Political and External Affairs
CHAPTER 11 — Search for Unity
Search for Unity
ON 9 April 1940 the crash of Hitler's occupation of Denmark and Norway resounded through the world. It disturbed but did not destroy the sense of unreality in a war that was fought only at sea and that spasmodically. A month later the whole weight of German attack was thrown against the Dutch and Belgians, against the French, and against Britain's tiny Expeditionary Force. In a sense, wrote a thoughtful British patriot at the time,1 the shock was welcome: it blasted Britain from numbing acceptance of war without immediate challenge, in which initiative remained with the enemy, and in which Britain's own leadership could forecast no intelligible strategy of victory beyond soothing calculations of potential strength. Almost overnight the crisis became vivid, a struggle for life as well as for national values, a struggle to be entered with buoyancy and courage, and with that added fierceness that comes from calculated hope tinged with fear. It was a spiritual experience, a challenge to national revival as well as a military threat of the first magnitude.
1 Round Table, June 1940, p. 499.
The crisis of mid-1940, then, had only a temporary impact and in any case was partially muffled by distance. Its moral, however, was not obscure. The Commonwealth faced disaster, and New Zealand could not put less than her total resources into the scale. This meant total powers for the Government, and legislation in Britain provided the model. Though all-or almost all-could agree with such reasoning, the situation embodied a much less clear imperative to the community than in Britain; and the kind of action envisaged demanded sacrifices of principle from both the main parties. Was it proper to concede unlimited powers to a government which still frankly retained its party character ? Was some kind of joint administration possible? The answers to these questions were sought at leisure, along lines indicated by recent internal politics.
When the storm broke in Europe the political situation in New Zealand was relatively calm. Those elements in the Opposition that were soon to insist on revived party warfare were still not unduly prominent, and a potential swing towards the left in the Labour Party had been sharply arrested. By May 1940 that party was indeed a distinctly more conservative body than it had been eight months earlier. In this move away from radicalism the most important incident was not a result of the war. Though J. A. Lee had differences with the party leadership as to how the war should be waged, both their charges against him and his against them were mainly concerned with domestic issues. In other points, however, the purge of ‘extremists’ was directly due to the war. The Labour Party as it had emerged in the war of 1914-18 was to a considerable degree the party of those who, in the words which Toynbee uses to define a proletariat, were ‘in the community but not of it.’ This quality had of course been growing less and less pronounced both in Labour's later years of opposition and in its five years in office, during which it had realised many of the aspirations of those who had been discontented in 1935. In 1939, however, a small hard core of disaffection still remained, and the breach between this element and the majority was precipitated by the war. Here was an issue which divided the community into those who did and those who did not think that the status quo was sufficiently worth while for violence to be used in its defence. Just as the Government secured for its war policy the not too severely qualified support of many who found its peacetime programme too radical, so it encountered on this, as on no other issue, the opposition of the communists and of a minority page 130 of its own supporters whose thinking inclined towards Marxist or pacifist doctrine, or indeed retained the obstinate radicalism of which H. E. Holland had been an eloquent spokesman.
A pointer to the new situation had been given by Savage in a broadcast of 11 February 1940: ‘Freedom, such as we enjoy, breeds the truest patriots,’ he said, ‘but its genial climate permits also the growth of cranks, and ingrates; of dreamers of fantastic dreams; of ideological oddities and ne'er-do-wells; a diversity of creatures having this at least in common, the urge to propagate error1.’ Such reproaches had often been directed by the conservatively minded against Savage's followers and against Savage himself: it was eloquent of the tide that was running in the higher levels of New Zealand politics that he should now be employing them. After all, much that was fruitful, and more particularly much that was democratic, in British politics had been contributed by those castigated as cranks, dreamers of fantastic dreams, and ideological oddities. There were those at the time who felt that Labour's leadership was then being less than true to its own tradition; that in cutting free from a possible source of embarrassment it was also isolating itself from a reserve of courage and enterprise or at least of stimulus.
Also significant was the change in the fortunes of Mr C. G. Scrimgeour. He was a legacy from the depression, during which his session from a private radio station, The Friendly Road, was a feature of New Zealand politics; and his vogue was a symptom of the continuing power of depression-time mentality, well into the years of recovery and of war. With Labour's victory in 1935 he entered the government service as Director of Commercial Broadcasting, and his session continued. For many years he addressed Sunday night radio homilies to the ‘Man in the Street’ in which, in terms of a highly diluted Christianity (his signature tune was ‘The Stranger of Galilee’), he stressed the merits of a hardly less indefinite policy of social reform. These sessions gained a considerable audience in the New Zealand of the late ‘thirties and had, in their saccharinish way, a professedly radical flavour which was more typical of Savage than of his more hard-headed lieutenants. At the end of 1939 Savage had firmly defended Scrimgeour against the indignation of the farmers whom he was alleged to have slandered. When Savage died Scrimgeour delivered a memorial broadcast in which he remarked that the greatest tribute that could be paid to Mr Savage would be not to lose John Lee also. This was not the view of Savage's successor any more than it had been of Savage himself, and on the following Sunday Scrimgeour's sessions were suspended, at the request, it was said, of Fraser. Though he was back on the air again after a week the writing was on the wall for him.page 131
The changed tone was, indeed, made more noticeable by the death of Savage. There is not the slightest evidence that Fraser's ideas on social policy were any less progressive. But as the radical journal Tomorrow observed, ‘The death of Mr Savage has deprived the Labour Party of a leader who was popular not only with supporters of the party but with all those people who feel vaguely that some change in society is necessary. Mr Savage had the ability to inspire people with his confidence that the Labour Party could banish the evils of capitalism by social reform1.’ On the other hand, Peter Fraser might be expected to command more general confidence as wartime prime minister, and the reactions in the New Zealand press to his assumption of office were significantly cordial.
By the beginning of May the turbulence that accompanied these adjustments in the Labour movement was over, and it once more presented the appearance of unity. It was led by an able realist, whose wish for all-party co-operation in war-making was well known, and its relations with the National Party seemed better than at any time since the short-lived political truce after the outbreak of war. Although Hamilton had expressed uneasiness at the Government's delay in calling Parliament together, the other questions that were shortly to become so acute were for the time being below the horizon. The Nationalists were not pressing the conscription issue, and showed no desire for a coalition. Their decision not to contest the Auckland West seat left vacant by the death of Mr Savage was typical of improved relations. Indeed, there were some who felt the National Party was unduly supine. Mr E. R. Toop, president of the right-wing People's Movement founded in November 1939, complained that ‘The National Party is at present inarticulate as a Parliamentary Opposition2.’ It was, therefore, upon a tranquil political scene in New Zealand that the news of the German offensive in the west arrived on the evening of Friday, 10 May 1940.
1 Tomorrow, 3 Apr 1940.
New Zealand's effort to adjust her politics to the new situation was launched on the evening of Sunday 19 May, when statements by the two leaders began a week of bitter and confused controversy. On the one hand, Adam Hamilton as Leader of the Opposition vigorously associated the National Party with the criticism of government policy that had been expressed by various people and groups during the previous week. ‘The country,’ he said, was ‘becoming increasingly uneasy about the shilly-shallying of the Government and its apparent ineptitude in checking the fall of primary production and the drift in industrial and financial matters.’ The National Party had previously refrained from criticism as far as possible in order to enable the Government to devote its full attention to the war effort but this had been misunderstood, and ‘having been deprived of the opportunity of placing our views before the country in Parliament assembled in the usual constitutional way, the National Party will in future exercise its right to discuss publicly Government policy in relation to the war effort1.’ On the other hand, an oddly inept broadcast by the Prime Minister on the same night gave ammunition to those who said that New Zealand was in desperate need of effective leadership. There was little of inspiration in Fraser's generalities, or of challenge in his specific proposals. He announced that members of the Territorial Force would be given periods of training ranging from three to five months, and that new measures would be introduced to overcome the farm-labour shortage. These latter included a reduction of public works and an increase in subsidies to be paid to farmers who took on untrained men. One passage in his speech which was to arouse sharp criticism was a tribute ‘to the waterside workers at Lyttelton who had loaded an overseas liner on Saturday and Sunday when they realised it was essential work and those at Wanganui who had also worked during the weekend2.’ These were not the words the community was waiting for.page 133
Mr Fraser's speech was indeed pedestrian and wide of the mark for a leader who was usually acute in gauging the public mood; and his deficiencies on this occasion were highlighted by a comparison most difficult for any orator to sustain. On Monday morning by New Zealand time Mr Churchill made his first broadcast as Prime Minister. ‘After the battle in France abates its force then will come the battle for our island. For all that Britain is, and all that Britain means-that will be the struggle. In that supreme emergency we shall not hesitate to take every step, even the most drastic, to call forth from our people the last ounce or the last inch of effort of which they are capable. Interests of property and hours of labour are nothing compared to the struggle for life and honour, for right and freedom to which we have vowed ourselves1.’ In New Zealand, as in England, it was the oratory of Churchill that struck the right note for the urgent mood of May 1940.
In New Zealand, however, in the absence of actual and immediate danger this sense of urgency produced results notably less heroic than in England. The statements by Hamilton and Fraser touched off an explosion of anti-government criticism whose violence is explicable only in emotional terms: forces of opposition had been long pent up, and the shock of disaster in Europe was accentuated by the frustrating impossibility of doing anything but watch and listen. By Tuesday the 21st public opinion, or the newspapers and representative individuals who claimed to express it, was in full cry against the Government. In this campaign genuine patriotism seemed inextricably interwoven with political prejudice and economic interest. Much of the comment was frankly political in flavour on both sides. Hamilton gave the signal, wrote the Standard,2 and ‘within two days anti-Labour organisations in every part of the Dominion sprang into action, columns of anonymous letters attacking the Government filled the newspapers, all sorts of individuals notorious for their anti-Labour outlook were being interviewed by the newspapers, the Prime Minister was being lampooned in cartoons, and new organisations with Fascist ideas were coming into existence.’
2 Standard, 30 May 1940.
This meeting was large and emotional, and in the latter half of the week similar meetings organised by influential citizens in towns throughout the country demanded conscription, a coalition, the internment of all enemy aliens and the suppression of subversive propaganda. Sometimes anxiety touched on hysteria-particularly over the question of enemy aliens. Thus on 21 May a provincial paper observed that it would like to see an organised defence force in every town in New Zealand, armed and ready for any eventuality. Norway was captured by 1500 Nazis without the great forts at Oslo, considered impregnable in the event of an attack from the sea, firing a shot. It would be a tremendous blow to Britain if, at the moment, Australia and New Zealand fell to a blitzkrieg from within1.’ At one stage the Leader of the Opposition actually advocated the indiscriminate internment of all Germans,2 but more important than such eccentricities was the quality of the emotion generated around the mass meetings of the latter part of the week. That held at Wanganui on Friday, 24 May 1940, may serve as an example:
Remarkable evidence of the refusal by an overwhelming majority of New Zealanders to tolerate any discordant note in the demand for vigorous leadership and action in the present crisis was seen in Wanganui today at a great public meeting in the Opera House, convened by the Wanganui Branch of the Returned Soldiers' Association. When a motion calling on the Government to form a National Cabinet was submitted to the meeting two members of the audience attempted to move amendments. The vast majority of the audience, however, would have none of them and repeated attempts by the movers to speak were drowned by waves of cheering, booing and counting out.
The building was packed to the doors and many hundreds who were unable to gain admission stood outside and listened to the speeches through loud-speakers. Wanganui business men had agreed to close their premises for an hour to enable their staffs to attend the meeting. Upward of 200 returned soldiers, with the Wanganui Pipe Band, paraded at the Drill Hall to march in a procession to the Opera House, and 100 delegates to the Farmers’ Union conference also marched in fours behind the returned soldiers.3.
When all over New Zealand men 12,000 miles from threat of immediate attack behaved like this, sober assessment became difficult, and official spokesmen were bitterly criticised for complacency.
1 Taumarunui Press, 21 May 1940.
This uncharacteristic excitement mounted to a climax at the end of the week, stimulated by shocks of unprecedented character from overseas. New Zealand was watching with horror an unexampled dissolution of established securities. Later disasters were of even greater magnitude, and set new standards for fear and prolonged tension: the fall of France, the titanic drama of the German thrust and failure in Russia, the smashing of the American fleet at Pearl Harbour, the onrush of Japanese conquest, and the advent of the atomic age. In the perspective of 1940, however, the events of this third week in May acquired a truly catastrophic momentum. On Wednesday the 22nd the evening papers reported the German communique announcing that the French Ninth Army had been scattered and Arras, Amiens and Abbeville captured. On the following day came the news of the British Emergency Powers (Defence) Act placing all persons and property in the United Kingdom at the disposal of the State. On Friday the 24th it was revealed that the communications of the British Army in France were endangered.
On that day, as an emotional climax was being reached, the Government acted. In the morning the caucus of the parliamentary Labour Party met as had been arranged before the crisis broke. When it adjourned for lunch Fraser announced that Parliament was to meet on the following Thursday, 30 May, when legislation on the lines of the British Emergency Powers Bill would be introduced. Asked to explain the full significance of this statement, Fraser replied disingenuously that the meaning was quite clear. ‘All forms of property and institutions as well as every person in the Dominion, would be at the disposal of the country for the prosecution of New Zealand's war effort to a successful conclusion1.’ Similarly, when he was asked by the President of the RSA, William Perry, ‘Can I tell my executive this morning that the proposals to come before Parliament next week mean compulsory, universal, national service, civil, military, and financial?’ his reply was canny: ‘Yes, definitely, as required2.’ The Government was in fact adopting the British precedent as the best way out of a difficult situation. To take the widest possible powers and proclaim the intention of using them was, in the short run at least, an effective answer to those who complained of an insufficient war effort, but were less enthusiastic about increased state powers over property than about conscription of manpower. On the other hand, the comprehensive and vague character of the proposals was likely to sweeten the pill of conscription for members of the Labour Party.
The issue was now squarely raised. Over the weekend the external clamour abated, and behind closed doors cabinet and the Government defined its policy. The result was broadcast to the people by the Prime Minister on Sunday evening, 26 May. What he now had to say was very different both in content and in tone from what he had said just a week before. The difference was a reflection of the momentous events of that week and of the heat of agitation within New Zealand; and it showed a new strength in leadership.
Finally the Prime Minister dealt with the home front. ‘Subversive propaganda’ would be suppressed. ‘People who malign the Allies will be stopped. The leaflets which have been flooding the Dominion have not done much harm, but the people and the Government are in no mood to stand any more of it, and we will put a stop to it. Anyone who stands in the way will be swept aside.’ At the same time the Government's more violent critics of the previous week were sharply rebuked. ‘The vituperative abuse that was poured forth came from those who have always been, and are, the bitterest opponents of the Government, and who have objected to every reform that has been enacted for the amelioration of the people of the Dominion …. The Government, returned by a majority of the people, … will not be overawed by clamour and will not give way to mob rule ….’ ‘Let the people remember,’ he added, ‘that we are not in a general election, but in a war to determine the future of civilisation. Let the criticism be keen; let the critics show a willingness to help; and let them do so in a friendly spirit of co-operation.’
The Prime Minister's broadcast left his critics not silent, but much less vociferous. It did in fact announce decisions that to some extent put their minds to rest on the questions which had been agitating them, and-equally important-this was done resolutely, confidently, and without any air of bowing before the storm. Indeed this manner was not unjustified. The public uproar of May 1940 helped to free the Prime Minister's hand by counterbalancing the effects of pressure from within the Labour Party. Without it the no-conscription pledge of two months earlier might have proved an inheritance very embarrassing sooner or later to the Government in its deployment of the country's manpower.
The following week brought even greater disasters in Europe: for the Belgian army surrendered, and it soon became clear that the British Expeditionary Force was endeavouring to escape from Dunkirk. Alarm at such news no longer converted itself into resentment towards the New Zealand Government, but it was in the shadow of unprecedented calamities abroad that Peter Fraser completed a delicate manoeuvre in internal politics. The new equilibrium established by his policy statements was subject to two obvious dangers. The first was that the Government's proposals, especially the implication of conscription and the admission of the Opposition page 138 to a share in administering the war effort, might have gone too far for the Labour movement outside Parliament. The second was that the offer of a war council might not have gone far enough for the Nationalists and that there might be in consequence a renewal of the agitation of the third week of May. The situation was precarious, and a false step might have produced political chaos.
The first danger proved the less serious. In the Labour Party, opposition to conscription had lost its diehard core earlier in the year, and even if it had not, it could hardly have stood against the storm now blowing. It is true that there were initial signs of hesitation. The Emergency Regulations Bill embodying the new powers passed through Parliament without difficulty, but during the debate in the House of Representatives most of the Labour speakers steered clear of the word ‘conscription’, and Clyde Carr's attitude no doubt reflected the regrets of many others. He supported the Bill but pinned his faith to the saving phrase ‘as required’, declaring that he did not believe conscription would be required and that he was utterly opposed to it.1 Regret, and even outright opposition were expressed, too, by speakers at the emergency conferences of the Federation of Labour and the Labour Party which were summoned (as had been promised would be done in such circumstances) in the first week of June. The traditional left-wing case, regarding war as an extension of the class-struggle and conscription as compulsion to fight the wrong enemy, did not go by default; it was expressed, answered with some vigour, and rejected by a great majority.
1 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 70.
2 Ibid., p.21.
3 Standard, 6 Jun 1940.
Fraser's dealings with the Nationalists were to prove much more difficult. The project of a war council, he said later, had been under consideration before there was any demand for a national government. He seems to have been particularly attracted by the opportunity it offered of giving a voice to economic groups not represented as such in Parliament.3 On the council, as proposed by Fraser to the Opposition on 28 May, there were to be six cabinet ministers and three members of the Opposition. Primary and secondary industries were each to be represented by an employers' and a workers' representative and there was to be one person nominated by the NZRSA and one returned soldier selected by the Government.4 The powers of the council were to be much the same as those eventually given to the War Cabinet.
2 Standard, 6 June 1940.
3 NZPD, Vol. 257, p.86.
6 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 37.
There was still pressure for a two-party cabinet, and negotiations continued. On 12 June, the morrow of Italy's entrance into the war, the caucus of the Labour Party broke through one of the main obstacles by approving an invitation to two Opposition members to act (without portfolio) on a War Cabinet with Government members. This War Cabinet was to deal only with service matters and its scope would thus have been less extensive than had been that proposed for the war council. It was still proposed to set up a war council, but ‘In the event of the War Cabinet being established the functions of the War Council will necessarily be consultative and advisory’.2. The new overture, however, was promptly rejected by the Nationalists; they had no taste for what Hamilton called an ‘uninspiring, cumbersome trinity of control and advice.’ Apart from their objections to the complicated division of powers and the withholding of portfolios from their representatives, they felt that ‘Because the all-important questions of production, finance, and man-power are completely excluded from the functions of the War Cabinet, its main purpose … is defeated3.’
1 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 34.
2 Fraser to Hamilton, 13 Jun 1940, quoted by Hamilton, NZPD, Vol. 257, pp. 168–9. The War Council was set up on 18 June. Its 14 members did not include any Nationalist representatives, though Fraser said the invitation to them to nominate three still stood.— Christchurch Press, 19 Jun 1940.
3 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 168.
Negotiations continued, however, among those who wished so far as possible to eliminate party politics from matters concerning the war, and on 16 July Fraser was able to announce the formation of a War Cabinet consisting of Coates, Hamilton, Jones, Nash and himself. Its scope was not to be restricted to the services but it was also to make decisions concerning ‘production for war purposes, war finance requirements, emergency regulations so far as they apply to the war effort and generally to implement the policy of Parliament in relation to New Zealand's participation in the war3.’ Nationalist objections to the earlier proposal had been met by a formal extension of the War Cabinet's powers; but it was clear that the domestic cabinet was to function as before for matters not directly connected with the war effort. Moreover, despite Opposition criticisms, the war council, now an advisory body, had been set up as planned.
1 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 205.
2 Ibid., p. 207.
3 Ibid., p. 512.
Increased governmental powers were associated by many people with the notion of a ‘national’ government. On 26 May the Prime Minister had clearly foreshadowed the Opposition's participation in administration, and the complex negotiations that followed were concerned to define this participation in terms effective enough to satisfy the Government's opponents, without causing too sharp a reaction from the Government's supporters. The upshot was a War Cabinet, a domestic cabinet, and a war council: an illogical and potentially disastrous arrangement. At an early stage in negotiations, however, Fraser had argued powerfully that the effectiveness of such institutions depended less upon their formal character and relationships than on the men who composed them and the purpose which they strove to fulfil;2 and the new War Cabinet brought together men for whom logic was subordinate to work to be done. Long before negotiations were successful, Gordon Coates had made a moving statement on the floor of the House. He said frankly that by all the rules of party warfare he ought to regard Peter Fraser as his bitterest opponent, and think of him with keen resentment, but in fact he could find no such resentment in his heart, and thought that the Prime Minister had given a fine lead to the country. Criticism could and did follow; but the war effort took precedence.3 With leaders on both sides often—though not always—able to take such an attitude, the War Cabinet worked effectively. As had perhaps been anticipated, its field of activity widened as the needs of the war effort came more and more to dominate New Zealand's life. In March 1942, for example, the Prime Minister said that ‘90 per cent of the country's administration was now in the hands of the War Cabinet4.’ In that cabinet two leading members of the Opposition were of course full members, and there is reason to believe not only that party considerations were generally eliminated from its proceedings, but that relations between it and the Government cabinet were surprisingly good.5
2 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 171.
3 Ibid., p. 57 (31 May 1940).
5 Cf. NZPD, Vol. 259, p. 83 (March 1941).
Since the defeat of 1938 there had been signs that powerful elements within the party felt that Coates and Hamilton were irretrievably involved in the public mind with the ‘depression government’ of 1931–35, and that the National Party would never return to office until it was led by men untainted by association with the disastrous past. This tendency had its implications on the question of collaboration between the Government and the Opposition. In spite of their attacks on men and measures, it was clear that Coates and Hamilton would respond readily to any appeal to place national before party interests, that their personal experience of office in times of crisis strongly disposed them towards the kind of co-operation which ministers like Fraser so evidently desired. On the other hand the younger men in the parliamentary party reflected the new trend, were unsubdued by senior office, and their adherence to the principles of economic laissez-faire had not been compromised by experience of the needs of depression administration and consequent adventures in state control.
2 NZPD, Vol. 257, p. 574; Press, 19 Jul 1940.
3 Press, 19 Jul 1940
Such reports were denied, yet they gave an indication of trends. The achievement of a two-party War Cabinet was a Pyrrhic victory for the ‘old guard’ of the National Party; it represented a type of co-operation which that party was about to repudiate. Accordingly, it achieved less than had been looked for by the Prime Minister and the then Leader of the Opposition alike. Yet it proved an efficient instrument of New Zealand's will to fight.