Writing the Nationbuilders

Presentation to the National Library Society: 13 June, 2001.

Keywords Political Economy & History

I thought it might be interesting to describe how The Nationbuilders came to be written. It is a useful exercise because books are linear and readers – beginning at the beginning and reading through to the end – may think that is the way each is written. Some books are, but many are not – including this one. Let me tell you how it was.

There is no single event which caused this book. The precipitating event may have been the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography’s invitation to do the entry on Bernard Ashwin. When I accepted, I knew little about him: he had been a Secretary of the Treasury (from 1939), and he appears in the mythology as the man who blocked the social security plans of the Labour Caucus in 1938. There is not a lot published about him. Fortunately his son, Barry, lent me some personal papers, including interviews by historians working on others’ biographies. That material, the minor parts in others’ writings, and some official papers tell us that Keith Sinclair was absolutely right when he said that Peter ‘Fraser ruled in very close consultation with [Fintan Patrick Walsh]. The other powers in the land were Walter Nash and Bernard Ashwin.’ Yes, Ashwin was one of the four most powerful men in the 1940s, and that power continued through until he retired in 1955. Arguably, he is the most important public servant of the mid-twentieth century, for not only was he involved in virtually every major government decision from 1932 to 1955, but he created the modern Treasury.

Having completed the DNZB entry, I turned to whether I could write a full biography on such a powerful, and personable New Zealander. I reluctantly concluded that I did not have enough material – a bit less that 20,000 words in all, and it may be the devil’s own job getting much more. Moreover, as Douglas Kennedy (The Times, 20 November 2000) recently said of biographies of writers: ‘of course it is always fascinating to read about [his] work habits and his familial influences, not to mention the social and political texture of the times in which he lived. But if his life was one of relative emotional stability, the biographer is going to have to struggle to maintain our general interest.’ In other words it’s the extracurricular activities largely irrelevant to the professional life which make a good biography, and if there are few, then there is not much of a book.

One way around this is to use the biography to tell a story of the times. That is the largely the approach of a number of biographies of New Zealand politicians. If we are going to get a fuller biography of Ashwin, it may be in Malcolm McKinnon’s history of the Treasury, where Ashwin will be embodied – almost anonymously – in the Treasury he created. That is probably what the public servant in him would want. Yet I had all this fascinating material on Ashwin. What to do with it? The answer came from another quarter.

In the 1960s it was taken as normal – at least among my generation – that New Zealanders sought nationhood, that we wanted our country to be a nation not a colony, to use Bill Sutch’s felicitous phrase. In truth we were not sure what nationhood meant, but like most (mild or radical) revolutionaries, we knew there had to be changes to accomplish the objective. Probably we had some notion of a country with its own economic, social, foreign policy and cultural independence and standing, which was not beholden to other nations, particularly Britain and the United States.

Yet extraordinarily, when the generation came to political power in 1984, the policies they pursued were colonial. They may be illustrated by a cultural cringe in economic thinking, whether it was importing mediocre overseas experts as advisers, selling off New Zealand government businesses to foreign companies, or removing assistance to New Zealand industries and leaving them to face the world by themselves. I had written much about post-1984 policymaking in earlier books, but they do not directly address the policymakers’ subservience to foreigners and foreign thinking.

Ashwin’s life pointed to a resolution to the paradox. While he was a conservative, he was also as much a nationalist of his times as was my generation of the 1960s. That led me to two fundamental insights. First, a commitment to nationhood was not a peculiarity of the political left but has been held by New Zealanders elsewhere in the political spectrum. Second, nationbuilding had been a program before the 1960s.

The Nationbuilders is an account of that program, written around a series of interlocking essays based on the biographies of people who met the DNZB criteria of significant and dead. The material I had on Ashwin ties together the mid-century nationbuilders, and in the second half of the book there are the postwar ones up to 1984. Originally I planned a dozen essays averaging 5000 words each – 60,000 words in all. The manuscript went to the publisher’s reader at 18 chapters totalling 80,000 words, and has gone to Simon at a fraction less than 100,000 words, with the publisher admonishing me not to exceed that number. So how did the book develop?

The core of the first half of the book is chapter two on Ashwin and it is surrounded by chapters on the men he worked with: Coates, Fraser, Fletcher, and Walsh. Three of the five already have major biographies, but in each case I have ‘added value’ by using new material from Ashwin and other sources, interrelating them, focusing more on their contributions to economic policy and thinking – which is often not well done in their political biographies – and often extending the interpretation of the men. In the case of Walsh and Ashwin, and indeed of nine of subjects in all, the book contains their longest available biographical studies (although in two cases there are autobiographies).

Thus, the chapter on Gordon Coates focuses on his time as Minister of Finance in the 1930s. The young Ashwin was one of his key advisers. Steering us through the Great Depression and providing the foundation for the economic boom which followed was probably Coates’s finest achievement. I know this is not the conventional wisdom – the book is not strong on conventional wisdom – and I suggest that Coates is our greatest Minister of Finance.

There has just been a major biography on Peter Fraser, but I add to it by paying attention to his economics, for Ashwin as Treasury Secretary was the key adviser. I make a couple of judgements of Fraser I have not seen elsewhere. First his success – indeed the success of every great politician in New Zealand – is he led from the progressive centre. That is, wherever they start politically – Fraser on the left, Coates on the right – the great politician leads the country by commanding the political centre, and moving it in a progressive direction – in the way the political economy is moving. My second conclusion comes from Fraser being surrounded by a galaxy of extraordinarily able people. Some are in the book. Others including Clarence Beeby, Bernard Freyberg, Alistair McIntosh and Nash – even Janet Fraser – could have been. The numbers may have been luck, but Fraser managed them superbly, even those who had one time been his enemies, such as Freyberg, Jack Lee, Arnold Nordmeyer, and Sutch. Of all his multitude of talents, human management perhaps contributed most to Fraser’s greatness.

James Fletcher was another Fraser incorporated into the governance both as a businessman and a public servant. The book goes past the times of Fletcher, right up to the present day, describing the life and death of the Fletcher’s companies he founded through to Fletcher Challenge. That includes Tasman Pulp and Paper, the original postwar ‘Think Big’, in which both Ashwin and the Fletchers played major parts. That story straddles their two chapters.

The fifth is Fintan Patrick Walsh, a man so mysterious that one is not even sure of the name to call him. Through him I tell the story of economic stabilisation during the war – his office was next to Ashwin’s, and not far from Fletcher’s – and also the story of the union movement. I was going to update the history of the union movement after his death in 1963, but there was not the space.

When I finished the initial draft on these men, the director of Auckland University Press, Elizabeth Caffin – who has seen the book in all its various stages – pointed out that I was so interested in the economics story, I had overlooked the social security one. So I went back and added housing into the Fletcher chapter – it is a sort of prewar Think Big. The social security story is in the Ashwin chapter. He was involved at each stage in its development between the Labour Caucus and the legislation. I completely changed my view of his role. When the proposal left the caucus it would have cost almost 15 percent of GDP, which would have busted the bank. Because of Ashwin’s persistence, the levels and entitlements were steadily trimmed back to a cost of 4 percent. He never liked social security, but his fiscal caution ensured the scheme was sustainable. Ashwin deserves to be remembered as one of founders of a viable scheme, rather than its obstructor.

I did not do much on education. It is very difficult to add value after Bill Renwick’s fine essay on Beeby and Fraser. To cover health policy I turned to Douglas Robb. He is best known as the doctor who established the world famous heart unit at Green Lane. But in the 1940s he was a thinker and advocate of the health reforms – the minister of health at the time, Nordmeyer, says he was – so I tell the health story in the Robb chapter. The chapter also introduces there the role of the outsider intellectual in New Zealand life, a theme which appears in later chapters.

That completes the six mid-century nationbuilders and their story. Before them I have a prologue which originally featured just Julius Vogel, perhaps the first ‘Think Bigger’. Writing that chapter taught me that Vogel was a nationbuilder in his own way for his times, reinforcing what I learned from Ashwin: each generation has had their own nationbuilding project. The publisher’s reader pointed out I had omitted Richard Seddon and Bill Massey as nationbuilders. Adding them I also included Harry Atkinson who, like Coates, battled through a depression and is thus much underrated, and John Ballance who is the foundation intellectual of the New Zealand left, more so than Pember Reeves.

At the centre of the book, linearly and structurally is Bill Sutch, for whom I had also been asked to contribute the entry in The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. His attraction is he is both an activist and one of the most extensive writers about New Zealand, laying down ideas which will influence many generations to come. I had so much material I gave him two chapters, and he appears in just about every other. Sutch’s greatest achievement is not widely known, for it happened overseas. But for his initiative UNICEF would not exist today – the story is told in the book. One story I do not devote much space to is the security issue – only three paragraphs. I wrote a 1000 word appendix on the events surrounding the Sutch trial under the Official Secrets Act. I did not have much new material to add – it is a subject dominated by speculation rather than evidence. However both the publishing director and the publisher’s reader suggested dropping it, for it diverts from the main story. We get so obsessed with the security issue we ignore Sutch’s significant ideas.

I am very pleased with the text I added instead, because it enabled me to better trace Sutch’s later intellectual development. I show his ideas were not fixed, and in particular in the period when he was Secretary of Industries and Commerce his approach on New Zealand’s industrialisation developed. Sutch was thinking and writing about some very general – almost eternal – issues about New Zealand, but he was doing it in a current context. I often find myself wondering about what he would have thought about this or that subject, were he still living and were he my generation. Succeeding generations of New Zealanders may well do the same. I like to think Nationbuilders will assist them.

The book’s next nationbuilder is Norman Kirk. I have always been doubtful about his economics but he was an inspirational visionary for nationhood, tapping deep into the aquifers of our national psyche. And I was fascinated by how he resolved the tension of a small New Zealand economy trading in a large world, by promoting nationhood. You can trace Kirk’s economic vision back directly – and indirectly through Nordmeyer – to Sutch, and forward to the open economy wing of today’s Labour Party. But nobody has got the rhetoric – the public vision – as well as did big Norm.

The next chapter was Rob Muldoon. Some have objected because they said he was not a nationbuilder. It is simpleminded to say nationbuilding is good, Muldoon is bad, therefore he could not be one. In fact Muldoon was the last Vogelist – the last Think Bigger. Leaving aside his personal defects – and that is a big ask – Muldoon had the misfortune to be in charge of the economy during an exceptionally difficult period – like Atkinson and Coates. But unlike them and Fraser he was a conservative centrist rather than a progressive centrist, looking back rather than forward. That was his ultimate political failure.

There was no way I was going to finish the nationbuilders with Muldoon. The last is Henry Lang, who completes the pantheon in all sorts of ways. Ashwin was his mentor, and I talk about the Ashwin -Lang Treasury. Lang is an example of a civilised economist. The epitome of decency, he is the only Secretary of the Treasury I know of who advocated systematically increasing public spending relative to private spending, and he actively promoted the arts after his retirement. I was also glad to have one of the nationbuilders who was not of Anglo-Celtic origin, thus paying tribute to migrants from elsewhere, especially the middle-European Jews whose contributions far exceed their numbers.

Originally I wanted the Lang chapter to tell part of the economic story, but it couldnt. About the same time I concluded this, I learned my good friend and colleague Bryan Philpott had been diagnosed with a fatal brain tumour. I had talked a lot to him about the economics in the book and I so wanted to show him the various sections on the economic development. His death stopped that, and it is only a little consolation that he is the topic of a chapter between Kirk and Muldoon, which details the course of postwar economic development and the debate that went on.

After the Lang chapter there is the Epilogue describing how nationbuilding ended after 1984, focusing on why the new leadership regime adopted such a colonial mentality, lacking the confidence in New Zealand their predecessors had, and adopting foreign solutions even when they were manifestly inappropriate because they preferred to imitate rather than create. It is the least biographical chapter because it covers the views of hundreds of people rather than focusing on any single person.

The Epilogue explains that there was no Maori or woman among the selected nationbuilders, because the nationbuilding program the book describes did not incorporate them – or, for that matter, the environmentalists – into a program which was essentially a ‘white boys’ engineering thing’. When the rogernomes began their assault on nationbuilding key elements of those who could resist where not committed to the nationbuilding program they were asked to defend. I comment in the introduction, that if they are not included in the next round of nationbuilding, then it wont happen.

Now if I was not going to end the core of the Nationbuilders with Muldoon I was certainly not going to finish the book with the defeatism of the rogernomes. What to include in the envoy was problematic, because the new millennium nationbuilders are alive, and doing their thing. I did not want to comment on what they were doing, partly because a book is published in real time, so they would have moved on by the time it was read, and of course in the middle of a struggle everything looks confused, and half the strugglers seem to be facing the wrong way.

Sadly, one of them is no longer with us. I talked a lot about the politics and history of the book to Bruce Jesson: he always said how much he was looking forward to reading it. Alas he died before it was finished. His writings covering history and political analysis already appeared in about a third of the chapters, so it made sense to consolidate his views on nationhood in an Envoy, as he offers us the promise of the next round of nationbuilding – providing we can get most of the strugglers facing the right direction.

This then, was largely the book that went to the publisher’s reader. He liked it, although commenting it belonged to ‘no known academic genre’. Essentially the book is a history of the idea of ‘nationbuilding’, told in the context of the economic, political and public policy history from the early 1930s to the early 1980s, but told through biographical essays of some of the major participants. I do not know what genre that is either.

The reader was troubled by two chapters I have yet to mention. Initially the Denis Glover chapter was to be on literary nationalism, but it evolved into a discussion on New Zealanders’ relationship with Britain, particularly around his poem ‘Home Thoughts From Abroad’ – the bit about ‘what may yet be seen/ In Johnsonville and Geraldine.’ The reader thought this issue so important the chapter should be at the front. Now the structure of the book is roughly chronological, and on that basis Glover did not belong there. In fact the book is quite consciously structured, with the mid century nationbuilders balancing the postwar ones, in size number, and topic. So while I did not put Glover upfront, relocating his chapter meant I needed two further postwar chapters to maintain the book’s symmetries.

The first was easy enough. I had long wanted to include a business history in the book, because it was important to say that nationbuilding was not just about people and poetry, but also about production. So I added a chapter about New Zealand Steel. It’s a beaut story illustrating many of the themes of the book and, not surprisingly, Sutch, Kirk, Philpott, Muldoon, and the rogernomes are all involved. It also nicely balances Fletchers and Tasman from the mid-century nationbuilding front half.

The other chapter I needed for symmetry proved much more problematic. In the end it was resolved by a woman saying to me that ‘of course there was no women nationbuilders, they were too busy looking after their husbands and children.’ Wrong, wrong, wrong. Of course there were women nationbuilders, albeit with a different program. The trouble was the best examples were still very much alive at the time. Sadly Elsie Locke has since died. She would have been a great addition to the book, but it had been closed off a month earlier. I will write her a tribute for another venue.

Earlier, after much reflection, because it involved reversing a key principle when I set out to write the book, I added a chapter on Sonja Davies who is still alive. I am looking forward to her attending the book launch. Her chapter enables me to tell the story of how women were often marginalised by the nationbuilding program, and in addition there is a bit of the story of the peace movement, some of the story of the opposition to the rogernomes, and I update the story of the union movement after Walsh, such is the extraordinary life Sonja has thus far led. Elizabeth Caffin commented that this is the most personal of all the chapters. That is how it should be, because for a woman of Sonja’s or Elsie’s times the personal and the public are much more intricately linked than for men.

The other chapter the publisher’s reader was uneasy about was that on Colin McCahon, which was thought to not fit into the rest of the story. But Allen Curnow had written in 1945 that ‘strictly speaking New Zealand doesn’t exist yet, though some possible New Zealand glimmer in some poems and on some canvases. It remains to be created – should I say invented – by writers, musicians, architects, publishers; even a politician might help.’ McCahon invented, shaping New Zealanders’ view of their country. Moreover he was New Zealander who had faith in himself and not only influenced all of us but made it internationally. However when I began to rework the chapter, following the reader’s comments, something strange and beautiful happened.

Now while The Nationbuilders has a beginning to end linear structure, as all books must, together with a careful balanced internal structure, it also has the elements of an epic poem. I do not claim to be able write with the sensitivity to language of a good poet – I am just a working prose writer – riddled through the book are repeated images and motifs. If the chapters are the warps of the woven cloth of the book, these themes – the images and motifs – are the wefts. Not only do the nationbuilders keep reappearing in each other’s chapters, there are wefts from cameos appearances from others: James K. Baxter, Curnow, Bill Manhire, McIntosh, Nordmeyer, Bill Rowling. I could not keep Rex Fairburn out. But there are also ideas: the central role of the industrial assistance, the hollow society, the historic consensus, foreign policy development, cultural policy, the intellectual and so on. And there are the similarities of experience. Simon Cauchi asked me why I had included a minor part of Coates’ life. It is a weft which appears in other nationbuilders’ lives. An unexpected weft was religion. Almost all the nationbuilders were deeply influenced by a religious education, and while many left the church they kept to its practical precepts. I say of Sutch – but it is true for almost all serious New Zealand left wing political thought – that he owes more to Methodism than Marxism.

One of the most persistent images in the book – an exceptionally vigorous weft which I did not put there but kept pushing in – was Blake’s poem about ‘the building of Jerusalem in this our green and pleasant land.’ There is reference to the poem in the Prologue, and the chapters on Fraser, Philpott, and Jesson, and in McCahon, who did not just talk about the building. He did it, painting biblical scenes in New Zealand. I could write an entire lecture on the way that ‘Jerusalem’ is in The Nationbuilders.* Instead let me finish by reading a section from the chapter on McCahon. It is not representative of the book, which is about economic and public policy over the last seventy years, but I do argue that such development has to be seen in the context of the efforts of intellectuals such as McCahon – and Glover, Jesson, Philpott, Robb, and Sutch.

“From 1946, McCahon had begun to place biblical events in his New Zealand landscapes. Did he get the idea from William Blake? Possibly not, although he probably sang ‘Jerusalem’ at school. Sonja Davies and James K. Baxter did, albeit a little younger and going to other Dunedin schools. (Baxter refused to stand up in the cinema for ‘God Save the Queen.’ But in a room when the radio played ‘Jerusalem’, he would spring to attention, sometimes so choked with emotion that he could not sing the words.) McCahon was certainly aware of the painter/poet from his lifelong friendship with Blake devotee John Caselberg, which began in 1948, while about the same time Baxter was urging McCahon to look at Blake’s pictures.”

“Undoubtedly a major external prompting came from the classical tradition McCahon revered. Renaissance painters had no trouble placing Jesus in Italy. Why not New Zealand? If there was a New Zealand prompt, it may have been Charles Brasch who visited Palestine in the mid-1930s.”

“‘From Hebron to Damascus one might almost be in Central Otago, and the hills beyond, all the way to Antioch, have some quality of Central Otago hills, especially those between Cromwell and Wanaka. The strong light, clear air, the hot rich rocky bareness, were such as I knew and loved at home.’”

“Why not Central Otago as a background to the bible?”

The book’s cover is McCahon’s 1948 painting, The Promised Land. McCahon described the work in 1974 as ‘a dream painting of my life in Nelson – places I loved, me my hut and water and light and below Farewell Spit, the end and the beginning of it all.’

However the inset in the foreground of the work is sufficiently generic so while it may be looking along the curved sands of Golden Bay and Tasman Bay to the mountains and Spit, it could be, say, looking from Canterbury’s Port Hills, from the top of the Bridle Track across Pegasus Bay to the mountains beyond. It is a mythical view in Canterbury, for it is there were the settlers from the first four ships (the so-called ‘the Canterbury Pilgrims’) are said to have first seen the Canterbury Plains in 1851. Recall a verse from the original version of Denis Glover’s ‘Home Thoughts’ written over a decade earlier.

I think, too, of the bridle-track
Where first they saw the plains curve back
To alps, of how that little band
Of pilgrims viewed their Promised Land.

The nationbuilders tried to turn that promise into a reality. The book tells their story, and I hope in a small way encourages us, their successors, to do the same.

* See Singing ‘Jerusalem’ in New Zealand