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“RICHARD SEDDON, KING OF GOD’S OWN” by Tom Brooking (Penguin, $NZ65)
“RICHARD SEDDON, KING OF GOD’S OWN” by Tom Brooking (Penguin, $NZ65)
It’s quite easy to summarise the legend of Richard John Seddon and the Liberal Party, which used to be standard issue in school textbooks and popular histories. It said that after a sort of ill-defined thing called the “continuous ministry”, the Liberals were New Zealand’s first properly organised political party and achieved power with a clearly-defined platform; and that after the brief premiership of John Ballance, the party hit its stride with “King Dick” Seddon, New Zealand’s longest-serving prime minister (1893-1906). So roll on votes for women, old age pensions, harmonious industrial relations thanks to the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act and a wise policy of busting up big estates and opening up the land to hundreds of cockies. This was the standard legend of “King Dick” – the bluff, plain-spoken forward-thinking man who laid the foundations for a more egalitarian New Zealand and presided over the “social laboratory” as it pioneered the welfare state.
But alas! It is in the nature of History to be always re-written and revised. Revisionists came along to tarnish this received image of Seddon. It was argued that Seddon was only a reluctant supporter of women’s suffrage, might have been in the pockets of the booze interests in opposing Temperance, was certainly racist in his attitudes towards Chinese, did not necessarily help Maori interests in the land policies he endorsed, and was an imperialist in calling enthusiastically for New Zealand’s participation in the Boer War. In other words, said the revisionists, he was more a man of his own age than the harbinger of anything better.
Further to this I must note that, when I once taught at Otago a summer school paper on the Liberals, the book I most frequently cribbed was David Hamer’s The New Zealand Liberals – The Years of Power 1891-1912 (published 1988) – still an indispensible book, by the way – which argued that the Liberals were a very diverse bunch, far from the cohesive force of schoolbook legend, and that the diverse social interests the party attempted to represent inevitably dragged the party apart.
In writing his authoritative and capacious biography Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own, Professor Tom Brooking makes it plain that he has to contend both with the legend and with a revisionism that has sometimes got out of hand.
Let it be clear that we are dealing here with very serious scholarship. Following its 427 large and closely-printed pages of text, Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own has nearly 150 pages of apparatus criticus, comprising 102 pages of end notes, a whacking 36 pages of Bibliography, and nearly 20 pages of Index, all tightly printed. This book is the product of years of research by a scholar who has long immersed himself in 19th century New Zealand history and who is already the author of the definitive biography of one of Seddon’s lieutenants, the Scots Minister of Lands, John McKenzie.
Brooking’s preface reminds us that it is over half a century since there was a full-length biography of Seddon, and that was R.M.Burdon’s book which Brooking calls “so infused with purple prose and quaint archaisms as to be almost incomprehensible to a modern reader” (p.8). Brooking wishes, as he puts it, to “rebunk” Seddon after the revisionist versions of King Dick that have presented him as “a demagogue, a racist, a cunning misogynist, a bully and a jingoist”. He declares his purpose to see Seddon’s relationship with Maori with greater nuance than the revisionists have allowed; and to accommodate the various legends that have accrued about the man as part of understanding his broad appeal.
I’ll cut to the chase with this one. Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own is a magnificent piece of work, both scholarly and readable, and certainly meeting Brooking’s aim of answering the revisionists without succumbing to hagiography. Seddon is seen warts and all, but we are still allowed to understand why he should be remembered – indeed why it’s valid to see him as great. And it is a great pleasure to see Brooking, gently but persuasively, engaging with and correcting historians who have chosen to see Seddon more harshly. (This is where the expansive end-notes are a particular boon.)
I can see no clearer way of dealing with this book than by considering, issue by issue, how it deals with those things that have been cause for comment by revisionists.
Take first the issue of Seddon’s relationship with women’s suffrage. Brooking is able to point out (p.71) that early in his career as Member of the House of Representatives (MHR), Seddon already supported a Married Women’s Property Act, which gave women a measure of economic independence. In Chapter 6, when he deals directly with women’s suffrage, he refutes the view that Seddon, as prime minister, delayed the measure, by examining the records of voting and the position of the upper house with which Seddon had to contend. Brooking’s verdict is that Seddon fully supported women’s suffrage once he was assured that it was a popular move, and this was in line with his lifelong habit of not legislating in ways that went beyond popular opinion.
On the related matter of Seddon’s connections with the “liquor interest” (the push for women’s suffrage was largely sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union), Brooking argues that Seddon has often been misrepresented as in the pay of the beer barons and was thus caricatured by Conrad Bollinger and others when they came to write their populist histories of liquor licensing in New Zealand. But Brooking presents an alternative view of Temperance people as in fact not promoting “temperance” at all, but pushing for the same sort of prohibition that later proved such a failure in the USA. Thus in Brooking’s view, Seddon’s “ wisdom, moderation and statesmanship saved the colony from extremist solutions to the liquor trade.” (p.120-121)
Necessarily the most nuanced chapters in this book are those relating to Maori. At the time of the Liberal government, the attitudes of Pakeha towards Maori were very much intertwined with the issue of land ownership, and the matter of wresting land from Maori for use and ownership by Pakeha farmers. The Liberal party has sometimes been misrepresented as a predominantly urban, or even “working men’s” party, but it was as much involved in the interests of the small farmer. I am pleased to see that, with regard to the “opening up” of land by the Liberals, Brooking chooses to quote W.H.Oliver’s witticism “if men of money… heard a tramp of boots it was not the hobnails of a proletariat in the way to a socialist utopia, but the gumboots of cow-cockies entering a capitalist society.” (p.146)
Chapter 9, carefully called “Paternalist: Seddon and Maori”, balances Seddon’s desire to open Maori land for Pakeha small-farmer settlement with Seddon’s genuine understanding of the past injustices that had been done to Maori. There is no whitewash here but (in the complexities of negotiations and land laws that Brooking reports) a balance presented between the reformer who could relate to and speak with Maori, and the man who made a particularly inept appearance at Parihaka when he met Te Whiti. Brooking gives the same sort of mixed report in the longer Chapter 10 where he considers the much-resented Dog Tax and the attempts to establish Maori Councils. One thing he makes very plain, however – Seddon had a major asset in his relationship with Maori with his loyal Maori lieutenant, the sophisticated Sir James Carroll, who fully understood the duality of Seddon’s attitudes to his race. True to his determination not to write a hagiography, Brooking ends his consideration of Seddon’s attitudes to Maori thus:
“Overall, a careful consideration of Seddon’s relations with Maori suggests that his record was at worst mixed. The representation of Seddon given by some historians as a rapacious, land-grabbing racist, and conniving colonialist, is little more than caricature….. Just as Anne Salmond has shown that Maori and Polynesians changed Captain Cook, so did Maori change Seddon. He spent so much time with Carroll meeting Maori deputations in Wellington, and on marae throughout the colony, that he developed an empathy far beyond that of contemporary Pakeha who mostly lived quite separate from Maori.” (p.256)
In the matter of industrial relations (largely covered in Chapter 11), over Brooking’s assessment of Seddon’s record as Minister of Labour hangs on the reality – diagnosed in detail in David Hamer’s classic history of the Liberal Party – that the Liberals were a broad-based party representative of cockies and small shopkeepers as much as of the urban proletariat. There is also the reality of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act coming under attack from the “left” of the working class, while at the same time lower-middle-class shopkeepers resented legislation relating to conditions of employment and hours of trade. In the latter part of Seddon’s premiership, the ”Lib-Lab” alliance, and attempts to keep the party’s real radicals in check, worked effectively. Brooking’s conclusion on this issue is that later revisionist historians exaggerated Seddon’s inability to hold on to the party’s labour wing. Brooking makes it clear that the real fissure with labour didn’t really develop until after Seddon’s death. He also notes that in after years, when it had got to the point of appealing to the electorate at large rather than pushing more doctrinaire Marxism, the young Labour Party would frequently look back to Seddon as the wise sympathiser with labour.
On women’s suffrage, liquor, land ownership, Maori and labour relations, then, Brooking’s documented account presents Seddon more favourably than debunkers have allowed.
Other elements of Seddon’s worldview and modus operandi are, however, impossible to justify to a modern reader and Brooking naturally doesn’t try. The intense anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism cannot be wished away. As Brooking notes of Seddon’s performance as a young MHR: “His relentless irrational attacks upon the Chinese in late 1887 and throughout the 1888 session added further to his kudos with the mining community, even is they appear embarrassingly racist to the modern reader. After condemning statistics which showed a decrease in Chinese numbers as ‘fallacious and unreliable’ ” Seddon moved unsuccessfully for the quota of Chinese immigrants to be decreased even further from the small fraction that it already was. (p.76). More examples of Seddon’s extreme measures against Chinese are given at pp.163-164. We could note that Seddon’s rhetoric never became as shrill on the issue as that of the respected Fabian socialist minister William Pember Reeves, but even so, it is an element of a defunct world view which we can now only regard with distaste.
Seddon’s intense jingoism, his desire for an enlarged role for New Zealand in the British Empire, and his vision of New Zealand dominance in the south-west Pacific also have to be taken on board. Chapter 12 deals largely with Seddon the imperialist – much of this about his glad-handing while on a tour of England – and Chapter 13 with a carefully stage-managed royal tour of New Zealand and with the jingoism of the Boer War. Says Brooking:
“Involvement in the Boer War brought out the worst and the best in Seddon. The Premier interfered rather too much in strictly military and diplomatic matters, and, at times, appeared to promote personal agendas ahead of the colony’s interests, or colonial interests ahead of the broader imperial good. He also dealt harshly with opponents of the war, seemed rather intolerant of free speech, and gloried in exaggerated and jingoistic reporting of New Zealand’s achievements at the front… On the other hand, his genuine personal interest in the soldiers, preparedness to champion them against the British authorities, and willingness to criticise the bungling of British health services provided support at the highest level in a more direct manner than ever occurred during the First World War.” (pp.324-325)
Because he is neither mythmaker nor hagiographer, Brooking is careful to note that the Liberals (under John Ballance) did not originally come to power with high expectations from the whole community. Among the colony’s opinion-makers, there was a general lack of awareness that major changes were afoot when the Liberals were elected: “Most papers seemed unaware of the deeper changes unleashed by the introduction of universal manhood suffrage and labour’s increased organisation. Indeed [Premier] Atkinson and the conservative press thought until late January 1891 that he had the numbers to form a new government. All the major metropolitan papers appeared uninterested until they became alarmed at the prospect of Ballance unleashing radical reforms.” (p.86)
He also (in Chapter 5) frankly acknowledges that as a minister in the first three years of Ballance’s Liberal government, Seddon was no great shakes. In terms of legislative initiative John McKenzie, William Pember Reeves and even Joseph Ward made more impact than Seddon did. So why was it Seddon who became acting PM when Ballance was sick? Brooking answers this one by referring Seddon’s powerful and effective speaking style in the House (p.100).
All of which brings us to the question of Seddon’s greatness. If he was not the great innovator and if he shared many of the common prejudices of Pakeha of his day, then how can he be called a great prime minister? Implicitly, Brooking’s biography tells us that it had to do with class and with Seddon’s ability to communicate the aspirations of most of the population.
On the matter of social class, the opening chapters (on Seddon’s mixed Lancashire-Scots background; on his days in Australia and as a West Coast miner etc.) also deal with the matter of the snobbery that sometimes greeted him in political circles. Brooking (Chapter 3) rejects the revisionist notion that there was an “oligarchy” running New Zealand, but he does note the class feeling in government and the class prejudice expressed against Seddon who, in his early days in parliament, was often ridiculed for his want of education and his coarse accent. Yet this very “coarseness” bonded Seddon with much of the voting populace.
It is interesting to see two people in particular emerging as ideological foes against Seddon among the Liberals themselves.
One was the mercurial and faddish Sir Robert Stout who, as presented by Brooking, never got over his pique at not having succeeded Ballance as Liberal leader and who (as a secularist freethinker and Temperance man) had little either temperamentally or ideologically in common with (Anglican, alcohol-drinking) Seddon. There is a clear element of snobbery in Stout’s reactions to Seddon, as presented by Brooking.
The other was William Pember Reeves (a rather uncritical biography of whom was one of the early works of Keith Sinclair). Reeves did not scorn Seddon in the way Stout did. But the Fabian was more the “gentleman” than either Seddon or John McKenzie, both of whom he would sometimes belittle for their lack of class refinement. When he deals with Reeves’ resignation from the cabinet in 1896, Brooking asks “Did Reeves fall or was he pushed? The correct answer, of course, is both. Seddon, with his uncanny antennae for public opinion, increasingly found Reeves’s determination to push reform ahead of what the electorate wanted to be a political liability, so he allowed his party and public opinion to manoeuvre overseas a politician seemingly set upon revolutionary rather than gradualist change.” (p.160)
This does not mean, however, that Seddon was unappreciative of Reeves’ hard work. Later in his narrative, Brooking shows Seddon visiting London and seeing just exactly what Reeves had to do as New Zealand’s high commissioner there: “Seddon soon came to realise just what a difficult and demanding job confronted Reeves…. Persuading Colonial Office officials, bankers, shippers, the press, and the magnates of Smithfield Market and Tooley Street who controlled the destinies of the frozen meat and dairy industries to give more consideration to the trading needs of a small and distant colony involved continual struggle and constant advocacy..” (p.300)
Seddon’s relationship with Reeves points up one of Brooking’s most consistent themes - Seddon was a man who knew the “art of the possible” by never pushing legislation ahead of what the electorate wanted. This is the second basis of his greatness.
On more incidental matters, Brooking (Chapter 8) refutes the revisionist view that Seddon’s Old Age Pension Scheme was parsimonious and miserly. He also notes Seddon’s political shrewdness in introducing this measure after divisions in his party over alcohol and women’s suffrage. Even more essentially, the introduction of pensions smoothed over the incipient divisions between rural and urban tendencies within the Liberal Party. Old Age Pensions seem one reason Seddon’s party won a complete landslide in 1899 and Seddon really did become known popularly as “King Dick”. It is also part of Brooking’s agenda to show (Chapters 14 and 15) that after his electoral victory in 1902, Seddon did not step back from reformist policies in order to placate the increasingly vocal “country” element in the Liberal Party. Instead, he points to the greater access to secondary education that Seddon promoted in 1902-03 and the setting up of a state fire insurance office and the beginnings of state housing and childcare.
From this biography, then, Seddon emerges as a man with many of the prejudices of his age but also as a man who genuinely did represent the electorate, who was genuinely forward-thinking, and who genuinely set in place things that bettered New Zealand and that later governments knew not to reverse.
Naturally a book as long and well-documented as this one has many anecdotes among its analysis. I haven’t given myself the space to note them all, but there are three that particularly appealed.
One is Brooking’s version (p.103) of the story about Seddon giving a dressing-down to a haughty aristocratic official who ridiculed his horsemanship once when Seddon fell off his horse in difficult terrain. Seddon’s response to the aristocrat was the type of thing that could only enhance his popularity with the democratic electorate.
The others, showing what a shrewd chap Seddon could be when it came to courting votes, concern his opportunistic courting of old Sir George Grey (Chapter 6) when he badly needed the Auckland vote, and later (Chapter 12) Seddon’s self-conscious burnishing of his own image when he made a carefully-planned and publicised visit to the ancient Grey to suggest he was the heir to anything “liberal” that the doddery old governor had done.
Seddon was a politician, after all.
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