Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own: The life and times of New Zealand’s longest-serving prime minister by Tom Brooking (Penguin Books, 2014), 584 pp., $65
At a mayoral reception during my first visit to St Helens in Lancashire in 1966, I was, when identified as a New Zealander, proudly ushered by the mayor into his parlour to admire the vast portrait over its fireplace of the town’s most famous son: Richard John Seddon, Premier of New Zealand from 1893 until his death in 1906, renowned throughout the British Empire and subsequently regarded by many as our greatest prime minister; a gigantic figure in our historiography but one around whom myths and legends clustered to all but obscure the real man.
In modern times he has earned equal obloquy for both his racism and his jingoistic imperialism from revisionists who insist on evaluating historical personalities – especially nineteenth-century ones – in the light of their own currently fashionable assumptions. In this superbly researched biography, however, Tom Brooking places Seddon firmly inside his own time and has stripped away many of the myths to reveal the man to be an even greater figure, in so many ways, than legend has hitherto claimed; and he has done that through sound, common-sense and objective analysis of facts. He has undoubtedly thrown down the gauntlet to fellow academics. Fierce, and characteristically vituperative, academic debate about this ‘King Dick’ is likely to enliven our university history departments for some time.
Seddon was born in 1845 in Eccleston on the outskirts of St Helens. From his school-teacher parents – Scottish mother Jane and Lancashire father Thomas – he inherited the belief in hard work, social responsibility and uncompromising democratic ideals that marked both Scottish and Lancashire lower-middle and working class popular liberal traditions. And Brooking at long last establishes that, in spite of the legends generated by such political enemies as Robert Stout, and historians including William Pember Reeves (his erstwhile colleague), J.C. Beaglehole, R.M. Burdon and David Hamer, Seddon was not only soundly educated for his class and times, but was always intellectually curious and formidably well read. Trained as a mechanical engineer, he worked his passage to Melbourne in 1862, where he worked again in engineering before spending time on the Victorian goldfields. Then, in December 1866, he arrived in Hokitika.
He steadily progressed – from storekeeper, publican and stentorian advocate of goldminers’ rights and local democracy – to national politics, as a follower of the radical, increasingly eccentric and paranoid Sir George Grey, becoming one of his most notorious young parliamentary ‘Greyhounds’. During the next decade he earned a fearsome reputation in the stormy House of Representatives as a parliamentary brawler and master stonewaller, ever ready to disrupt business by talking all night, before exasperated Speaker O’Rorke and an infuriated House majority instituted the closure to limit the length of parliamentary speeches. His size, boisterousness and Lancashire accent also drew down on his defiant head the ridicule of supercilious newspaper editors, of class-conscious opponents and of the intellectually arrogant – especially Robert Stout.
Yet during those same tumultuous years Seddon earned grudging resect. By the time the Liberal party – which he helped forge, alongside John Ballance, W.P. Reeves and others – won the 1890 election he was a force to be reckoned with. That election and the next, in 1893, were the great watersheds in our political history. In 1891 he became Minister of Public Works, Mines, Defence and Marine, ranking fourth behind Ballance himself, Patrick Buckley and Reeves, before acting as caretaker premier during Ballance’s final illness. And he performed so impressively that on Ballance’s death he was able to out-manoeuvre Stout and seize the leadership. Stout never forgave him.
The rest has become one of the best-known episodes in our history: the history of Seddonian Liberalism and a ground-breaking, even revolutionary, government whose succession of social, educational and political reforms and innovations shaped New Zealand for at least the next 80 years and, in spite of the upheavals of the 1980s, continue to underlie many of our civic assumptions. Seddon was, above all, a consensus builder with acute political instincts and almost uncanny antennae for public opinion that set him far apart from any previous New Zealand politician, and which have been matched subsequently by few except Keith Holyoake, William Massey and (maybe?) John Key. A pragmatist, he was also an idealist; a shrewd moderate who rejected Ballance’s and Reeves’s ideal of the static self-sufficient and utopian state in favour of using the state’s powers to improve and develop an outward-looking nation. Inspired by his own steadily developing ideals of Christian Socialism, it was to be a compassionate society. In all this he was loyally backed by his significant lieutenants: Joseph Ward, Jock McKenzie, the part-Māori James Carroll, and such dynamic public servants as Edward Tregear and George Hogben. Their achievements inspired, and were built on by, Michael Joseph Savage’s first Labour government.
Those achievements were massive. Votes for women – which had been so nearly achieved in the late 1870s – were supported by most politicians, while Seddon’s personal doubts were overborne by the persuasive force exerted on him by his beloved and influential wife Louisa and their equally dynamic daughters. The labour laws, driven by Reeves and including the industrial arbitration system, earned the Seddon government international fame. MacKenzie’s breaking up of large estates, and the advances to settlers’ legislation, likewise created waves. Old age pensions for the ‘deserving’ poor (regarded by Seddon himself as his greatest achievement) were never as generous as those in some other countries but, like the initial ideas for state housing, paved the way for the first Labour government’s achievements a generation later. Education reforms gave wider access to secondary education, created technical high schools and established Victoria University of Wellington. But none of these triumphs was easily won. Foes were numerous and ranged across the entire political spectrum: bitterly unforgiving Stout; Governor Lord Glasgow; a host of conservative newspapers; the more radical Left; and Protestant temperance zealots like T.E. Taylor. Seddon was a committed middle-of-the-road and tolerant Anglican, without the rabid anti-Catholicism of his nonconformist enemies. And then there was Pember Reeves, one of the finest and most influential prose writers in our literary history – ever his ‘candid friend’.
Seddon, with his gifts of being able to transform politics into a ‘performing art’, and even into a continuous entertainment (he sometimes included a song or two into his long public addresses), also consolidated the faction-ridden Liberal party, and to a large extent managed to incorporate, more or less amicably, its farming and industrial supporters. It was our first viable political party, but one built around himself and held together by his own huge mana, to such an extent that after his death lesser men like Ward and Hall-Jones could not hope to maintain its unity: not just in the face of an increasingly powerful Labour movement but, on the right, against the less likeable yet politically formidable Massey, who with immense skill gathered the hitherto scattered conservative and rural interests into a new opposition party: Reform.
Brooking deals admirably with what, for sensitive modern souls, are Seddon’s unforgivable sins: his racism and his jingoistic imperialism. Racism as a policy was endemic throughout Australasia, and in his determination to keep New Zealand’s ‘social laboratory’ purely a white man’s utopia, free of Chinese, Jews, ‘Hindoos’, Dalmatians, Syrians and Japanese, Seddon was of his age. But Reeves and Stout with their philosophy of social Darwinism were far more extreme. So were the unions, and both the wider political left and right. Colonel James de Renzie Brett’s defiant 1881 speech in the Legislative Council against the poll tax and his emotional eulogy on behalf of Chinese culture was regarded as merely another manifestation of Brett’s eccentricity; he was Irish, after all, and his own racial antipathy to Scots was notorious!
In his admiration of Māori and albeit paternalistic policies towards them, however, Richard Seddon followed his mentor Grey. Accompanied by Carroll, Seddon journeyed tirelessly into even the most difficult interior to meet the tribes. His relationship with Tūhoe was fraught, but most other tribes admired him, and he took pride in the popularity of the Māori contingents that accompanied him to Victoria’s jubilees and funeral.
Splendid as this book is, Brooking’s prose can be pedestrian. This detailed study is far from an easy read; it is, however, an academic tour de force, though certainly not a ‘popular’ biography. I normally dislike chapter sub-headings, but in a work so densely packed with facts they do serve as a guide for the research student. And although it largely follows the chronological path required in good biography, it also contains (as did James Rutherford’s vast and academic 1961 biography of Grey) a series of mini-theses.
Brooking’s biography will stand the test of time as the definitive account of a remarkable politician and his equally remarkable government. Hopefully it will encourage others to fill in gaps in the history of our first Liberal age with biographies of Stout and Carroll, especially, and maybe new studies of Reeves and Ballance as well.
EDMUND BOHAN is a Christchurch-based historian and novelist.