An early New Zealand rightist movement built on religious hatreds

While Alliance of Labour leader Arthur Cook lent his support to the Communist Party, another leader of the Alliance of Labour, its President Matthew Joseph Mack, was embracing a different political current, one that was extremely dangerous to working class interests. Harry Holland had a very public clash with this current too.

Membership certificate of the ASRS signed by Mack, dated 1884. Image: Alexander Turnbull Library Reference: Eph-D-RAIL-1910-01

Mack was a leader of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants of New Zealand (ASRS), one of the largest unions in the country, and one of the most conservative. He had stood for Parliament in 1911 for the first, short-lived, class-collaborationist Labour Party. In 1913 Mack led the ASRS walk-out of the Unity Conference. A devout Christian and prohibitionist, during the war he became a strong supporter of the war and conscription. The ASRS union itself  supported the war and conscription. Among the New Zealand Expeditionary Force was a special unit of railway engineers.

German nationals being escorted to detention centre by Railway Corps soldiers 1914. Rail workers union was strongly pro-war

Mack stood against Peter Fraser in the 1918 by-election, where his candidacy was endorsed by the Protestant Political Association (PPA) as “a Protestant who can sing the National Anthem, loyal and patriotic, out to win the war” in contrast to Fraser who stood for “disloyalty against Britain and for Germany, Bolshevikism in New Zealand, industrial trouble and suffering.”

The PPA arose out of the militarist scapegoating campaigns of the war years, which targeted people of German descent in the first instance, then looked for other ‘enemies within.’  Irish immigrants and Catholics were among the targets, due to old anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudices imported from Britain, heightened by the prominence of Irish Catholic workers in the campaigns against Conscription (especially in Australia) and then raised still higher by the Irish rebellion of 1916. By late 1915, Reverend Howard Leslie Elliott, a pastor at Mt Eden’s Baptist Church, was delivering sermons alleging a Catholic and Irish conspiracy to take over the police, education, and the civil service, and laying the blame for the war at the feet of the Vatican. Catholic schools, he claimed, were ‘seedbeds of disloyalty.’ His cause was taken up by some of the local Orange Lodges, who introduced Elliott to a wider audience.

By 1917, with the help of the Orange Lodges’ Vigilance Committee, Elliott had mobilised a mass movement promoting sectarian hatred against Catholics, publishing 20,000 copies of a pamphlet entitled Rome’s Hideous Guilt in the European Carnage and a regular newsletter called The Sentinel, and supporting Elliott as a full-time travelling lecturer. When some of this literature fell afoul of the postal censorship, Elliott initiated a court case in which he claimed this was the work of Catholics in the Post Office.

PPA cartoon shows Catholics in control of both Liberal and Labour parties. Image reproduced in NZ Truth 27 December 1919

The PPA continued to grow rapidly throughout 1917. By December, Elliott claimed a membership of 20,000 in 40 branches; by April 1919, he claimed 200,000 members.  Increasingly, he denounced the unholy alliance between Catholics and the union movement.  The Labour Party, he claimed, was a tool of the Catholic organisations. “With 70,000 Protestants at the war, the Roman Catholics wanted an election now, and with the help of Labour, hoped to put a government into power,” Elliott declared in July 1917.  (In 1918 he traveled to Westport to support the Liberal candidate – a Catholic – against Harry Holland in the Grey by-election, explaining that “it was not a matter of religion but of loyalty.”)

Rattled by Peter Fraser’s easy win over the PPA candidate Mack in the Wellington Central by-election of 1918, Howard Elliott stepped up his anti-Labour rhetoric as the 1919 election loomed. “The Liberal Party was slipping into oblivion, for which there need be no regret. They had filled the Post Office, Police Force, Lands Department and other branches of the civil servants with Roman Catholics…”

Elliott denounced the government’s decision to exempt Marist Brothers from conscription.  “Our schools had been depleted of teachers and their teaching efficiency lowered by conscription, while the Marist schools were allowed to go on as if nothing had happened and there was no war on…

“There was rising in New Zealand a new Labour Party—the extremist section of Labour, which represented industrial disorder and strike. The I.W.W. was an organisation controlled from Berlin. These extremists were in sympathy with the I.W.W. organisations and said that those standing against them, as the representatives of the “official’ Labour party, were splitting the labour vote. Only ten out of 70,000 of the union workers of New Zealand were affiliated with the so-called official Labour party. He held that the P.P.A. had more right to say it represented Labour than the extremists. The official Labour was the bitterest enemy of the P.P.A. in New Zealand.”

Elliott said the PPA was the only party capable of fighting “Rome, extreme Labour, some part of the Liquor Trade, and the Liberal Party,” and that “They should to return a decent set of men —not necessarily men of the Reform Party —and let those men elect their own leader.” Massey emphatically denied any connection to Elliott.

Reform Party Prime Minister and Protestant Orangeman William Massey (left) with Liberal Deputy PM and Irish Catholic Joseph Ward. The wartime coalition was unraveling by the end of the war. Photo: Herman John Schmidt National Library of NZ

After Elliott had addressed a meeting in Hamilton in 1917 that spilled out into a riot, the New Zealand Herald had urged the suppression under the War Regulations of the “importation of unbridled religious fanaticism into political problems” with its potential for “disturbing national harmony.” The threat to national harmony it had in mind was probably the growing tensions between Prime Minister William Massey, a Protestant Orangeman, and the Deputy Prime Minister, Irish Catholic Joseph Ward.

Elliott’s movement was certainly built on sectarian hatreds, but with its frequent recourse to conspiracy-mongering and slander, combined with its attitude of suspicion and distrust towards the police and other instruments of capitalist rule, its glorification of the war, militarism and the empire, its moral crusade against alcohol, and its intense hostility to the organised working class – masked by its demagogic claim to speak for labour – there was much more to this movement than ‘religious fanaticism.’

In those same years a movement was growing in Italy, characterised by extreme violence against the working class, which took the name Fascist. The movement that grew up around Howard Elliott in New Zealand would today probably be recognised as having many of the characteristics of an incipient Fascist movement, a movement tending towards extra-legal violence against workers, a dagger aimed at the heart of the working class.

When King George V of England paid a visit to Pope Pius XI in 1923, Elliott’s conspiracy-mongering escalated as far as accusing the King of secretly colluding with Rome against the Empire, a charge that, as Harry Holland pointed out in Parliament, would have resulted in sedition charges had any member of the labour movement made it. Using language that he had previously used to describe the Irish Unionist Edward Carson, organiser of the Ulster Volunteers, a unionist paramilitary force, Holland denounced Elliott as “one of the most disloyal men in New Zealand.”

Vivian Potter, 2nd Lieutentant in NZ Army Corps 1916. A strikebreaker at Waihi, he became chief parliamentary spokesperson for Elliot and Protestant Political Association. Photo: Herman John Schmidt Auckland City Libraries

Vivian Potter, Reform MP for Roskill, was by this time the spokesman for Elliott’s anti-Catholic movement in parliament. Potter had been a leading strikebreaker at Waihi, and had taken part in the thugs’ dragnet that drove the defeated strikers out of town. After the strike, he had toured the country lecturing in favour of Arbitration. He joined the Expeditionary Force as an officer in the war. Potter and Elliott challenged Holland to repeat his accusations outside of Parliament, where he would not be protected by parliamentary privilege.

Harry Holland took up the PPA challenge in July 1924, in an extraordinary public meeting which filled the Empress Theatre, the largest movie theatre in Wellington, to overflowing, with another thousand unable to gain admission. There Holland delivered the proof of his charges of Elliott’s disloyalty and seditious statements, in the form of quotes from articles by Elliott in his paper The Sentinel and other literary pieces, and first-hand accounts of Elliott’s speeches at his meetings. Elliott was reported to have told a meeting, “We sang God Save the King at the commencement of this meeting, and I hope we will sing it again at the close; but we don’t mean ‘God save our king.’ We mean ‘God save our free, glorious, Protestant Empire.’” An article under Elliott’s name in the Sentinel spoke of “the determination of the ordinary Protestants that never again in the Dominion or Empire shall Rome rule”, adding that “They [the Protestants] are prepared to sacrifice men and party, even the occupant of the royal throne, to ensure their safety.”

“What does this mean?” Holland asked the meeting. “It is, of course, a gross libel on the Protestants as a whole, who are law-abiding and decent-minded citizens.  … But it certainly means that under given conditions Mr Howard Elliott is prepared to advocate rebellion against the King.”

Holland concluded by stating the Labour Party’s stance on religion. “We include in our ranks men and women of all religions and of no religion…. When a man comes seeking membership in our party, we do not him what church he belongs to or whether he belongs to any church. We do ask him if he will accept the industrial and political programme of Labour, with its supreme objective, and the planks of its programme, which are stepping-stones to that objective. Our business is to build towards a Human Solidarity. The business of the sectarian agent is to divide people into warring camps.”

Elliott’s movement was already in decline by the time of this meeting; this meeting of thousands organised by Holland was its death-blow. After this political defeat, and as the possibility of a revolutionary working class challenge to capitalist political rule receded in the mid-1920s, Elliott and his organisation faded into obscurity, like many of the early rightist organisations which grew up in various countries in the immediate aftermath of the war. The Protestant Political Association wound up at the end of the decade.

However, in defeating Elliott, Holland had also given recognition to the institution of monarchy. He had validated the use of accusations of disloyalty and sedition laws – which had twice been used to silence Holland himself in the past – and had dissolved the class solidarity of the past into a vague ‘human solidarity.’ It was another indication of how far he had retreated from his earlier class-struggle politics.

By the time of the 1922 general election, the course of Holland, Fraser, Semple, Parry, Hickey, Webb, Savage, and all the other former Red Fed class-struggle leaders towards accepting the framework of capitalist electoral politics had become irreversible.

The end of Britain’s guaranteed prices for wool and dairy products in 1921 produced a sharp slump in the New Zealand economy, which reached its nadir in 1922. Land prices also slumped, driving thousands of the newly-settled ex-servicemen farmers off their farms.

With the end of the post-war boom, the favourable conditions for union organising also ended. First the Maoriland Worker and then the Alliance of Labour returned to a position of supporting the Labour Party.  In preparation for the election, the pressure increased on those Labour leaders who had identified themselves with Bolshevism to drop the talk of revolution and declare themselves for ‘peaceful methods’ in order to better appeal to Liberal-minded voters. Peter Fraser made it clear enough at the 1921 Conference of the Party that “…the Labor Party stood against the methods of force and violence for the achievement of its objects – the socialisation of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. The party adhered wholly and entirely to legal and constitutional methods of political action, including the contesting of Parliamentary, municipal, and local body elections.” Fraser added that the party’s choice of methods was made with “no influence from outside New Zealand.” From this point onwards, without any significant dissension, the course of the Labour Party was set for the next few decades. It was to be a party of reforms, functioning entirely within the framework of the capitalist electoral system. In recognition of the unanimity on this course, the Social Democratic Party ended its separate existence in June 1922.

Holland alone seemed still to feel some discomfort with this. At almost the same moment Fraser was speaking, Holland was defending, before an Australian audience, the need for a “Dictatorship of the Proletariat based upon the workers own political organisation and driven by the dynamic class consciousness of the revolutionary workers.”  But Holland’s strategy towards winning the dictatorship of the proletariat was indistinguishable from Fraser’s “wholly and entirely legal and constitutional methods.” In practice, he fell into line with the rest of the party.

Harry Holland in 1925. Photo: Stanley Polkinghorne Andrew. Alexander Turnbull Library Ref: 1/2-043531-F

For the next eleven years until his death, Holland attended to his responsibilities as parliamentary leader of the Labour Party, speaking in favour of whatever reforms were in the interests of workers, opposing laws that restricted union organisation or political freedoms, exposing the myriad forms of class bias in government expenditures, declaiming against those unions which still refused to give electoral support to the Labour Party, and defending the insipid Labour Party programme at election rallies. He was a hard-working and capable member of Parliament, and as a parliamentary debater he was respected by friends and enemies alike. His speeches and pamphlets show evidence of careful research and broad historical knowledge. But the contradiction between the banality of this life and the boldness of vision which marked his youthful revolutionary strivings must have been obvious, and painful.

As the revolutionary working class politician in Harry Holland withered and died, the revolutionary thinker and educator in him took refuge in historical reading and research, verse and literature, and political struggles beyond the shores of New Zealand. For just as politics in New Zealand settled down into electoral stability, some important struggles broke out in the Pacific Islands now dominated by New Zealand imperialist rule.

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