During the Great Depression of the early 1930s, a phenomenon unique in New Zealand history took place; a grassroots political movement exploded out of nowhere, immediately spread across the country, grew to include tens of thousands of members, and then disappeared.
This group was the New Zealand Legion.
“Greatly daring, we meet together, a band of men from all walks in life and from all parts of New Zealand, determined to strike a blow for our country, venturing to assume the leadership in a movement which we hope will bring prosperity and happiness once more to the Dominion”
Dr Robert Campbell Begg, President of the New Zealand Legion
This article is not a history of the New Zealand Legion; I will not get into the foundation of the group, nor it’s quick rise and even quicker fall. That information is easily accessible. This article will simply touch on three areas; who were the Legion, what did they believe, and were they (as is often claimed) Fascists?
1. Who were the New Zealand Legion?
The name “New Zealand Legion” was chosen based on the following implications:
The Legion makes an appeal to the patriotic sentiment of every man and woman in New Zealand.
The Legion aims at eliminating everything mean or underhanded in public and political life.
The Legion appeals to all its members to subordinate personal considerations and to work only for the interests of the country.
The Legion recognises no class distinctions. It will not ask its members to carry out any duties unless it can give them full support. Its members, fired by the common purpose, will stand shoulder to shoulder.
The Legion offers its members nothing but the opportunity for personal service and sacrifice for the sake of the country.
The Legion stands four-square against the enemies which threaten our national welfare; against disunion and sectional discord; against depression and fear; against self-seeking and vacillation in public life. It will fight for a restoration of confidence, for sound government, and for a united people.
The Legion was made up of mainly European men, with a few women supporters. This isn’t particularly noteworthy, as at the time the country as a whole was almost entirely European*, and though women were able to vote or run for office, they weren’t very visible in politics.
*The population of New Zealand (not including the territories of the Cook Islands, Niue, Tokelau and Samoa) as of 1st April 1932 was estimated at 1,524,633. This included approximately 69,466 Maoris, 2,719 Chinese, 1,144 Indians and 987 Syrians. The country was therefore about 95% European. Including the Island Territories, the entire Dominion still works out at about 92% white.
Detractors of the New Zealand Legion often claim that the members were all older, upper/middle class types, not real working people; and this is true of the leadership for the most part (though one member of the National Council may have been a humble tram operator), but frankly also applies to practically every political group in New Zealand history.
At their peak, the New Zealand Legion had more than twenty thousand members, and the true number of supporters was probably much higher.
For comparison, the Labour Party at the time had a membership of 30,000. Legion meetings in the cities routinely drew attendances of thousands, while even in smaller centres gatherings would often bring in hundreds of interested locals.
Many of the Legion’s members were prominent men, including company directors, solicitors, doctors and army officers; but many of the rank and file members were of more humble origins, especially in the rural centres.
The inaugural President of the Legion was Dr Robert Campbell Begg, a urologist originally from Dunedin, but at the time living in Wellington. The official journal for the Legion (“National Option”) was managed by a Mr. Stewart, and edited by Will Lawson.
Members of the National Council (as of 6 April 1933), were (in addition to Doctor Campbell Begg):
- Alan St. Clair Brown, a solicitor, from Auckland.
- John MacGibbon, possibly a tramway motorman, from Christchurch.
- Arthur Leonard Singer, a doctor and war veteran, from Gisborne.
- John Walden Harding, a sheep farmer, from Mount Vernon, Waipukurau.
- Frederick Joseph Nathan, a company director, from Palmerston North.
- Michael Edward Farrant Airey, former superintendent of the Eastern Telegraph Co.
- R. H. Quilliam, from New Plymouth.
- Frank Milner, rector of Waitaki Boys High School, from Oamaru.
- H. L. Paterson, from Dunedin.
- W. MacAlister, from Invercargill.
- J. McIntosh, from Wellington.
At another point, Major-General Sir Andrew Hamilton Russell, former commander of the New Zealand Division during the Great War, served on the National Council as a representative for the Hawkes Bay Legion chapter.
A number of low-level politicians seem to have either been members of, or sympathetic to, the Legion, and a number of meetings in various cities were chaired by local figures, such as Edward Morton (Mayor of Onehunga), Marcus Smith (Mayor of Dannevirke), P. W. Goldsmith (Mayor of Levin), Captain John Andrews (Mayor of Lower Hutt) and William Rowse (Mayor of Rangiora).
While the Legion never rose to any high power and never had an elected MP, the group was influential in local politics in many areas, while it was active. Legion members, or Legion-endorsed candidates, ran in a number of elections, often for every position available.
Advertisements for meetings, as well as Legion candidates in local elections, are very common in contemporary newspapers.
Other prominent members of the Legion include:
- E. W. Ackland, Will Appleton, W. J. Mceldowney, H. P. Mourant, L. Nelson, Major J. R. V. Sherston and F. Vosseler; all members of the National Executive as of April 1933
- Dr Elspeth Fitzgerald, a prominent female speaker, who addressed ladies meetings
- Evan Parry, Wellington solicitor responsible for the Legion’s economic policy.
- Clarence Meachen, President of the Legion after Dr Campbell Begg’s resignation.
- Sidney Holland, later a Reform/National Party MP and 25th Prime Minister of New Zealand..
- Dr (later Sir) George Douglas Robb, who was later a prominent surgeon, author and university lecturer. Robb was also a friend of the poet A. R. D. Fairburn, who wrote ’Dominion’.
- John Davies Wilder Ormond (later Sir John), who would later serve as chairman of the New Zealand Meat Producers Board and the Shipping Corporation of New Zealand.
- C. R. Watson, who had been secretary of the Waipawa Reform Party.
Numerous other rank and file members, as well as local chapter leaders, Legion speakers and supporters are known, but the vast majority have been lost to time, due to the short life span of the group. They were ordinary men who had leapt up to support this movement that promised so much during New Zealand’s time of trial and depression.
2. Were the Legion Fascist?
The Legion was not Fascist, and the policies mentioned in the next section do not align with Fascism or National Socialism; no matter what so many of the group’s political opponents at the time (and detractors ever since) have stated.
Speaking in Hamilton, Arthur Shapton Richards (Labour MP for Roskill) expressed a common contemporary leftist opinion of the Legion, “which he described as a fascist movement to attempt to establish a military dictatorship.”
At a meeting in Gisborne called by Mr. A. Whitehead to discuss the Legion, a Mr. P. G. Hansen alleged that the “New Zealand Legion is associated with the Fascist Party in Great Britain and with the Fascists and Nazis in other countries.” Several speakers at the event opined that the ideals of the Legion and the Labour Party were very similar, but they were in the minority.
Dr Campbell Begg himself denied that the group were Fascist, and when once approached by the Nazis while abroad he rebuffed them, saying he found their philosophy absurd.
Although they were not Fascist, there are a few connections and similarities between the Legion and Fascist Movements in Europe and America. Even simply the nature of the movement as a populist, grassroot movement of right-wing nationalists lends itself to comparisons with the numerous similar groups abroad, almost all of which were Fascist-oriented.
At a Legion event in Nelson, Mr. Ian Simson, “Independent Liberal-Labour candidate in the Buller by-election” rose to speak, apparently disappointed that not enough had been said about capitalism. During his remarks, Simson referred to himself as “a Lone Star Ranger”, before referring to the Jews and money-changers, insisting that “The world’s broke. The banks are broke.”
Sir Andrew Hamilton Russell, high ranking member of the Legion’s Hawkes Bay chapter, had previously served as president of the National Defence League (which promoted White New Zealand policies), and was a noted admirer of Mussolini and the Italian Fascist state.
In a 1923 interview with an Evening Post reporter, Russell said that “the rise of Fascism in Italy and the spread of its spirit into other countries is a startling phenomenon on the political stage, and may well be the beginning of a new order of society. If such be the outcome the world will owe Italy a second renaissance.”
“Its spirit is that of service and devotion to the well-being of the State… Fascism, an association of those who had fought for Italy in the war, came forward to save her from her internal enemies. Since the Government was too weak to enforce it, the Fascists took the law into their own hands, and repaid violence with violence, till the Communist invoked the protection of the police in the very streets he had formerly terrorised.”
There was some amount of street violence involving the New Zealand Legion too; and on several occasions Legion meetings were disrupted by Communists or Socialists. On the 9th of August, 1933, a meeting in Palmerston North was interrupted when “what appeared to be an organised element indulged in hostility. Derisive and noisy gestures from this section of the audience were drowned by the cheers of the main body of those in attendance.”
After the meeting, a letter was published in the Manawatu standard, sent by a presumably former-soldier who signed off as ‘Digger’. Digger attacked the disruptive leftist elements, and defended the Legion’s speakers:
“If they were portraying Moscow’s conception of fair play, then I thank God I am British. I very much doubt if there was one of them with sufficient intelligence to contribute one constructive thought, and yet they presumed to throw insults at a very noble gentleman who is gratuitously giving his valuable time in an endeavour to find a solution for our present difficulties.”
The Communists haven’t changed much since.
3. What did the Legion believe?
L. F. Rudd, A. St. Clair Brown and Dr Campbell Begg arriving to a meeting in Auckland
In short; the New Zealand Legion believed in large-scale governmental reform, Imperial Loyalty (yet economic independence), social conservatism, anti-Communism, and help for those who had been affected by the Depression.
To join the Legion (which did not identify as a political party), a prospective member had to sign an obligation form, including the pledge: “To be loyal to His Majesty the King, the British Empire, and the New Zealand Constitution.”
This loyalty to Britain was not complete subservience. Though Campbell Begg and the Legion members were patriots, and many of them had served in the armed forces during the Great War, they also saw the centralisation of New Zealand’s wealth in a small group of “international financiers” far away in Britain as a threat.
A brief summary of the Legion’s economic principles are:
Taking back control of New Zealand’s economy and making it more planned, preventing foreign ownership of industries and the growing investment sector, opposing migration of non-whites who would work for lower wages, and stopping or lessening the importation of cheap foreign goods at the expense of New Zealand goods and New Zealand workers.
A supporter in the Manawatu Standard, signing his letter ‘Laissez-Faire’, contrasted the Legion’s protectionism to the Labour Party’s policy.
“That has been one of the planks of the Labour Party, to open our doors for all and sundry, and then they squeal because a cut has to take place in wages… The Legion, with honourable men such as Dr. Campbell Begg, Sir Andrew Russell, and Mr. R. Quilliam, of New Plymouth, and others, appeal to me as the right stamp of men to put our wrongs right.”
Though the Legion were not socialists, they did support giving some amount of social aid to those impacted by the depression, especially to farmers.
The Legion believed that the contemporary system of Government in New Zealand was partly responsible for the misfortune of the Depression. It saw itself as, essentially, an emergency movement, which could hopefully bring about governmental reform and fix the system, both to bring the country out of its woes and to make a “more efficient government; local and general, based on national, not sectional, interests”.
As expressed by F. J. Nathan at a Palmerston North meeting, “It was considered that a Parliamentarian should not represent merely his constituency, but should be big enough, broad enough and unselfish enough to represent the whole country.”
The Legion wished to end party politics, which it saw as standing in the way of New Zealand’s national unity and contributing to the crisis of the time. They were against politics for politics sake, e.g. simply voting along party lines, and also thought that the party system was undemocratic, as the members put up as candidates were chosen by the parties and not directly by the people.
If party politics could not be removed, there were also ideas about bringing about a preferential voting system; which it was hoped would prevent any one system from dominating the government. On top of this, it would have reduced the size of the parliament by one-third.
The anti-sectionalist aspect of the movement was to bring about more national unity; Auckland should not thrive at the expense of Otago, etc., and politicians should think nationally, not simply of the region they represent. It was also against class-based politics, repudiating the belief that the group was nothing more than Tories in disguise.
“Already the legion numbers within its ranks supporters of the Reform, United and Coalition Parties, and representatives of all classes, including men employed on relief works. One of the latter was a delegate to the Provisional National Council.
Any statement that sectional influence is behind the movement can be looked on, if made, as a deliberate fabrication originating with some group which considers its own interests prejudiced by a national movement of all classes of the people”
Though they were against classism, they were also against class-based politics and the Communist divide-and-conquer attitude of pitting the people against each other based on their classes. Dr Campbell Begg said that “class hatred and class strife were not going to help anybody. There was a lot of jargon going on, but there could be no two loyalties. It was either for New Zealand or Moscow.”
The New Zealand Legion also wanted to eliminated the Cabinet system, which it said, “gave three or four years of virtual dictatorship to the Prime Minister and two or three inner members, the only mollifying fact being that at the end of each period the people had the opportunity of putting into office another dictatorial group.”
And that wasn’t the end of their planned reforms. They also wanted to re-draw the map of New Zealand’s internal administrative divisions. At the time, the country was a mess of hundreds of different, sometimes overlapping bodies; there were counties, provinces, boroughs, road districts, harbour boards, electorates, etc.
The Legion would have simplified the borders, making more rational divisions and amalgamating or creating new bodies as necessary.
Socially; the New Zealand Legion were conservative. They were patriots, proud supporters of New Zealand and the British Empire. They were loyal to their King and their people, but also wanted to secure a better place for New Zealand, which was being taken advantage of by the financial elites in England.
They were pro-military. Many of the Legion’s members and leaders had been soldiers in the Great War, and some of them had held quite high rank in the army, for example General Russell and Colonel Allen. They were also quietly pro-Christian; though they did not have any religious policies, and made use of spiritual themes in their speeches.
“With us the work of the Legion must be a living flame. We must carry out to the end the task to which we have set our hands; patiently, unswerving, undaunted and unafraid until, with Divine help, we have accomplished our purpose. With that spirit we shall not fail.”
The Legion were individualists, yet with an overarching national spirit. The Legion called on New Zealanders to “surrender the great illusions and delusions of State paternalism.”, and wanted to bring about a truer democracy; but also wanted all citizens to act in the interests of the country.
General Russell, at a meeting said that “The country must go forward as one great family and it would win through if problems were tackled as from a family viewpoint.” He concluded by saying “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all things will be added unto you.”
A voice in the crowd asked, “What is the Kingdom of God?”
“It is what you and I make of it on this earth.”
Although the Legion was not around long enough to have much impact on this country, their spirit lives on to this day through the various patriotic movements that have popped up over the years. Replace “New Zealand Legion” with “Action Zealandia” in the next paragraph, and the message would still be consistent.
“The New Zealand Legion is essentially a movement for youth; for those who are looking forward in life instead of backward,” General Russell said in another interview, “Its purpose is to help the young people who have been born into this muddled world of ours to solve some of their problems.”