Vol. 239, pp. 791–2.
As early as 1927 Nash, then Secretary of the Labour Party, but not yet a member of Parliament, had participated in an odd episode which was perhaps significant evidence of the evolution of New Zealand opinion. In that year the New Zealand Government was severely criticised by Labour spokesmen for contributing to the Singapore base; one main ground for such criticism, especially by H. E. Holland, was that the construction of the base would be offensive to Japan. At a conference in Honolulu, however, Nash as a private citizen was called upon for a report on New Zealand opinion. He explained3 that the contribution to Singapore was contested, and summarised the arguments; but he added that a majority of New Zealanders would support the Government's decision on the ground that in their view the Navy was a major instrument for world peace, and that it could not exercise its peacemaking function in the Pacific without the base. Nash's action in saying publicly that on this issue his party's policy would not carry the electorate was warmly repudiated in Parliament; yet he would appear to have given a fair enough summary of New Zealand opinion at that time.
The significance of the incident lay in the contrast between the objectivity of Nash's statement with its emphasis on New Zealand's interest in maintaining world peace, and the fiery denunciation of Holland; and Nash's voice was that of the future. Opinion even in the leadership of the Labour Party was facing the notion that force as well as good will may be necessary for the control of war-makers.
1 NZPD, Vol. 221, p. 788.
2 Round Table, Vol. 20, pp. 913–14.
The League, in short, was believed by influential Labour men to stand in the international field for the same principles as their own party, and to hold particular promise for small nations. From 1922 onwards, therefore, Labour spokesmen continually reminded opinion of a fact as yet hazily grasped: namely that the League existed and was potentially important for New Zealand. In 1922 Holland and Fraser criticised the Government for committing the country ‘without the authority of the parliament and people of New Zealand’, and urged that the issues between the Allies and Turkey should be submitted to the League for settlement.1 In 1926 Holland complained that the Government had not exercised its right to send an independent delegation to the conference of the International Labour Organisation, thereby depriving the workers of their just rights. In the following year the Labour Party and especially Holland, in their opposition to the Government's decision to contribute towards the Singapore base, argued that such expenditure was ‘contrary to the whole spirit of the League of Nations. Instead of using this country's money in increasing the distrust of the West’ in the eyes of the East, ‘the government should use it in promoting the principles of the League of Nations2.’ In 1933 Holland unsuccessfully suggested that Parliament should expressly support the League's attitude in Manchuria,3 and from time to time a plea was entered for New Zealand to take a really positive attitude in League matters. In the debate preceding the Imperial Conference of 1930, for example, Nash claimed that ‘The League of Nations has accomplished more progressive work and its achievements are greater than any other organisation in the history of the world’. And he asked that the Prime Minister should speak up in the conference to support the League's work, ‘not merely to say in a superficial way that the League is a splendid body, but by asserting that the whole weight of the New Zealand government and of our people is behind it in its efforts to establish peaceful relationships between the nations4.’
1 NZPD, Vol. 197, pp. 86, 87.
2 Press, 2 May 1927.
3 NZPD, Vol. 235, p. 770.
4 Ibid., Vol. 225, p. 117.
Such a statement, if Forbes had been foolish enough to make it, would have been a gross exaggeration, as it indeed would have been if made by the representative of almost any country represented at Geneva. As was to be expected, there was little response to such demands for positive action in support of the League. Yet in a sense Labour's campaign was fought without an enemy. Despite Massey's early suspicions of the League, most conservatives were prepared to admit that it was, in principle, an excellent institution. If there was little enthusiasm for it, there was still less hostility. It is true that in the depth of the depression New Zealand asked for a reduction of her contribution on the ground that the League had made such poor progress;1 but a cut in her contribution towards naval defence was also suggested in the same year.2 The attitude of most New Zealanders was not unfriendly. In 1927 Mr Coates, then Prime Minister, summarised it fairly enough in terms characteristically inclined towards the future rather than the past:
We should work quietly and definitely in the direction of helping the League of Nations to accomplish what it will accomplish if given time. In the meantime no one can say that the League of Nations is an effective protection against aggression or against interference with trade or indeed with peoples, and it is essential in our own interests that we should do our share towards protecting our trade routes and assisting Empire defence.3
This statement may accordingly be taken as a reasonable interpretation of New Zealand's official position up to the Italian-Ethiopian crisis. Yet the demand for something more positive was quietly accumulating. In 1934, for example, Walter Nash inaugurated a debate on the general theme that the Government had not been sufficiently interested in the League of Nations. In his view, by this time the League had firmly linked aspects as both an instrument of collective security and as a means of mutual help in raising standards of life.4 In the balance between the views expressed by Coates and Nash is to be found a summary of effective New Zealand opinion in the first half of the nineteen-thirties.
1 NZPD, Vol. 233, p. 422.
2 Round Table, No. 83, June 1931, p. 708.
3 NZPD, Vol. 214, pp. 258–9
4 Ibid., Vol. 239, p. 7.