Monday, September 19, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“A GREAT NEW ZEALAND PRIME MINISTER? – Reappraising William Ferguson Massey” edited by James Watson and Lachy Paterson (Otago University Press, $40)

I have a deep-seated belief that real historians have to be spoilsports.
If there is a popular legend or misconception that has no foundation in historical fact, then it’s the historian’s duty to say so, no matter how popular the legend may be. This does not mean that historians should approach their work cynically, attempting deliberately to destroy all tales of  personal heroism, virtue or wisdom that have found their way into public consciousness. Many such tales survive the severest scrutiny, and there’s a big difference between being a real historian and being a wilful iconoclast. But it does mean that historians have to begin by scraping away the legends, and looking closely at the best primary sources, before they reach their conclusions. And sometimes this will mean turning on its head what is commonly believed about the past. It might also mean rehabilitating the reputation of someone who has too often been depicted negatively.

Take the case of William Ferguson Massey, New Zealand’s prime minister from 1912 to 1925 and therefore the country’s political leader during the First World War.

On the whole, Bill Massey has got a rough ride in general histories of New Zealand (Sinclair, Oliver, King, Belich etc.).  He’s perceived as the voice of conservative, rural reaction after the years of progressive Liberal government under Ballance, Seddon and Ward. Massey’s government put the boot in hard to striking watersiders and miners in 1912-13, showing that it was the mouthpiece of the farmers and hostile to organised labour. Add to this the fact that Massey was a Protestant Ulsterman and one-time member of the Orange Lodge, and you have the framework for an image of Massey as a small-minded, sectarian, anti-labour, anti-Catholic British imperialist. The image gets a boost from the fact that New Zealand went through its most pronounced period of religious bigotry towards the end of the First World War.

But there’s one catch to this image. It’s no secret that, until quite recently, New Zealand’s university History departments were very much dominated by people of centre-left political views. The great turning point of  our political history was supposed to be the election of the first Labour government in 1935 and the creation of the welfare state. Political history prior to 1935 was basically seen as prologue to this. The political opposition to Labour was classed as reactionary. As the prime founder of the old Reform Party, Massey was a sitting duck for negative assessments by centre-left historians. So far, no academic and balanced biography of Massey has been written (although I understand that one is currently in progress).

Into the breach, then, comes this stimulating and gently revisionist set of essays, A Great New Zealand Prime Minister?, which began, as so many collections of academic essays do, as a set of conference papers. One by one the authors pick apart or greatly modify the received image of Massey, and a good job they make of it too.

After James Watson and Lachy Paterson define the territory, Erik Olssen launches into the most revisionist of the essays. It is also the most unexpected. Olssen freely admits that he himself has generally been on the centre-left. He began his career as an historian accepting uncritically the received image of Massey. He says only gradually did he realize “that much of the historical portrait was little better than recycled Labour propaganda”. Massey, he notes was far more in tune with the great majority of New Zealanders than the original (pre-1930s) Labour Party was. His emphasis on home ownership was the template for a social system to which New Zealanders aspired for most of the following century. He pioneered the managed (wartime) economy in ways that later Labour governments only slightly modified. He ensured that New Zealand gained more economic spoils from the Pacific after the war than it would at first have been allocated. And if his government’s treatment of organised labour was confrontational, the labour legislation his government brought in was never repealed by later Labour governments. In fact, the Labour prime minister Peter Fraser found it very handy when he had his own problems with strikers and bolshie unions.

There are some essays here that deal with hitherto unexplored aspects of Massey’s personal life. The medical historian Linda Bryder’s essay on his wife’s patronage and hard work for the Plunket Society. The demographer Jock Phillips on Massey’s background and how “typical” an Ulster immigrant he was.

Others, however, take head-on the Massey legend.

Military historian Glyn Harper refutes the tale that Bill Massey and his (Liberal) deputy Joe Ward were disliked and jeered at by Kiwi soldiers when they made their wartime visits to the front. From soldiers’ diaries and letters, he shows how much the soldiers appreciated the official visits and enjoyed the two politicians’ skylarking. If there was some grumbling, it had more to do with the soldiers’ discomforts and distress after hard campaigning than it had to do with distaste for Massey personally.

Rory Sweetman doesn’t exactly refute the notion of Massey’s involvement in his age’s sectarianism, but he does greatly modify it. As I can confirm from my own researches, Massey got on well with the Catholic Bishop Cleary and he eventually came to regard Howard Elliott’s vociferous anti-Catholic pressure group, the Protestant Political Association, as a liability. There may have been bigots in the Reform government, but Massey wasn’t one of them.

Ashley Gould shows most emphatically that, contrary to a legend much-repeated in general history book (which he gleefully quotes), Massey’s government did not exclude Maori soldiers from post-war rehabilitation loans and farm settlement schemes.

James Watson’s essay isn’t exactly revisionist. We already knew that Massey pushed hard for “imperial preference” to benefit New Zealand’s trade with Britain. But Watson does show how much this did benefit New Zealand.

I do admit that some of these essays  are specialist and therefore hard work for the general reader. In a dense statistical analysis of electoral results, Miles Fairburn and S.J.Haslitt demolish the idea that the Reform Party was supported only by farmers and the affluent middle classes. Their conclusion is that Massey’s party was repeatedly re-elected because it had wide support across classes, including a sizeable chunk of the urban working class.

I admit, too, that one essay left me a little stumped. Brad Patterson discusses the importance of “freehold tenure” of farmlands to Massey’s rural policies, and how appealing this was to much of the electorate. But his conclusion is that there wasn’t a rush to take up such tenure once Reform was in power.

When I read a book of essays like this, I know that some historians are doing what they should be doing – looking at the real evidence and penetrating pseudo-historical legends.

Even so, I’m glad the title of this collection has a question mark. Collectively, the ten contributors show me that Bill Massey was a very astute politician, a man who consistently worked in New Zealand’s best interests, and a man of much wider sympathies than he has been given credit for. But I would still find it hard to attach the epithet “great” to him. He and his British imperialism were of their age and time and should fairly be judged in the context of their age and time. But there is little in his ideology to inspire us now. Massey is never going to be remembered with affection by New Zealanders the way Dick Seddon and Mickey Joe Savage, for all their many faults, still are. 

For all that, this is one of those symposia that fairly puts the received image of an historical figure to the test. It does show fairly conclusively that there is a lot more to Bill Massey than we’ve been led to believe. 

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