Tomorrow Comes the Song: A Life of Peter Fraser
Michael Bassett and Michael King
Penguin Books, $49.95,
The late Professor John Roberts once told me a story about his father “Big Jim” Roberts, nicknamed “the uncrowned King of New Zealand” because of his thirteen-year presidency of the Labour Party and his even longer terms as secretary of the Alliance of Labour and the Waterside Workers’ Federation. Peter Fraser, Prime Minister at the time, summoned Roberts to his office one day and told Roberts that he had been seen staying at a hotel in Napier with a young woman. Fraser and others, such as Roberts’ bitter enemy Fintan Patrick Walsh, who knew of it, would keep quiet but expected Roberts to remember the favour in the future. John said that his father, a very big and strong man, reached across the Prime Minister’s desk, lifted him out of his chair, shook him and dropped him back. He informed Fraser that the girl he had been with in Napier was his daughter and warned the Prime Minister that if he and his ally Walsh ever tried to blackmail him again he would “fill them both in”. Roberts then went home and recounted the incident to his son. This is not an anecdote told by Michael Bassett and Michael King in their biography of Fraser, Tomorrow Comes the Song, but my reason for starting this review with the Roberts’ story is to draw attention to what I regard as an underlying weakness of the book.
Although I believe that the author of a biography cannot be sure that they have ever completely revealed the inner man or woman, they must try to penetrate beyond the public figure to the subject’s emotions, motives and innermost thoughts, indeed to the soul of their subject. Bassett, and I suspect to a lesser extent King, are more concerned with the “what, when and where” of Fraser’s life than with the “how, why and with what effect”.
Time and again the reader is told that Fraser, who had few close friends, and Walsh, who as a communist and leader of the Seamens’ Union had helped Fraser defend his Wellington Central seat in 1928, had a very close personal and political relationship. For example, we learn that they met and phoned each other most days and that “Walsh was the Prime Minister’s eyes and ears”. Even though Walsh had no right to be there, Fraser created excuses to invite Walsh to Labour caucus meetings so he could give his advice to Labour MPs; he also “discussed budget secrets and currency issues” with him. The Prime Minister also consulted Walsh on the appointment of the pro-Labour Humphrey O’Leary as Chief Justice, which happened against the wishes of the Attorney-General Rex Mason and the legal profession.
According to the authors, Fraser and Walsh used “bully-boy tactics” against unionists or Labour Party members who “tried to escape from the finely meshed disciplinary net the two of them threw across the two sections of the Labour movement”. One of Walsh’s associates, Noel Pharazyn, provided Walsh with information on union leaders and Labour MPs that was then conveyed to Fraser. Fraser, “a stern disciplinarian” with a “cold forbidding manner”, then with “a telephone call here, a reprimand there, kept the majority up to the mark”.
The reasons for and implications of the close relationship between Fraser and Walsh, and how they worked together to extend and defend their power and control over others in the industrial and political Labour movements, are inadequately analysed. The Fraser-Walsh relationship is only one of the key relationships that one would like to have seen developed. The Fraser-Holland, Fraser-Savage, Fraser-Lee and even Fraser-Nash relationships are also very sketchy and unsatisfying; while the argument that Fraser changed from seeing Nordmeyer as a critic and rival to a more satisfactory successor than the loyal Nash is simply stated, with little substantiation. Certainly, it is contentious because Fraser’s allies Walsh and Angus McLagan (another onetime leading communist and miners’ leader and later Minister of Labour) repeatedly used every means possible, including blackmail of caucus members, to deny Nordmeyer the leadership of the Labour Party during the 1950s.
Surprisingly, for a former cabinet minister, Bassett does not really acknowledge the extent to which Fraser’s undoubtedly deserved reputation, particularly in education or foreign affairs, also depended on the advice and work of a group of exceptional public servants. These included Clarence Edward Beeby, the Director of the New Zealand Council for Educational Research 1935-39 and Director of Education 1940-60; Bernard Ashwin, the Secretary of the Treasury 1939-55; Joe Heenan, the Secretary for Internal Affairs throughout almost the entire term of the First Labour Government and architect of that government’s impressive cultural policies; and Alister McIntosh, who was Secretary of the Department of External Affairs 1943-66, Secretary of the War Cabinet 1943-45 and Head of the Prime Minister’s Department 1945-66.
This is despite the fact that McIntosh might well be seen as a third author of the book and is acknowledged as such in the dedication. Following his retirement, McIntosh started to write his own biography of Fraser, whom he greatly admired, but by 1977 was crippled by a series of strokes, though he managed to complete an essay on Fraser first. He gave his papers to Michael King, who also interviewed McIntosh systematically throughout late 1977 and 1978 before McIntosh died. King went on to interview a number of Fraser’s other surviving contemporaries, and was particularly assisted by Fraser’s stepson Harold Kemp and step-granddaughter Alice Kemp Fraser. Some of these people were also interviewed independently by Bassett. King visited Scotland, where he was able to glean material on Fraser’s background and early life. Ill-health, however, made King stop work on the biography in the mid-1980s and he never really returned to it. In 1996 Bassett took the task over and finished the research, including checking through manuscript collections in the National Library and the National Archives, and wrote most of the text, though he discussed his drafts with King.
There is little information in the book that was not already known, though it is selected, summarised and synthesised very competently. The authors had a vast array of secondary sources to use and in many ways Tomorrow Comes the Song should have been a good example of a biography that cast new light on well-known facts; but there are few surprises in analysis or interpretation. However, although, strangely, there is no bibliography, these secondary sources are all well acknowledged in comprehensive footnotes, and the excellent index should also be commended.
Bassett and King, who are both skilled writers, move the reader fairly swiftly through Fraser’s childhood and early life in Scotland, to his appearance as a “Red Fed” agitator in Auckland, Waihi and Wellington, to his work behind the scenes organising the early Labour Party, and to his contribution to the Labour caucus over the 1920s and early 1930s. The most important parts of the book then deal with Fraser as Minister of Education, Health, Marine and Police between 1935 and 1940, and as Prime Minister and Minister of External Affairs between 1940 and 1949.
While his success as Health Minister was somewhat questionable, there can be little doubt that Fraser was one of the best Ministers of Education New Zealand has had. He was completely committed to creating a comprehensive system of public education that fostered equality of opportunity, and he largely succeeded in that objective. Nor can one challenge his deserved reputation as a hardworking and competent wartime Prime Minister – not afraid to upset the British or the Australians on occasion – or as an idealistic and effective contributor to the creation of the United Nations and the role of small nations in it. To an extent, however, the reputation grew out of the situations in which Fraser found himself. Just as his predecessor, Savage, had come to personify the collective work of the Labour Government in bringing New Zealand out of the Depression and creating Social Security, so Fraser enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with New Zealand’s war effort and the attempt to create a new world order after the near destruction of the old.
Throughout the book the authors stress Fraser’s formidable intellect, wide reading, hard work, and internationalist outlook. They also mention his puritanism, his deviousness and his paternalism. Along the way there are some revealing anecdotes and brief, though usually undeveloped, observations about Fraser’s character; for example, his macabre preoccupation with funerals and his insistence as Minister of Police on being kept informed of the gruesome details of all murder cases and any sleazy gossip.
I found unconvincing the assertion that Fraser’s opposition to conscription and defence of its critics in World War 1 were not inconsistent with his introduction of conscription and implacable intolerance to dissent in World War 2. It seems much more reasonable to view the authoritarian streak in Fraser’s personality, so obviously and persistently expressed within the Labour Party and Labour caucus, as also showing itself in his prosecution of the war. The authors admit that Fraser’s attitude to dissent throughout his life, and his belief that the end justified the means, were not dissimilar to those evident in the leaders of totalitarian countries. Bassett appears to excuse Fraser’s ruthless authoritarianism by observing – perhaps reflecting his own experiences in caucus especially in the late 1980s – that, “[a]t the best of times the labour movement was a disputatious counter-culture” which “required strict discipline”.
From 1940-49, we are told, Fraser “was the New Zealand Government and the Labour Party…. He dominated his colleagues in a manner that no Labour leader has done before or since”. Certainly some of those colleagues regarded his manner as often devious and sometimes cruel; for example, Rex Mason, Terence McCombs, Martyn Finlay, and Nordmeyer, who all mentioned this to me when I interviewed them some years ago. He also tended to act presidentially, and Bassett and King admit that:
Fraser alone determined Labour’s foreign policy, rarely consulting his colleagues. He often failed to inform Cabinet of major decisions he had made. It was a practice that led one foreign diplomat [the British High Commissioner] to describe New Zealand’s foreign affairs as akin to a dictatorship.
According to the authors, this dominance and unilateral action stemmed from his intelligence, his hard-working nature, and the fact that he was both “principled and pragmatic”. That is part of the truth but he was also a consummate machine politician who in personality and tactics resembled one of the colourless apparatchiki who rose to the top in more left-wing parties overseas. Without pushing the comparison too far, in some ways Fraser can be seen as the Stalin to Savage’s Lenin, Lee’s Trotsky, and Roger Douglas’s Gorbachev.
The dismissal of Colin Scrimgeour as Controller of Commercial Radio, and his subsequent drafting into the army and the attempt to send him overseas, are also glossed over as if they were coincidental. The account given in Les Edwards’ biography of Scrimgeour (Scrim. Radio Rebel in Retrospect, 1971) certainly paints a much blacker picture of Fraser’s involvement. As often happened when Fraser was acting against an opponent, Walsh, “the Black Prince”, was also involved in this silencing of a critic.
On a different set of issues, however, Bassett (I excuse King from this criticism) cannot restrain himself from acting as a judge. While he clearly admires Fraser’s foreign and education policies, he shows from time to time a smug contempt for Fraser’s economic and social policies. These helped create the mixed economy and the universal welfare state that Bassett, as a key member of the ideologically driven Fourth Labour Government, was subsequently to dismantle.
Throughout the book, we are told repeatedly that Fraser was “not the most efficient, not the most charismatic, not the most lovable, but the most able” Prime Minister New Zealand has had. Repeated assertions again do not compensate for back up analysis. Able he was but “the most able” is a tendentious subjective judgement that the authors do not back up. They also needed to develop hints of why Fraser was never accorded the affection of his colleagues or the public, even though many respected and some feared him. Perhaps his contemporaries saw something in Fraser’s character and personality that the authors did not. Tomorrow Comes the Song does show, as the heading of chapter 16 indicates, “the Statesman and Master Politician at Work”; but it falls short of an anatomy of either the inner core of Fraser the man or the political party, government and systems he was a prominent part of for 40 years.
Barry Gustafson is the author of His Way. A Biography of Robert Muldoon, which was reviewed in our October 2000 issue. He has also published a biography of Michael Joseph Savage.