Marshall and Sutch

Letter in New Zealand International Review, July/August 2002, Vol XXVII, No 4, p.33.

KeywordsPolitical Economy & History

In his review of Keith Eunson’s Mirrors on the Hill, Bruce Brown asks ‘who reads [Jack] Marshall’s autobiography?’, and answers ‘the two volumes are an excellent source of much recent political history (for example on Bill Sutch).’ (NZIR May/June 2002) They may be source of political history but the coverage of Sutch is inaccurate, imbalanced, and unsatisfactory. Many of the errors are addressed by Sutch’s widow, Shirley Smith, in a letter deposited at the Alexander Turnbull Library. My concern here is the balance.

When I looked again at the autobiography when writing on Sutch in my book The Nationbuilders, I decided that Marshall’s material was so problematic that I largely left out the rebutting of it, since that would have distorted the story, leaving that task to an earlier paper Trying to Understand Dr Sutch, which I gave to a Stout Research Centre seminar in 1998. However the book makes a brief reference which is worth setting down here.

Marshall wrote in his second volume ‘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 [sic, at the time he was an adviser to Gordon Coates only], how they could revive the capitalist economy when he himself believed that the capitalist system had failed and that socialism was the answer.’ (p.144) No source is given.

I have located two. Twenty years earlier Sutch wrote in The Quest for Security in New Zealand: 1840-1966 that ‘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.’ Campbell, who was a decade older that Sutch and later became Public Service Commissioner, also gives an account in The Auckland Weekly News (29 August 1956) which confirms Sutch. Shaw’s Wellington address was typically Fabian, arguing that a capitalist economy should be incrementally transformed into a socialist one. Indeed, the most severe imbalance in Marshall’s account of Sutch is his crude portrayal of all socialism as a unity, confusing the revolutionaries with the evolutionaries, and its complete lack of awareness that (evolutionary) British socialism comes primarily from Christian dissenters, particularly the Methodist tradition which Sutch grew up in, and which he honoured to the end of his life.

Marshall provides one fresh fact, for most of the material in the autobiography which does not come from readily available published sources seems to be based on gossip. He writes ‘a security check, not long before his retirement in 1964, [when Marshall was Sutch’s minister and presumably saw his security file] did reveal visits to the home of a member of the Communist Party, but no more than that. Some people alleged that Sutch was a communist, but there was no positive proof to support the charge …’(p. 145-6) The failure of the security service to identify any communist links is consistent with their failure to provide evidence to this effect at the trial in 1975. (I add that I am but one of many ordinary New Zealanders who would have to plead guilty to having visited a communist’s home.)

There is of course no question that Sutch was pro-Soviet long after others of his group, including his wife, had abandoned that faith. And the residual sentiment was undoubtedly a major part of the reason why he got involved in that tangle with the Russian embassy in the penultimate year of his life which led to his arrest, trial, and acquittal on a charge of spying. This remains a very unclear episode. But Marshall appears to depend on his recall of news reports and offers no new insights although, surprisingly for a lawyer, he is quick to overrule the judgement of the jury. .

As useful a political history Marshall’s autobiography may be, its greatest disappointment is its account of Keith Holyoake, surely our greatest post-war prime minister. He worked with Holyoake for a quarter of a century but gives him only seven page assessment, whereas he was Sutch’s minister for four years and gives him ten. This surely cannot be Marshall’s judgement of the relative importance of the two men?