Am halfway through “Kiwi Keith”, Barry Gustafson’s portrait of our third-longest serving Prime Minister. He obviously had something, as he was picked out as a young man by Reform’s Coates and others as having leadership potential from his early days crop-farming in Motueka. As a young MP, after surviving the Reform-United Coalition defeat in 1935, he was seen as a possible contender for leadership in 1936 when as Gustafson says, split infinitive and all, that “a conference was held in Wellington to permanently fuse the remnants of the Reform and United-Liberal parties, and any other anti-Labour groups who wished, into a new New Zealand National Party.”
The Reform party was led by Coates and United by Forbes – “Coates was unacceptable to Forbes and his supporters, and Forbes was unacceptable to the Reformers.” Holyoake was ruled out as a Coates man, so the choice came down to Hamilton, a Reformer, and Wilkinson, an Independent favoured by Forbes. Hamilton won by one vote whereupon Wilkinson became an Independent again! The fault-line that still lies in the middle of the National Party goes back to its very foundation.
Holyoake continued to represent the moderate wing, and was supported enough after he had lost Motueka in the Labour landslide of 1938 for the National Party later on to subscribe to buying him a farm in the safe Pahiatua electorate – can’t imagine anyone doing that these days. He became deputy to the right-wing Holland, until Holland was forced to resign as he suffered from increasing dementia and Holyoake took over the leadership shortly before National’s loss in 1957. But so far I share John Roughan’s view – the man behind the plum in the mouth remains “an enigma still.” Holyoake himself said his greatest achievement was the development at Kinloch beside Lake Taupo, a surprisingly small view for a supposed statesman. The cover blurb says that Holyoake was the first Prime Minister to claim abroad that he was not British but a New Zealander – inside however one reads that his slogan that saved him from the 1935 election defeat was “FOLLOW ENGLAND AND VOTE HOLYOAKE.”