John A. Lee: Politician, Memoirist and Assassin?

In one of his many political memoires, John A. Lee quoted with great relish the 1960s British parody of the socialist anthem ‘The Red Flag’. Known as the ‘Battle Hymn of the New Socialist Party’, it went:

The people’s flag is palest pink

It’s not as red as you might think

White collar workers stand and cheer

The Labour Government is here

We’ll change the country bit by bit

So nobody will notice it

And just to show that we’re sincere

We’ll sing the Red Flag once a year

It’s a pretty funny parody. The final line referred to the custom of singing the Red Flag at the end of Labour Party Conferences, and the image of white collar workers cheering Labour governments is comic because it is both unlikely and, in a way, true. By the time this song was written, that party in Britain had spent long enough as the official opposition and in government that it had been integrated into the establishment, which softened its harsher ideological edges or, from another perspective, diluted its true socialist principles. This discontent started in Britain as early as the 1920s and 1930s, and manifested itself most famously in the split in the party over the issue of unemployment insurance in 1931, when Ramsay MacDonald, the party leader, was expelled from the party, although he was able to continue as Prime Minister, leading a coalition with the Conservatives. Within a decade, there were a few in New Zealand who wished they could have done the same to their Labour leader.

In New Zealand, Labour was able to win the1935 election with a parliamentary majority (ten years before Clement Attlee led the first politically stable majority Labour government in Britain). The party leader, Michael Joseph Savage, was to become a national icon as the ‘architect’ of New Zealand’s modern welfare state. For Lee and some of his colleagues, however, Savage was a sell-out.

Lee clearly saw himself as a prospective leader within the party and the nation, and frequently argued with the relatively fiscally orthodox minister of finance, Walter Nash (who later became Prime Minister in the late 1950s). Government did not sit well with many whose early political careers were defined by a sort of rabble-rousing anti-authoritarianism. In an age where radio and newspapers were the most important vectors for political messages, many veterans of the left were more comfortable with the older style of soap-box stumping that had won them their first political successes at the beginning of the century. Lee found himself minister of housing, and began a state housing program that built a large number of houses for New Zealand’s poor. At the same time, his increasing discontent with the party’s policies in government and its failure to take full control of the country’s finances. In cahoots with some of his colleagues to the left of the party, he began to be increasingly critical of the party, both in private and in public.

Michael Joseph Savage found Lee’s backroom maneuvering and public disloyalty extremely vexing; by 1939, too, he was seriously ill. Lee did not relent in his attacks out of mercy for his failing health or the new burdens brought on by global war – in fact, sensing weakness, he amplified his attack. Thus it was that he came to be known, among his opponents and a large slice of the New Zealand public, as the man who murdered New Zealand’s best-loved Prime Minister. Savage died in 1940, commenting in one of his more lucid moments before he passed away that Lee had made his life a living hell. Lee was expelled (through Savage’s successor, Peter Fraser, and Walter Nash’s actions) from the party but two days before Savage died, on 27 March 1940. Having alienated the bulk of his potential support by ‘murdering’ organized labor’s hero, he founded his own party, which enjoyed little success in the years to come.

Lee’s memoires are tremendously entertaining. But it also offers insight into why he could not be a success, and why his vision of a socialist paradise was not never going to happen, even if he had somehow found himself at the head of the country, as he no doubt desired. In them, he describes a world of hope for the future in the 1920s and 30s, which is then destroyed by what he saw as the failures of his colleagues. He is ruthless about satirizing his fellow-MPs: one can see the kind of verbal brutality that so distressed Savage in the daggers behind Lee’s jocular tone. He is one of the best sources for anecdotes about politicians from his era as people. There is a bitterness behind his blithe storytelling that makes his narrative of the ‘failures’ of New Zealand socialism seem petty rather than poignant, especially given the failures of the kind of socialist central planning that Lee advocated later in the century in other parts of the world (and, arguably, in New Zealand).  A clever rhetorician and an enthusiastic ideologue, Lee’s inability to compromise, and his unwillingness to control his loathing for certain colleagues, made him a failure as a politician. It was Savage, the unmarried (Lee portrayed him, with distaste and probably inaccuracy, as a kind of deviant eunuch), quiet, patient organizer who won out in politics and in the history books.

Source: John A. Lee, Rhetoric at the Red Dawn (Auckland: Collins, 1965)

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