In part one, I asked how the New Zealand Labour Party (NZLP) in the 1930s had avoided the mistakes of their British counterpart under Ramsay MacDonald, and rejected the orthodox ‘austerity’ prescription for the Depression. I started by looking at the roles of Savage, Fraser and Nash. In part two, I also consider generational and culture factors.
I’ve argued previously that Ramsay MacDonald and his contemporaries’ fatal lack of engagement with how to manage a capitalist economy stemmed from a belief that their role was simply to usher in socialism when the conditions were right. As it turns out, NZLP leader Harry Holland suffered from the same mindset, according his biographer Patrick O’Farrell:
It was as if Holland was afflicted with that malaise which, according to [Rex] Mason [writing to Nash], had overtaken ‘most of our men’ in 1929: the idea that ‘victory will come from a concurrence of favourable external circumstances rather than from our own efforts’. Holland did believe capitalism was collapsing. He also thought that the economic consequences of that collapse were beyond the power of even a Labour government to rectify immediately. To discharge its true mission Labour must await the final disintegration of capitalism and build anew from the ruins. To take office during the process of collapse was to risk a disastrous involvement in the wreck. But what of immediate problems, the human suffering occasioned by the collapse, the good will of the people? Could Labour neglect these? For Holland, here was an enervating, crippling dilemma. (O’Farrell, p. 177)
The histories of the period recount both tensions between Holland and his three colleagues over policy directions and also a certain degree of disengagement from the weary Holland. In any case, however, he died suddenly in 1933 and it was Savage who lead the NZLP to victory in 1935.
Holland was only two year younger than Ramsay MacDonald, whereas Savage was six years younger, and Nash and Fraser were sixteen and eighteen years younger, respectively. They brought different experiences and perspectives to bear in the development of the NZLP’s policy.
There is also some possibility that New Zealand’s specific history and political culture may have had an affect. Bassett and King note (p. 121) Fraser’s “faith in the capacity of governments to fix social problems”. As early as 1927-8 they describe him (p. 114) as “honing his skills as a social engineer” and making speeches that “displayed a faith in the government’s ability to legislate and regulate for the public good”. More generally, they say the NZLP leadership of the time “became more extravagant with promises of state assistance to all sectors of the community” (ibid.).
Rather than being unique to the NZLP, though, such tendencies reflects what, according to Gary Hawke, is a general New Zealand trait:
New Zealand governments carried the principle [that governments legitimately intervened on behalf of the weak and powerless] so far as to leave doubt over whether there was any area in which the government did not have a genuine interest.
. . . Central government was always accessible and the colonial instinct was to use its powers and institutions wherever they were likely to be useful, irrespective of European ideas of propriety. European observers thought that New Zealanders practised socialism without doctrines, but they thought in European terms. New Zealanders simply found new roles for government in a pioneering society. (Hawke, quoted in James, p. 13)
Perhaps it was this Kiwi pragmatism that impelled the 1930s generation of Labour leaders to turn their considerable intellects to how the state could be used to fix the economic problems of the day, in a realistic and achievable way.
But the simplest answer to the question of what made New Zealand Labour different is: Savage, Fraser and Nash.
That this success lay so much with individuals and not institutions may in some way explain why the next major crisis, in the 1980s, was not handled so well.
- Michael Bassett and Michael King, Tomorrow Comes The Song: A Life of Peter Fraser (2000).
- P. J. O’Farrell, Harry Holland: militant socialist (1964).
- Colin James, The Quiet Revolution: Turbulence and Transition in Contemporary New Zealand (1986).