Trying to Understand Dr Sutch

Revised Version of the paper in the Stout Research Centre Seminar Series, Wednesday 2 September 1998.

Keywords History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy; Political Economy & History

William Ball Sutch, publicly known as “Dr Sutch” and privately as “Bill”, could be remembered as one of a handful of public servants who shaped economic and social policy between the 1930s and the 1960s, to become the father of the export diversification of the 1970s; he should be remembered for his contribution to the early years of the United Nations, especially in the creation of an independent international public service, and the continuation of UNICEF; he will be remembered for being tried and acquitted under the Official Secrets Act; he must be remembered as an intellectual who set down a distinctive and influential vision of New Zealand’s economic and social development.

Fred Turnovsky describes him as “one of the most enigmatic personalities among prominent New Zealanders”, and devotes a chapter of his biography to personal reminiscences about Sutch.(1) He remarks of this enigma “perhaps it is for this reason nobody has attempted to write his biography.” There are a couple of other chapters in books which are biographical: Jack Shallcrass in the Sutch festschrift, and Jack Marshall in his memoirs; there are theses on particular aspects of Sutch’s life; there are two learned papers on his economics by Tony Endres and Brent McClintock; references to Sutch appear in just about every book on New Zealand economic and political life between 1933 and 1975, and in many personal memoirs and contemporary papers; and there are the 1000 odd items he published, some of which contain personal reminiscences.

So there is no shortage of material on Sutch’s life, although it is not comprehensive. But it is not so much he was enigmatic that has discouraged a major biography in the first quarter of century since he died. Rather his life was so complicated, that the sheer enormity of the task is a deterrence. In one sense any person’s biography can be summarised by X was born, died, and did various things in between. Sutch was involved in so many things that the winnowing them down is a challenge, and almost certainly some are so important or interesting that any normal biographer will get diverted into a detailed reportage the event deserves. For instance would any biographer want to leave out the Benedict Alper’s eyewitness account of Sutch’s role in preserving UNICEF, an achievement on the world stage which overshadows anything he did in New Zealand. Alper’s comments the incident was so important, that Sutch (and New Zealand) were entitled to share the glory when UNICEF was awarded a Nobel prize in 1965.

Then there is the security problem, which culminated in the arrest and trial at the end of his life, but a suspicion of being a security problem seems to have hung over him from the late 1930s, despite the fact that there is remarkably little evidence. It may be that the issue will be resolved by an investigation of security records in Washington, Moscow, and Wellington. (Ironically, the Wellington ones may be hardest to obtain.) I am a pessimist. It seems likely the records will be sufficiently ambiguous, confused and incomplete to leave future generations almost as divided as to what happened as we are today.

It is not only that New Zealanders are divided on Sutch and the security issue. Historians are divided about his contribution, economists are divided, there is a division between the political left and right, and even within the left. And of course Sutch divided New Zealand’s options into nationalists and colonialists, and while the latter name may be too derogatory to stick, the strategic differences over New Zealand’s place in the world are real ones. Sutch is not only a person. He is a symbol – a metaphor – on how to think about New Zealand.

One of the complications. which will make Sutch’s biography almost unique among New Zealanders, is that he was an intellectual rich in ideas of contemporary relevance, that he lived out those ideas, and that they will have to be written into the story. Sutch’s life was not just that a path of one man, it is a symbol of issues which confront New Zealand. While intellectual cogitation a New Zealand strength, his life forces us to face up to some key ideas.

To some extent the security issue is seen by its proponents as the king-hit. There are those who think that if they can prove he was receiving Russian gold or whatever, Sutch’s ideas can be repudiated. Similarly there are those who believe that it was a security service conspiracy, which will justify Sutch’s ideas. Ad hominem may rule in New Zealand, but it does not dismiss the fundamentals.

Inevitably then, it was with some reservations that I accepted the invitation of the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography to contribute the entry on Sutch, an acceptance only because better qualified candidates were unable or unwilling to take on the task.

I originally thought Pember Reeves had the greatest parallels to Sutch, and I tried to write an essay similar in style to Keith Sinclair’s entry on Reeves in the DNZB . But Sinclair had the advantage of an existing biography (which he had written) and more space. In any case I am no Sinclair, and Reeves is no Sutch. Other suggested parallels would be welcome. They are unlikely to come from New Zealand.

Of the two major essays on Sutch’s lives, Shallcrass’s is largely favourable. I have spent more time thinking about the Marshall one. Marshall, who was Sutch’s minister for less than five years devotes nine pages to Sutch. He gives Keith Holyoake, with whom he shared a caucus for 27 years, 18 of them in cabinet, only seven pages – which tells something about how dominant Sutch is compared to his contemporaries. Of Holyoake, Marshall concludes he said that the profile had to be a “dispassionate assessment” to be of “any historical value.”(2) One assumes he had a similar intention with Sutch, and the text appears to be written in a cool disinterested style of a lawyer. It comes to a damning assessment of Sutch, which I will report. But first I want to go through some of Marshall’s commentary to enable an assessment of how really dispassionate Marshal’s judgement was. Sutch’s wife, Shirley Smith, has written a letter drawing attention to various errors in Marshall’s account. I want here to deal with even more substantive issues.

For example. Marshall writes

“In 1934 Sutch was involved in forming the Wellington Fabian Society. It was an incongruous situation in which he was expected to advise his ministers how they could revive the capitalist economy when he himself believed that the capitalist system had failed and that socialism was the answer.”(3)

Marshall gives no citation for the Fabian story: the memoir does not give any sources. I know of only one source this Fabian story. Sutch footnoted in the second edition of The Quest for Security

“In February 1934 a Wellington Fabian Society was formed with the sole purpose of inviting George Bernard Shaw to give a public address. The moving spirit was R.M. Campbell (the writer assisted). Both of us were on the staff of J.G. Coates, who we told of our actions; and Peter Fraser readily cooperated.”(4)

Dick Campbell became Public Service Commissioner, and was hardly the subversive Marshall is portraying Sutch. The book was published while Campbell was still alive, and as far as I know he did not contradict Sutch’s account. Until we have evidence to the contrary, it may be taken as accurate. While there are a number of explanations of why Marshall had not been deliberately deceitful – perhaps he was relying on memory and had forgotten the references to Campbell and Coates – at the very least we are left with the impression that the text is not quite the careful lawyer’s brief it purports to be.

Moreover, Marshall has failed to pick up a vital signal. If Sutch was a Fabian, he was unlikely to be a Marxist, because Fabians and Marxists had long been in bitter conflict. Not untypically of so much writing of a right-wing perspective, Marshall lumps all left-wing activity in the same anti-capitalist camp, without attempting to understand the distinction. He fails to understand the difference between the revolutionary approach of Marxist, and evolutionary approach of the Fabians, which meant working within and steadily modifying capitalism, Democratic socialists could argue they have been far more effective in opposing totalitarian Marxists than the right (and complain bitterly that they have been least effective when the right and the Marxists have simultaneously attacked them).

Marshall makes exactly the same mistake a page later when he reports that Peter Fraser refused to allow Sutch’s contribution to the 1940 centennial series to be published because “[it] had too much of a Marxist flavour for him.”(5) There is a number of accounts of this event, but none of the others I have seen specifically mention Marxism as the problem.(6) Sutch seems to have gone outside the remit set for him – it was meant to be just on social services, and to have especially irritated Fraser by recalling events in Fraser’s radical past and covering contemporary events. But that is not the same as Marxism.

If I way be allowed a personal intrusion, I long believed that Sutch was strongly influenced by Karl Marx, and have spent much time looking for evidence. In particular I thought that perhaps Sutch was influenced by the 1844 manuscripts, first published in 1932, which have Marx at his most lyrical. I assumed that Sutch was deviously hiding Marx’s impact. The only support I could find was that the second edition of The Quest for Security has a picture of the Featherston Street riot of 1913 on the cover, which can easily be interpretation a class struggle terms. But as Sinclair shows of Reeves, one could think there was a class struggle without being a Marxist. British thinkers had a account of a class struggle before, and so independently, of Marx.

Some of my attempts to nail Sutch have their humorous side. I went through his book case at home, and yes there are texts by Marx in it, but some had the name of his father-in-law, Sir David Smith, on the fly leaf. Sir David, a judge of the high court, was unlikely to be a Marxist. More probably he was an intelligent concerned intellectual, interested in important ideas of the day.

It is clear that Sutch was fascinated by and a supporter of the Soviet Union, long after many leftists had become disillusioned. (So was Bernard Shaw.) But seeing the Soviet Union as a bulwark against the worst of capitalism or American imperialism does not make one a Marxist. It is also true that Sutch had friends who were Marxists or were members of the Communist Party, including his wife, whose active membership lapsed in 1945. Sutch was a friend of leftists such as Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy, who were editors of The Monthly Review for which Sutch wrote in the 1950s. He seems to have been trailed by the FBI when he visited Huberman in New York. In cold war parlance Huberman was a “communist” and therefore Sutch was too. But that does not get us far.

Ii is very unlikely that Sutch was never a member of the Communist Party. His wife tells of attempting to get him to join her in the party in 1939. Sutch forcefully explained that “he had never belonged to any party, that he would never be told by anyone what to think he would never follow any party line.” One wonders whether he was ever even a member of the Labour Party despite his saying he was in 1940 in the Scrim-Lee papers.(7) Tony Simpson never had a chance to check the transcript with Sutch, and it is possible it was a slip for “Labour government”.(8) Not that it matters, for the Labour party was not as intellectually controlling. Sutch’s views on such matters are probably captured in the continuation of the comment on the short-lived Fabian group when he mentions a number of British Fabians who “stressed the value of independent research as a guide to any political party wishing for social and economic reform.”(9)

Even had Sutch been a member of the Communist Party at some time in his life, that would mean no more than he went through a phase like many intellectuals of his generation. I suppose the really interesting question is why he had never joined in the 1930s. Shirley Smith provides one. answer. On the other hand to find, say, Das Kapital with Sutch’s comments scrawled in the margins would be very exciting. I do not think we shall, although – like his father-in-law – Sutch probably read Marx as he read many other writers. Sutch drew on many sources for his thinking. The best summary of his foundations may be that like British Socialism, Bill Sutch was more influenced by Methodism than by Marx. His mother and father (both craftspeople) had been active Methodists and help found the local Methodist church. Here is Sutch talking in 1971

[I came from a] “North of England background which was one of carefulness of saving, of good behaviour, of hard work and respect for the products of man’s skills that’s hard to disentangle because the Methodists have the same views. Now at the Methodist level you have two parts to this. One was the behaviour of one that you refer to. Now I don’t smoke or drink or swear and these are the things no doubt you’re referring to but this is not just a behaviouristic sort of thing. This is respect for the human body and this is what we were taught. The human body was a temple for us to respect. So there’s more in it than these external things. Now the second aspect of the Methodist upbringing was here were we in Bible class at the age of 17, 18, 19. You were going to university and bible class was our free discussion club. The Methodists encouraged us to be sceptical, to question for just as the Baptists began by departing from the Anglicans in years gone by here they were willing to take their logic further and examine things like the Virgin birth things like walking on the water & all those … but more than that. What was the — with man in society what was his obligation to his neighbours? We thrashed this one through — neighbour — myself. Now all this came out of the way what you might today call my teens.”(10)

This methodist-socialism was probably evolved via reading the Fabians and the British utopians such as William Morris and Edward Bellamy. (I am struck by how his proposals for local government reform in 1964 resonate with Fabianism.)

There were other influences, which explain why sometimes he appears to be Marxist. That lyricism which his writing occasionally reveals may have come from his mother who read William Morris, the anthropologists Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict, who influenced him at Columbia University, and the Wellington cultural community he rejoined in the 1930s. (We know he was reading D.H. Lawrence.) Brent McClintock thinks some of the seeds of his economic ideas came from Barney Murphy, his first economics teacher, although he would not put too much weight on that. Perhaps that is why he sought a fellowship at Columbia University in 1931.

Assuredly he was greatly influenced by Columbia University, which was the top US economics university in the interwar period. In those day the dominant US economics paradigm was “institutional economics”, with a policy implication of the social control of industry. (John Kenneth Galbraith is the most widely known modern institutionalist.) McClintock shows that Sutch was an institutionalist in this sense. There are two points to be made here. First, institutionalism is very different from today’s dominant economic paradigm neo-classical synthesis, or the more recent economic rationalism version. To understand Sutch one has to get inside the old paradigm, and not just assume that because Sutch was not trained as a modern neo-classical economist, he has nothing interesting to say. Second, institutionalism – like much US thought – was heavily influenced by German philosophy, the philosophy on which Marxism was based, so one would expect some apparent Marxist influences on Sutch’s thinking. And in case, Marxism was not as independent of the rest of the social sciences in the 1930s, as it became after the Cold War began.

A further major impact may have been the staples theory of Canadian Harold Innis. Certainly Sutch had a staples theory for New Zealand by 1949, when he described New Zealand as a monoculture based on processed grass.(11) When the bits of the pre-settlement Maori economy, and the early unsustainable quarry were added to this story we do not know, nor do we know when Sutch recognized New Zealand was also mono-cultural in terms of its colonial dependency upon the single market of Britain.

Did Sutch invent the underlying political economic ideas totally independently of Innis, or did some Canadian talked to him about them, say when he was in New York after 1946? Staples theory gives a materialistic account of economic development. If there is any single Marxist notion Sutch adopted it was the praxis embodied in that last thesis on Feurbach: “philosophers try to understand the world: the point is to change it.” His economic policies of the 1950s and early 1960s were focused on ending the monoculture. His policies and polemics gave part of the impetus to the spectacular external diversion which started after he left office, but which were not really evident at the time he died in 1975.

Sutch’s thinking did not stagnate with age, although in most areas there is a continuity between the young and old Sutch. One major break may have been his view of New Zealand in relation to the rest of the world. In 1944 he described himself in an unpublished manuscript as an “Englishman” which seems extraordinary for someone who two decades later gave New Zealanders the stark choice between “colony or nation”. The Englishman title is perhaps not so surprising for someone whose parents were born in England, and whose early political influences were probably British socialism. In fact he thought New Zealand was better England – without the archaic traditions and class which held the old country back – a New Zealand vision of itself that goes back to the earliest planned settlements. Why and when Sutch changed his views is not yet known.

And yet how much did he change his views? As a republican, I was initially disbelieving when it was reported Sutch sought a knighthood. But then I realised that I was stuffing him into my model of national independence (just as Marshall stuffs him into a fellow traveller status). What one should be doing as listening to this as evidence for the sort of nationalist he was. (When the other great nationalist historian, Keith Sinclair, was given a knighthood in 1985 there was no parallel outcry.)

Sutch was cryptic throughout his life as what he thought was the best economic and social system. The interview with Tony Simpson in the early 1970s includes:

“But you must bear in mind that the Labour mandate in 1935 wasn’t a socialist mandate. It was a mandate to have an economics and social system that what would work in terms of the happenings that occurred to every man and woman, namely sickness, unemployment, age, poverty, housing, fluctuating prices. It was a political response and though the Labour Party had what was called a “socialist background” and there were one or two socialists in it, it was not a socialist policy, unless of course you use the terms of my friend John Lee, who talked in terms of these things being socialist.”

“Now I may be the odd man out in this because I find that the present Labour Party also talks in terms of any ameliorative process that assists the rank and file of this country as socialism. That’s why I begin by saying this is a definition of socialism, but it wasn’t any of the definitions I knew because the essence of every definition I knew was that socialism at least was non-capitalism. And this country was of course a capitalist country.”(12)

Here Sutch is discussing – in a very positivist way – the political philosophy of the first Labour Government, but in doing so he defines a key feature of socialism as non-capitalism.

However was he a socialist in terms of his own definition? In the radio interview he said

“[O]nce upon a time somebody asked Bernard Shaw what to do to be a good socialist. Bernard Shaw said “what are you” and he said “I’m a carpenter”. “Well be a good carpenter.” Now I’ve never forgotten that and whatever a socialist may be I believe one can make a very big contribution in doing what you can do well. What I can do well other people can say – I sometimes think it’s only gardening – but for whatever skills I have I make my contribution, I think, through them.”

So here we have the impact of the major Fabian writer on Sutch. The implication that a socialist society was to be judged by how people behaved and were able to behave. The institutions – such as embodied in the classic statement of “the public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchanges” were means to an end. Possibly following the teaching by Maurice Clark at Columbia, Sutch may have thought “social control” was more important than “social ownership”, although of course ownership is one means of control.

If we look at the policies Sutch promoted after he retired when he is no longer responding to his political masters, we find similar themes as when he advised National and Labour governments. Basically it is an activist government pursuing social welfare for all, using the capitalist system (which I take to mean for Sutch private ownership with market transactions), a notion seems to be similar to that which “his friend” Lee was advocating. One cannot rule that Sutch may have been a socialist in terms of the notion anti-capitalist when he was much younger, and he certainly thought capitalism without some sort of social control had failed or will fail. He probably objected strongly to uncontrolled private monopolies. On the basis of dispassionate analysis it is hard to say more. If this is a correct account of his views, it reinforces the suspicion he was heavily influenced by British Fabianism. In which case, he was an incrementalist.

The problem of assessing Sutch’s views is that he was a participant, activist, commentator and historian in the events of his lifetime, sometimes all at once. It is difficult to disentangle the various roles. I wager than when we have the collected works of Sutch there will remain room for dispute, sometimes because the disputants have their own agendas.

Consider Sinclair’s “The Lee-Sutch Syndrome: New Zealand Labour Party Policies and Politics, 1930-1940”. Sutch’s sin is that his 1966 edition of The Quest for Security relies too heavily upon Lee’s self-serving account of some events. Sinclair, with access to the Nash papers, corrects the error. Unfortunately, near the end of his life, harassed by the trial, and sick, Sutch never replied so we do not know whether he would have conceded Sinclair’s points in a third edition.

However, Sinclair makes a deviation himself, when he accuses Sutch of “writing history backwards”, in that the first (1942) edition of The Quest does not mention industrialisation, but the second (1966) edition does. Sinclair describes industrialisation as the chief issue in the additional sections. While Sinclair hardly increased the content of his existing chapter when he revised The History of New Zealand ,(13) Sutch doubled his text up to 1940. Much of the additional material is not about industrialisation, but about social welfare. In any case the remit for the Centennial Series publication out of which the first edition developed was not about industry, and Sutch had already got into trouble for exceeding it. Now, I do not criticize Sinclair for his error. The point is we all make mistakes, which are then corrected by future historians, as in the case of Sinclair not being aware of the restrictions on the first edition of The Quest .

One cannot help wondering whether Sinclair’s intensely competitive nature deemed Sutch a threat to his hegemony as a historian. (It would not be surprising if Sutch reciprocated.) Such venial disputes pale into the past. What is important is that Sinclair and Sutch were offering quite different approaches to history: Sinclair more biographical and political; Sutch more social and economic. What exactly was Sinclair’s methodology – other than to tell a good story well and his nationalism – has yet to be evaluated. Sutch’s was in the general area of political economy in which material circumstances – especially external and technological change drove domestic social and political change. We need both approaches. It would be a pity if Sutch’s over-reliance on Lee, and Sinclair’s misunderstanding of the historical circumstances of Sutch’s earlier books, meant that we discarded the important methodological tradition in which Sutch writes.

One foible of Sutch, which complicates his story is his sense of humour. A reserved man, it might have seemed he had not got one. I do not know of a single piece of deliberately humorous writing. In fact the humour was often deadpan, and relied on a degree of specialised knowledge. His byline writing in the 1930s for Tomorrow on land questions was George Henry. (The title of Poverty and Progress also has deliberate references to Henry George. George was not strictly a Fabian but influenced them and New Zealand land policy greatly in the latter part of the nineteenth century.) Sutch’s pseudonym for his Here and Now Washington letter, actually written in Wellington, was William McChesney Martin, the same as the chair of the Federal Reserve.

This humour could get him into trouble. Turnovsky records that Sutch told him that his Brooklyn garden involved imported plants from many parts of the world. They may have been exotic, but they came via nursery in New Plymouth. Sutch went on, so Turnovsky tells us, that to “overcome the stringent restrictions on the importation of exotic plants, [he] contrived to have his garden declared a quarantine area subject to a regular inspection by quarantine officers! Again, he told me this with an innocent air, as though there were nothing untoward in a senior government official claiming a privilege well beyond the reach of ordinary mortals.”(14) Given the biological impossibility of making the Sutch garden, perched on the side of a hill, a quarantine area, I take it Turnovsky was not aware that even senior government officials claimed joined in the national privilege of pulling other mortals’ legs.

Returning to Marshall’s essay, its writer is absolutely convinced that Sutch is a communist or near communist in a cold warrior sense. It is clear from the security reports given to Marshall when he was Sutch’s minister (and possibly when he was prime-minister in 1972), that any evidence of Sutch’s communist connections was limited and very circumstantial, despite ongoing passive surveillance. The failure of the Crown to provide any significant evidence at the 1975 trial supports this view. Marshall plays any circumstantial evidence for all it is worth. Sutch made visits to “the home of a member of the Communist Party, but no more than that.” There were, says Marshall, allegations of him being a communist, but “there was no positive proof”. However there was “the final act of folly which, at last, gave hard evidence of his communist sympathies and in more ways than one, exposed his double life.”

I can add nothing new to the story of the 1974 arrest and 1975 trial, for there are no new facts. Marshall makes various wild allegations. For instance, right from the beginning it has puzzled me as to what information Sutch would have had which could have been passed on the Soviets and which would have betrayed New Zealand. After all he had been out of government for nine years, except that he was by then chairperson of the Queen Elizabeth Arts Council. (It is possible the Bolshoi was interested in new moves developed by the New Zealand Ballet, perhaps based on the All Black’s latest lineout strategy.) Marshall speculates it was commercial information (what?) or that he was passing on official information from a mole (who?). In any case, is it usual for this sort of information to be passed from person to person on as regular basis? Is it not usual to drop it?

Marshall hides his cold warrior irrationality behind a cloak of lawyerly sweet reasonableness, Fundamentally he is a prosecuting lawyer, with a rather thin case, perhaps hoping that by getting the defendant in the dock the truth would be revealed. As to be expected his successor, Rob Muldoon, went for the throat, when he claimed Sutch was “as guilty as sin.” None of the niceties here: no notice that a New Zealand jury had acquitted Sutch under a law that was so general that virtually any transfer of trivial information could be an infringement. The Jury showed a lot more commonsense than Muldoon who even forgot to mention the charge to which Sutch was allegedly guilty. (But given Muldoon had not, so the courts tell us, been too respectful of the 1689 Bill of Rights Act, why should the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act present a problem?)

As Marshall shows, if one knows the truth a priori, one can find evidence to support. This applies, as far as I can see, for most left and right wing accounts of the Sutch-Razgovorov encounters. If one comes to the events with an open mind, there is simply not enough data to make a useful judgement.

To make it clear, Sutch was meeting Razgovorov, and one cannot rule out that he was intending to pass “information” which seems most likely to have been his commentary of material in the public domain – say opinions about politicians. What Sutch thought he was doing this for, what Razgovorov was doing, I do not know. I think Sutch was foolish. There may be some credibility to the theory that towards the end of his life his judgement was poor, a view supported that his autopsy showed some atheroma of the brain.

I have spent some time working over the Marshall assessment because as Sutch’s DNZB essayist I was confronted with his summary of Sutch, and the challenge as what to do with it. Here are three examples:

“Dr W.B. Sutch, the Secretary of Industries and Commerce, was in a class by himself [compared to the other heads of departments with whom Marshall was working]: highly intelligent, very able, positive, imaginative, enthusiastic, dogmatic, provocative, controversial, devious, politically suspect, and not to be trusted.”(15)

“On the surface he appeared to be an alert, positive, active, dedicated public servant, serving his political masters with eager enthusiasms and giving advice which was constructive, creative, and persuasive: but those who penetrated the facade, as I did during the years he was with me, found a strange, frustrated, arrogant, secretive man with a brilliant quicksilver mind, facile, ingenious crafty, devious, deceitful.”(16)

“… in less controversial areas and within the confines of broad government policy, the innovative capacity of his fertile brain and his wide-ranging experience ensured that influence on decision making was considerable, but less than it might have been if he had not been so dogmatic in his views and arrogant in his manner. He was often at odds with his colleagues in the top level of government advisers and with professional and academic economists. but he was not without friends and admirers among people who might be described as intellectuals with left-wing leanings, and others who shared his cultural and community interests.”(17)

So the Marshall view is that Sutch was a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, with the latter rather dangerous (unless kept in check by a talented minister such as Marshall).

Some of the attributes attached to Sutch may be quickly dismissed: “facile” for instance.(18) The adjective which troubles me is that Sutch was “devious”. Certainly he was secretive, and the range and complexity of his thought made it difficult for lesser mortals to follow him, especially if he never wrote on the topic. For instance, he seems to have had a view on the role of an independent professional public service. To what extent this was out of line with the views of, say, Bernard Ashwin, Dick Campbell, and Alister McIntosh, I do not know. Each seems to have on some occasion thought it was. Whether this was because of his publishing commentary under pseudonyms while working for the government, or whether he was thought to leak (there is one unproved allegation in 1937), or perhaps he persisted with policies after his political masters and others had rejected them.(19)

Part of Marshall’s problem – part of all our problem with Sutch – was that his thinking was complex, compared to the average level of debate in New Zealand. That they evolved over time, adds to the difficulties of understanding them. Sutch had an unwavering conviction of the correctness of his views and of his policies, and continued to vigorously promoting them, long after lesser persons would have succumbed. Given a preference for praxis, rather than cerebral discussion, the certainty Sutch exhibited could be very frustrating.

Another part of Marshall’s problem was that he did not understand the intricacies of the politics of the left. Convinced that Sutch was a communist or fellow traveller, he cannot see how he could also serve the capitalist state, and assumes he must have been betraying it. With the ending of the cold war, if we are a little more relaxed and with a better understanding of the politics of the left, we may make further progress at understanding the man.

Let me be provocative by suggesting that “devious” is exactly the wrong attribute for Sutch. What strikes me when reviewing his story, is there is a kind of innocence in his approach. It is like a virgin regularly visiting a brothel. Observers jump to certain conclusions, but she is so confident of her chastity, that she cannot believe anyone could doubt she was only delivering religious tracts.

In his memories of Gordon Coates, Sutch recalls that Coates had a woman private secretary, a very unusual appointment in those days. Inevitably there were rumours of improprieties, and advice to dismiss her, but Sutch recounts that Coates ignored the gossip and the advice. Sutch commends him for doing what he believed was right, irrespective of what people thought. It was a virtue which Sutch obviously followed himself. But it exposed him to misunderstandings. Here are a some examples.

Sinclair reports that in 1937:

“There was a minor contretemps at the Polish-Russian border. Dr Sutch, whose tactlessness sometimes amounted to genius, had a Nazi flag and some Nazi literature in his bag. Their bags were searched, despite Nash’s protest that is was an infringement of his diplomatic status. However, Nash induced the Russians not to search the “diplomatic bags”, and he succeeded in placing Sutch’s bag with these.”(20)

What on earth did Sutch think he was doing? I suggest that he was so confident that he was not a fascist, that it never occurred to him that his possession of some nazi souvenirs could be taken as anything but a joke.

For another example, consider the story of Sutch on mission to New York with Nash, taking the day off to see some “communist” – probably Huberman or some other fried he met in his Columbia days – and being tailed by US security.(21)The story is one of naivety. He was doing nothing wrong. There is no US law which says one cannot visit others. But did he appreciate his innocent intentions could be misunderstood.

Third, is the example which first got me puzzling. Shirley Smith records that Sutch thought he was getting on well with Marshall as his minister.(22) Years later he even sent Marshall a note of sympathy when Muldoon replaced him. One may ask who was devious? Who was presenting a picture of an effective relationship, while plotting to end it?

Fourth, is the knighthood he sought in 1974. There would is no doubt if it had been awarded there would have been an uproar from friends and foes alike about the veracity of his Nationalism. Sutch does not seem to have anticipated this.

Perhaps the greatest display of innocence was that his intentions – of the “the most loyal New Zealander” as he was called at his trial – would not be misunderstood if he were to meet secretly with a Russian official. However, arguing that Sutch often behaved naively, is not to argue that he was never secretive and never pushed the rules to the limit or beyond. But there is that innocence, which offers some explanation of why he got involved in the meetings with Razgovorov, if not of their purpose. It simply did not occur to him, it was a stupid thing to do.

In the end I decided not to include any of Marshall’s adjectives in the DNZB , because either one had to incorporate the lot, and then take much of the limited space to explain why some seemed wrong, or select some and appear to be unfair to Marshall. I made the decision to omit Shallcrass’s more laudatory set of adjectives to offset the Marshall decision. I guess this paper is a mea culpa .

In the end Sutch cannot be summarised in a typical DNZB essay. Nor, is it likely that the enigma will be resolved in any of the eventual biographies, even those written when current cold war attitudes will seem quaint and archaic.


1. F. Turnovsky (1990:186-192).
2. Marshall (1989:150).
3. Marshall (1989:144).
4. Sutch (1996:338). * Sometime after this revision, I found Campbell’s account of the visit, which supports and elaborates Sutch’s. See B.H. Easton, The Nationbuilders, Endnote 24, p.129.
5. Marshall (1989:144-5).
6. Barrowman (1991:158-159) is probably the most authoritative account.
7. Simpson (1976:58).
8. Letter deposited by Shirley Smith in Alexander Turnbull Library, 14 November, 1989.
9. Sutch (1966:338).
10. Radio interview by Hamish Keith, 1971. Tape and rough transcription held in Radio Archives.
11. See Benedict Alper’s essay in Robson & Shallcrass (1975:216).
12. Simpson (1976:51).
13. Typically by not more than two pages per chapter, except for the period which occurred after the first edition.
14. Turnovsky (1990:120).
15. Marshall (1989:13).
16. Marshall (1989:143).
17. Marshall (1989:147-8).
18. The book was published after Marshall’s death. Standard editing, which would surely have confronted the author with this adjective, was not possible.
19. These examples are chosen, not only because they are said of Sutch, but because they all apply to Treasury officials in the 1980s, who were of a younger generation and of very different political persuasion.
20. Sinclair (1976:144).
21. This story, part of the oral tradition, is possibly alluded to by Marshall.
22. Letter deposited by Shirley Smith in Alexander Turnbull Library, 14 November, 1989.


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Endres (1986) “The Political Economy of W.B.Sutch: Towards a Critical Appreciation”, NZEP , Vol 20, p.17-40.

McLintock, B. (1998) The Economic Ideas of Dr Sutch .
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Robson, J.L. & J.Shallcrass (ed.) (1975) Spirit of an Age: Essays in Honour of W.B.Sutch , Reed, 1975.

Simpson, T. (1974) The Lee-Scrim Papers , Reed, Wellington.

Sinclair, K. (1974) “The Lee-Sutch Syndrome: New Zealand Labour Party Policies and Politics, 1930-1940”, New Zealand Journal of History , Vol 8, No 2, October 1974, p.95-117.

Sinclair, K. (1976) Walter Nash , AUP.

Sutch, W.B. (1966) The Quest for Security in New Zealand: 1840 to 1966 , Oxford University Press, Wellington.

Sutch, W.B. (1969) Poverty and Progress in New Zealand: A Re-assessment , A.H. & A.W.Reed, Wellington.

Turnovsky, F. (1990) Turnovsky: Fifty Years in New Zealand , Allen & Unwin, Wellington.