|Consensus Politician: Following his victory in the 1960 general election, National’s second prime minister, Keith Holyoake, stretched himself out like a smug family cat over the sunny years of the early 1960s and purred.|
THERE’S A STORY about the National Party that always struck me as important. It concerns National’s most successful leader, Keith Holyoake.
The year was 1938 and Holyoake was fighting to retain his Motueka seat. It was a particularly bitter campaign. After three years in office the Labour Party was seeking re-election on the strength of its impressive record of achievements and the promise of a radically expanded welfare state. National’s leader, Adam Hamilton, had described Labour’s legislation (due to come into force in April 1939) as “applied lunacy”. Labour’s Mickey Savage had responded by calling it “applied Christianity”. Everybody understood that an awful lot was at stake.
Even in the predominantly agricultural Motueka electorate, voters were keyed-up and anxious about the Election’s outcome.
Workers feared a return to the desperate conditions of the Great Depression’s worst years. The years when the main cities were convulsed by riots and unemployed men were sent to the hated “hunger camps” – where they toiled in remote locations to keep the Government’s meagre “dole” flowing to their families. So bitter was the social climate in those days, that a rumour claiming a right-wing MP had told the unemployed to “eat grass” was widely believed.
The idea of going back to those times inspired a dangerous mixture of panic and rage. When Holyoake turned up to an election meeting in Motueka he was greeted by an angry crowd of Labour supporters. Struggling to enter the hall he was showered with spittle.
Most people who are spat on generally emerge from the ordeal hating the spitters. It is to Holyoake’s eternal credit that he did not respond in this way. Instead, he pondered upon the intense fear and loathing that must have inspired it. He asked himself how bad things must have got; how much suffering people must have endured; to provoke such uncouth behaviour? Most importantly, he asked himself how the National Party could ever hope to be elected while people continued to believe that its members had once told desperate men and women to “eat grass”?
It took National many years to live down its association with the “Hungry 30s”. Indeed, it was not until National abandoned its plans to roll back Savage’s welfare state that the electorate was willing to vote it into office. Not that this concession signalled a softening of National’s intense hatred for the labour movement. Barely a year into its first three-year term, the National Government, led by Sid Holland (a former member of the proto-fascist New Zealand Legion) had plunged New Zealand into the “temporary tyranny” of the 1951 Emergency Regulations – promulgated to crush the staunchly left-wing Waterside Workers Union and its allies.
Through all this class conflict and Cold War paranoia, Holyoake held fast to his vision of a very different National Party. Conservative, yes, but not reactionary in the vicious tradition of Hamilton and Holland.
Recognising that a shift towards an accommodative conservatism was National’s only ticket to long-term survival, Holyoake’s caucus colleagues elected him to lead the party into the 1957 general election. National lost – but only very narrowly. By 1960 New Zealand was ready for Holyoake, and Holyoake was ready for New Zealand.
Thirteen years ago, I wrote: “Following his victory in the 1960 general election, National’s second prime minister, Keith Holyoake, stretched himself out like a smug family cat over the sunny years of the early 1960s and purred.”
Not that it was all plain sailing. There was a war to support (although not too strongly) in Vietnam, and a balance-of-payments crisis to be overcome. But, through it all “Kiwi Keith” remained the amusingly “plummy”, but always accessible, first minister of the “Half-Gallon, Quarter-Acre, Pavlova Paradise”.
Over the course of National’s twelve-years in office (yep, twelve!) the spat-upon man of 1938 oversaw New Zealand’s consolidation into a “property-owning democracy” of unparalleled prosperity and security.
As New Zealand’s most successful party, National is prone to forgetting how it became so, and what sort of leader is required to keep it so. For every Keith Holyoake, Jim Bolger and John Key, there’s a Sid Holland, Rob Muldoon and Jenny Shipley. For every leader who understands that a party calling itself “National” must govern “for every New Zealander”, there’s another drawn, irresistibly, to the sort of policies that make working-class voters want to spit on its candidates.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 27 November 2020.