Steady as she goes, Colin James

Holyoake’s Lieutenants
ed Margaret Clark
Dunmore Press, $29.95,
ISBN 8864694369

I came across Norm Shelton a day or two after Jack Marshall sacked him in February 1972 at the end of the Holyoake era. He had a pile of complimentary letters before him, to which he was replying, in longhand, one by one. The former occasional acting Prime Minister was an unadorned backbencher again.

Parliamentary life in the 1960s was less businesslike, less harried, less sophisticated and festooned with less of the paraphernalia of power that cocoons, entraps and distances today’s politicians. There were no security guards, no swipecards. MPs shared secretaries; ministers had tiny staffs. They mostly aimed at the mean, perhaps not of the golden variety but comprehensible to voters and more or less generally agreed upon.

Shelton, who is gently remembered in Margaret  Clark’s Holyoake’s Lieutenants, was one of National’s gentlemen-politicians for whom politics was an interest after success in farming, business or a profession. He was a world away from today’s show-ponies and technocrats.

Shelton was plain and practical, not really a No 3, as Marshall knew. Marshall needed a new look for the election at the end of 1972. But Holyoake, who had won four elections from 1960 – still a record for National – had lingered too long. Marshall’s cabinet (“Man for man the strongest team”) was engulfed in a Labour tide of optimistic social liberalism, youthful libertarianism and nascent nationalism. Eighteen months later Rob Muldoon ousted Marshall and the postwar optimism died.

In truth, this golden age, as some now misremember the 1960s, began to fray halfway through the decade. A new generation announced its young adulthood in noisy demonstrations against the Americans’ Vietnam war from 1965; it preached (how it preached!) the values of personal freedom and was rich enough to practise them. In the 1970s and 1980s, this generation was to invigorate and transform the arts, then business, then politics, even the constitution. It was a revolutionary generation and it emerged on Holyoake’s watch.

Also in mid-decade, at the end of 1966, as Brian Easton delineates effectively in his chapter in Lieutenants, the terms of trade dived. This shock – 30 per cent over a decade – deeply infected the politics of the 1970s and 1980s. There was a temporary reprieve in 1971-72, on the proceeds of which Norm Kirk tried extravagantly to finish the job his 1935-49 Labour government forebears had begun. The first oil shock destroyed the mini-boom and, with it, Labour. A second in 1979 cut down the most dynamic of Holyoake’s lieutenants, Muldoon, who tried to keep Holyoakism going in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

There was, of course, no such thing as Holyoakism. His vanity found expression in built-up shoes and a elocutionary plum in his mouth, not flimsy isms. A refugee from the shocks of Depression and war, he valued predictability and evenness; so did most grown-ups of the time, including his ministers. Steady as she goes was his creed, just as Don’t frighten the horses is Helen Clark’s.

Oops. Did I suggest a parallel there? Well, yes, and I mean it. It drives Winston Peters spare when someone says it, but Helen Clark projects overtones of Holyoake in her search for command of the middle and an enduring set of precepts of government.

There is another parallel. Holyoake’s early cabinets had a powerful core: Marshall at No 2, Ralph Hanan and Tom Shand. These were smart, wilful and capable ministers – much like Helen Clark’s top coterie. That capability is the point of Margaret Clark’s book.

Marshall was a consummate trade negotiator, who nudged timorous manufacturers into the big, bad world and held onto our British markets when Britain joined Europe. That is well detailed in Lieutenants. Not explored is his encapsulation, in his 1947 maiden speech, of the liberal-conservative ethos of the National party of the era, combining respect for individual liberty with recognition of the need for a welfare state. Nor do we read of the cold steel under the urbane and sometimes kindly exterior. He once stared me straight in the eye and told me what I and he knew to be a lie; affairs of state demanded it. Not until Michael Cullen was there to be a deputy as complete as Marshall.

Hanan was mercurial and, for the times, a considerable law reformer; a schemer who used media leaks to win a case. Shand was bluff, rough and tough, likeable but a bit wild. Both were dead by the end of 1969. Instead, Marshall as Prime Minister had to make the most of those who came into the cabinet not at the outset of Holyoake’s reign but during it: Brian Talboys, in Parliament from 1957 and a minister from 1962; and Peter Gordon, Duncan MacIntyre and Muldoon, who became MPs in 1960 and were ministers from 1966-67. Talboys, thoughtful if sometimes indecisive, and MacIntyre, who showed some initiative in Maori affairs, were successive deputy leaders to Muldoon.

The latter three younger men – women were scarce in National then – reinvigorated the cabinet at the very time, halfway through its term, when it might have begun to decay. It was a stronger cabinet at the beginning of 1969 than at the beginning of 1961. And that marks a difference between Holyoake and Helen Clark. She has no such reserve material from which to regenerate her cabinet. If she gets a third term in 2005, her cabinet will be weaker, not stronger, vulnerable to retirements, deaths or political hardening of the arteries. There is no equivalent in Labour of the 1960 National intake to emulate the 1966 cabinet revitalisation. Labour’s last strong intake was 1990. Drabs and place-people have dominated intakes since then, with a few exceptions.

But does today’s Prime Minister face anything akin to Holyoake’s mid-1960s shocks? Maybe in the economy, given world trade problems and more readjustment to come in several big economies important to us – though there are countersigns as well. More of a (tenuous) parallel is social change, in her case the challenge of Maori and biculturalism and the impact of migrant cultures. Her response to those so far has been more insightful than Holyoake’s to his challenges but her instinct to feel her way through them evokes Holyoake’s style. That did not avail him: he was marooned by 1970.

Did any of Holyoake’s lieutenants comprehend the change beginning on their watch? Perhaps Shand’s rumbustious children gave him some inkling. Otherwise, their personal histories shielded them from the new. Hanan famously called student anti-Vietnam protesters “fleas on a dog” in a capping address at Otago University; Dean Eyre (not featured in this book) promised a “basinful of bombs”. The lieutenants backed apartheid sport; the battles over the environment which broke over their heads in 1970 were unanticipated.

Very little of the divisive fissure in the making, the emerging generation, its challenging ideologies and upheaval of values, is in Holyoake’s Lieutenants, bar a brief mention in Barry Gustafson’s scene-setting sketch. The record of a two-day seminar in 2001, the book is essentially a potpourri of personal anecdotes and recollections, short on context and analysis. Read it as magazine, if you will. But go elsewhere for the political history of an important decade.


Colin James is a political columnist for the New Zealand Herald.


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