Dr Michael Bassett

Dr Michael Bassett

"Unofficial Channels"

Review of "Unofficial Channels", published in International History Review, vol.22, 2000.

The book is a collection of letters between the Secretary of External Affairs and head of the Prime Minister's Department, Alister McIntosh, and fellow diplomats Foss Shanahan, George Laking and Frank Corner, 1946-1966.

Review by Michael Bassett

In colonial times before embassies and high commissions, British governors acted, amongst other things, as spies for "the old country". They were expected to send back quarterly reports to London reporting fully and frankly on what they observed in the colony, and especially what was happening politically. When the governors returned to Britain they often took all their correspondence with them, and historians had to search the Colonial Office files for copies. While there had been a New Zealand High Commission in London from early times, an embassy didn't open in Washington till 1942, with High Commissions in Canada and Australia over the next eighteen months. Alister McIntosh, New Zealand's first Secretary for External Affairs and Permanent Head of the Prime Minister's Department, took to communicating with his fledgling diplomatic service by way of confidential, sometimes indiscreet personal letters, not unlike those sent in earlier times by the Governors. A selection of the correspondence to and from McIntosh forms the content of this book. Occasionally there's a weighty think piece about strategy; but most letters deal with day-to-day problems - the fate of respective ministries in New Zealand, the state of the current prime minister's health, mental or otherwise, the peculiar characteristics of the High Commissioners of the day, and a fair degree of special pleading by diplomats out in the field who are worried about their pay and/or status. Diplomatic heads of mission are kosher, political ones unacceptable. A picture emerges of highly intelligent men (and for a long time Jean McKenzie, Charge d'Affaires in Paris from 1949, was the only woman), struggling to do their best for their country with limited resources, while creating career paths for themselves, and jealously guarding their perks.

This is an enjoyable book. The interest value for historians comes mostly from the indiscretions contained in the letters. Only 38 when he became Secretary, McIntosh was liberal-left in his political inclinations, and tended to recruit able university graduates of a similar stripe. He admired Peter Fraser, New Zealand's wartime Prime Minister, and none of Fraser's successors measured up. Holland (Prime Minister 1949-57) emerges as a lightweight with little knowledge of, nor interest in foreign affairs, and no respect for the service. Nash (1957-60) was nearly 76 when he took over, and was as disorganised as he'd always been. "He just sorts and resorts his blasted papers and gets furious with any of us or with his colleagues for doing anything without consulting him", McIntosh reports at one point. "Sometimes the Prime Minister is extremely good, other times extremely bad, and at all times extremely exasperating....His worst habit is speaking at excessive length at after dinner speeches". Holyoake (1960-72) was inert, little interested in foreign affairs, capable of "churlish insensitivity" to the diplomatic service, and sometimes went for months without talking to his head of staff. Shanahan was younger and serviced the War Cabinet before External Affairs was established. While he was a forceful, influential character who died just before the end of the period covered by this book, Shanahan seldom emerges from the shadows. Both he and Laking were lawyers by training. Laking's letters to McIntosh are less amusing than the ones he receives, but he is a shrewd observer, and quickly gets the measure of the politcal appointment, Leslie Munro, who was inflicted on New Zealand's embassy in Washington in 1951. He nicknamed him "Big Julie" after the gangster in Guys and Dolls. Laking's report on the complex Lyndon Johnson from close observation gets near to the heart of that very complex creature. Corner, the youngest, and the sharpest of the group, was a history graduate with a talent for analysing trends over time. His perceptive post-war analyses from London of Britain's declining power and influence in world affairs keep reminding the reader of the complexities which lay ahead for the ex-colonies. For most of his long stint in Britain, Corner is accompanied by a parade of second-rate ex-politicians as High Commissioners, who succeed in getting in the way of diplomacy, rather than aiding it.

This is the second volume of letters edited by McGibbon, and possibly less satisfactory than his first. Undiplomatic Dialogue dealt exclusively with correspondence between McIntosh and his former boss, Carl Berendsen, "an arch Tory", who preceded him as head of the Prime Minister's Department. McGibbon finds it more difficult handling four rather than two correspondents. The selection of letters is more capricious; to one who has read many others which didn't get selected from the earlier files, it's occasionally puzzling. Individuals are discussed in letters, then vanish; the precise fate of the London High Commissioner, F.W. Doidge, who plagued Corner for several years, is never explained. Nor is it easy to ascertain in the fifties and sixties precisely what the best brains in External Affairs felt was an ideal New Zealand strategy in relation to Vietnam. They rail against the political considerations that constantly drove Holyoake's decisions, but if they ever brainstormed about strategy, there is no sign of it here. Over Suez, however, they quickly perceived a fundamental, post Peter Fraser reality about foreign affairs: New Zealand's politicians thought so little about them that both major parties contrived to sound little better than the front page of Beaverbrook's Daily Express. New Zealand's century of economic insulation against the world, which the early governors looked upon with disfavour, seems over time to have affected politicians' thinking about the world in general. If these letters are any guide, for much of the time only a handful of Foreign Affairs officials have given a hoot about New Zealand's place in the world.