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Walter Nash

Walter Nash (12 February 1882 - 4 June 1968) served as Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1957 to 1960, and was also highly influential in his role as Minister of Finance. He is noted for his long period of service, having been associated with the Labour Party since its creation. Many also associate him with the gradual shift of the Labour Party away from its original socialism.

Early life

Nash was born in Kidderminster, a town in the English county of Worcestershire. He was born into a poor family, and his father was an alcoholic. Nash performed well at school, and won a scholarship to King Charles I Grammar School, but additional costs associated with attending prevented him from accepting. Nash began employment as a clerk, initially with a lawyer in Kidderminster and then at a factory near Birmingham.

In 1906, Nash married Lotty May Easton, and established a shop. He became highly active in his community, participating in a large number of societies and clubs. He also attended night school to further his education. By 1908, however, problems began to arise - his wife and son were both ill, and a daughter died at birth. In addition, an economic recession in the following year seriously harmed his business. The family decided to leave England, settling on New Zealand as a destination.

Arriving in Wellington in mid-1909, Nash became secretary to a local tailor. He also had two more sons. Nash's religious and political beliefs also began to solidify at this point, with the strong Christian faith he received from his mother being merged with a growing belief in socialism. Nash would remain a "Christian Socialist" for the remainder of his life, believing that the two components were inseparable. His political opinions were influenced by his friendship with prominent New Zealand socialists such as Michael Joseph Savage, Bob Semple, and Harry Holland. Nash also became a committed pacifist.

Nash's financial situation deteriorated, however, when the tailor's firm that he worked for (and was a shareholder of) declined. Nash and his family moved to Palmerston North, where he became a salesman for a wool and cloth merchant. Later, Nash established a tailoring company in New Plymouth along with Bill Besley, a tailor from Stratford, although this performed poorly.

Early political career

Nash had briefly been involved with the first Labour Party, established in 1911, but this association had been interrupted by his financial difficulties. In 1918, however, he helped to establish the New Plymouth branch of the modern New Zealand Labour Party, which he became highly active in. The following year, Nash was elected to the party's national executive.

In 1920, Nash and his wife travelled to Europe, attending various socialist conferences. When they returned to New Zealand in January 1921, Nash was fined for importing "seditious literature". Despite the reputation that this fine gave him among his fellow socialists, Nash was one of the more moderate members of the Labour Party.

In 1922 (a year after he had returned to Wellington), Nash was elected national secretary of the Labour Party. He is often credited with turning the Labour Party into a fully functioning entity, establishing an efficient organizational structure and paying off the party's debts. He also worked hard to increase the party's membership.

Nash stood for election in the Hutt electorate in the 1925 elections and 1928 elections, but was not successful until the 1929 by-election. He also contested the Wellington mayoralty. In Parliament, Nash became one of Labour's main finance spokesmen.

Minister of Finance

When Labour, led by Michael Joseph Savage, won the 1935 elections, Nash was elevated to Cabinet. His primary role was as Minister of Finance, although he also held a number of more minor positions. He was ranked third in the government, with only Savage and Peter Fraser above him.

New Zealand's economy was in poor shape at the time of Nash's appointment as Finance Minister, and so Nash was very busy for the early part of his ministerial career. Nash introduced a number of substantial changes in an attempt to improve the situation, including the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank of New Zealand. In 1936, Nash departed for England to conduct trade negotiations. He also visited Berlin and Moscow.

After returning to New Zealand, Nash became involved in disputes within the Labour Party about economic policy. In particular, Nash was heavily criticised by supporters of social credit, who wanted their views adopted as Labour Party policy. Nash was also attacked by the more radical socialists in the party, who saw Nash's pragmatic economic policies as too moderate. Nash, however, was supported by both Savage and Fraser, and emerged relatively unscathed. He gained the additional responsibility of implementing Labour's social security plan.

The first years of World War II were difficult for the Labour Party, with Savage seriously ill. Further problems were caused by John A. Lee, a Labour Party member who launched strong attacks on economic policy. Lee was particularly vicious towards Savage and Nash. Peter Fraser became Prime Minister after Savage's death, and Lee was expelled. Nash himself reluctantly abandoned his earlier pacifism, deeming the war a necessary one. For a time, Nash served as New Zealand's diplomatic representative in the United States. After the war, Nash attended conferences to discuss the creation of the United Nations, and also recommended that New Zealand join the International Monetary Fund.

As the 1950 election approached, however, the Labour government was becoming increasingly unpopular. Industrial strife and inflation were major causes. In the election, the opposition National Party, led by Sidney Holland, won power. Nash, however, retained his seat.

Leader of the Opposition

Shortly after the election, Fraser died. Nash was elected leader of the Labour Party unopposed. The first major test of his leadership came with the waterfront dispute of the same year, were major strikes were damaging the economy. Labour's position on the matter was seen as indecisive - the party was condemned by many workers for giving them insufficient support, but at the same time was condemned the business community for being "soft" on the communist-influenced unions. Labour suffered badly in the snap election which Holland called to reaffirm his mandate.

As Leader of the Opposition, Nash is not generally regarded as having been a success. His primary talent appears to have been in organization and finance, and not in the inspirational leadership that Savage and Fraser provided. He was also seen as too slow in coming to decisions. In 1954, a majority of the caucus was in favour of a new leader, but pressure from the unions allowed Nash to survive the subsequent vote.

As the National government began to grow unpopular, Labour regained some of its earlier dynamism. In the 1957 election, the party won a narrow victory, assisted by its promises of tax rebates and the abolition of compulsory military training. Nash became Prime Minister.

Prime Minister

When Nash took office, the country's financial situation was found to be worse than the previous government had admitted, with balance of payments a serious concern. Nash decided that drastic measures would be necessary to bring the situation back under control. These measures resulted in the so-called Black Budget, presented by new Finance Minister Arnold Nordmeyer. The budget included a significant tax increase, and generated widespread public anger. This was fueled by the National Party, which claimed that Nash and Nordmeyer were exaggerating the extent of the problem. The fact that additional taxes were placed on petrol, cigarettes, and beer contributed to the image of Nash's government as miserly. The situation was exacerbated by Nash's frequent absences from the country, leaving Nordmeyer and other Labour ministers to defend the government's policies by themselves.

Nash was also criticised for failing to act in the controversy over the 1959 rugby tour of South Africa, which was then under an apartheid government. On the insistence of the South Africans, the New Zealand team included no Maori players, a fact which prompted huge protests throughout New Zealand. Nash, however, refused to step in, saying that the matter was for the rugby authorities to decide. This decision cost Labour much support.

In the 1960 election, Labour was defeated by the National Party, and Nash became Leader of the Opposition once again.

Later life

Nash, who was now nearly eighty years old, was not as active as he once had been. The death of his wife in 1961 also took its toll. Gradually, calls for him to retire grew more frequent. Nash, however, refused to step down, partly due to a desire to continue his work and partly due to a reluctance to see Arnold Nordmeyer succeed him. In 1963, however, Nash finally retired as leader of the Labour Party, and Nordmeyer was chosen to replace him.

Nash remained the MP for Hutt until his death. He also became active in the protest movement against the Vietnam War, denouncing the bombing of North Vietnam by the United States. He died on 4 June 1968. Funds for a children's ward at a hospital in Qui Nhon, Vietnam, served as a memorial to him.

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