The Right Honourable Sir Francis H. D. Bell, P.C., G.C.M.G., K.C.,: His Life and Times
Chapter XXV. — Bell Becomes Prime Minister, 1925
Bell Becomes Prime Minister, 1925.
On Massey's death Bell was sent for by the Governor-General and became Prime Minister. He held that office for only a brief period (May 14 to May 30) pending the election of a new Leader by the members of the Party. But this short tenure of the post gave him the distinction of being the first New-Zealand-born Prime Minister.
At the time of Massey's death I was absent in New York and Bell kept me informed of the progress of events by cable.
From these cables it appeared that some members were urging Bell to see that no election should be made pending my return from New York. He was apprehensive lest dissension might arise, and I accordingly cabled to say that I would willingly serve as a private member under whatever Leader the Party chose:
"Perhaps it is well that you are absent," Bell wrote, "since I think the South would have wanted you and there would be dissension. As it is Coates is a certainty."
It was in order to give the Party time to make a deliberate choice that Bell assumed the temporary leadership.
"I have no ambition," he wrote, "to be a stop-gap Prime Minister, but if time allows we are agreed that that will be the right course. I will act for you and have told Coates and the Cabinet of your willingness to serve the Party as a private member, but there is no chance of your being left out."
At one stage it was suggested that Bell should stand for the seat rendered vacant by Massey's death.
Writing to Sir James Allen, Bell said:
"I was quite clear that I could not at my age undertake for any time the office of Prime Minister, and I refused the proposal that I should stand for Franklin with that object."
Immediately after becoming Prime Minister, Bell issued a public statement, pointing out that until the members of the Party in the House of Representatives, which had put the Ministry in power, could be consulted and choose their Leader it was not possible for the Governor-General (or for Ministers if their advice was asked) to name a member of the Party who should, by common consent of all, finally take Mr. Massey's place as Leader and head of the Government. But he announced that as soon as that had been done he himself would resign. Accordingly a meeting of the Party was held which selected Coates as the new Leader and Bell retired.
When the House met in June, Bell explained to the Legislative Council that he had not resigned office page 239merely because he happened to be a member of the Council:
"And I may say without any breach of confidence that, so far from it being considered by the members of the Party to which I belong, that there was any constitutional difficulty in regard to any tenure of that great office in this Council, I was asked to continue in it, at all events until the end of the present session. The reason I resigned as I did was that of my own age and personal difficulties, and not for the reason that I held my place in Parliament in this Chamber. It is very long since a member of this House had the honour of holding the Prime Ministership, but I should be sorry if, by any act of mine, I should seem to indicate an opinion on my part, or on that of my colleagues, to members of the Council that there was any constitutional or even serious practical objection to that office being held in this Council. I have neither said nor done anything to confirm that view, however much I may agree with the opinion that there are practical difficulties, more in the matter of election and public address, than in any other aspect, in the tenure of office, elsewhere than in the representative chamber."
"I am here for a few days absolutely doing nothing, after a very strenuous eight or nine months' responsibility. Massey's death, and the final loss of a friend with whom I have been associated in public and private life for more than thirty years, was hardly a greater trial than witnessing his gradual decline, never himself believing he was dying. We buried page 240him on Point Halswell, and will place a monument there which every ship must pass entering or leaving Wellington, and which will be in sight of the whole surrounding hills and all of Wellington except Te Aro Flats. You—my Lord—and I know better than most how straightforward and honest his public service was, and you know more than most how much we were together in his service to the Empire, though in the political life of the Dominion itself he confided in others more than in me. The removal of his guidance of New Zealand's part in Imperial affairs is a loss, the gravity of which you and I can estimate more; than the outer world.
"You will have understood that many good reasons prevented me from treating my tenure of the succession as more than a temporary expedient, but you may be interested to know that the Party meeting convened by me to choose a Leader from the House began its proceedings by a request to me to continue till the election—a request voiced by Coates as the spokesman. I think you agreed with me that Coates was the man marked for succession when you were Governor-General, and I am satisfied that he can carry the coming election this year, and have a large working majority over both parties. I had notified publicly, and also privately to Coates, that I would not accept office again, but there were circumstances in relation to the Attorney-Generalship which made it imperative for me to yield to Coates's urgent appeal to me to continue in that till the election. And then freedom for what little time if any remains of life.
"You mention Downie Stewart. A place has page 241been kept for him in Coates's Government as Finance Minister, and the accounts he gives of his cure are sanguine—but I fear—and doubt. My accounts from others are less encouraging. It may well be that after the session he may not be fit for the work, but the coming session itself, which begins on June 25, and which he cannot arrive for till July 10, is a different business. His form of cure weakens the patient very greatly during and after the process."
Bell's long experience and ripe judgment made him an ideal mentor to Coates, the new young Prime Minister, and his colleagues. Although he had now reached the age of seventy-five, his interest in public affairs and politics remained unabated. He still remained Leader of the Council and Attorney-General, and helped everyone who sought his advice. Six months earlier, in December, 1924, he had written to Lord Jellicoe:
"Personally I would like to resign now, and end my service here with yours, the ibimus ibimus of Horace—if it be lawful to compare great men with little."
But this was only a passing mood, perhaps prompted by his sadness at the departure of Lord Jellicoe, and the ominous state of Massey's health.
And so when Coates faced his first session as Prime Minister in 1925, Bell watched with anxious solicitude to see how he would develop: whether he would control his colleagues and the House with the same skill and tact as Massey had done; what impression he would make on the public; and generally, how he would comport himself in his high office. He felt that the young page 242and progressive Leader would bring fresh ideas and outlook, and that he would write a new chapter in the long and honourable record of the Party:
"Despite the loss," Bell said, "to the country, and to myself personally, by Mr. Massey's death, and the severance of so long an association with a man whom I honoured beyond most men, I cannot but believe that Parliament has chosen and has supported a successor who will carry on Mr. Massey's work, and make himself a name hardly second to that of Mr. Massey. I believe in Mr. Coates, and knowing as I do his force of character, his determination and his courtesy and diligence, I am satisfied that the country has a Prime Minister who will, for years to come, have upon his shoulders the responsibility of the great office which he holds, and will do the work that has been entrusted to him with honour to himself and advantage to the country."
Bell to Sir James Allen, June 6, 1923:
"If Coates wins at the General Election—and I think it fairly certain—I may continue in the Executive and in charge of the Mandates for Samoa and Nauru and go to England next year and attend with you the Mandates Commission and the Assembly at Geneva. In the meantime I am taking no part other than that of the portfolios I hold of Attorney-General and External Affairs except that until Stewart's return I am acting for him in Customs. All the part I have taken for so many years past with Mr. Massey I am carefully abstaining from entering upon. I like Coates and I think he will be a real force and we have always been friends, but you can page 243understand that it is nothing but mischievous for a man who has led the orchestra to play anything else than a second violin when he loses the lead …
"I ought to have excepted from what I have written about my disappearance from ministerial work outside my portfolios, the correspondence with the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister of England by secret cable. I have agreed to advise Coates in this and to draft some of the replies. The position is a little more difficult just now because of the cables about the proposed Security Pact.
"I have just finished drafting the Governor-General's speech for opening Parliament, a function which I have performed regularly ever since you and I took office together in 1912, except only the one year when I was in England with you."
On August 24, 1925, Bell wrote to me:
"I shall go out of office as soon as Coates is ready to re-form his Ministry, though I may stay in the Executive in order to attend Geneva officially next year nisi fata prohibent iniqua. And I look forward to seeing you fit and able to take your place as second in command in a Government which I hope and believe is going to have a long lease of life.
"I have refrained from troubling you as the Hon. Minister in Charge of War Funds, and have been content to make a mess of both Departments for you to restore to order later.
"I know that my messes, like Benjamin's, are greater than the messes of my brethren in office, but here is one (enclosed) on which I should like your page 244views … Perhaps you will be good enough to read this rot and say what you think."
And on September 6:
"The session will end without difficulty for the Government. I gladly continue to mess up Customs and War Funds for you. Happily for you I am one who does not care a d - n if the real Minister reverses my decisions when he comes into control again.
"Here is a tag from Virgil for Miss Stewart and you: O passi graviora dabit deus his quoque finem" (Ye who have endured worse things, God will grant an end even to these).