Scoop Review of Books

W B Sutch – Prophet Without Honour

By Tim Bollinger

sutch-002.jpgNew Zealand writer, thinker and public servant Dr. William Ball Sutch (1907-1975) was an intellectual giant in a country characterised by a culture of anti-intellectualism. Sutch was one of the country’s top public servants through the ‘Cold War’ period. He was economic adviser to two Ministers of Finance and Secretary-General of New Zealand’s first delegation to the United Nations after World War II. He was a best-selling author and popular commentator.

Dogged by New Zealand, British and American security intelligence agencies since the 1930s, he remained self-confident, irreverent and outspoken until the end of his life.

Growing up in Brooklyn, Wellington, in the 1920s, Sutch was a prodigy from an early age. He was the son of a carpenter and seamstress, and his education came by hard work, application and talent at a time when secondary grammar school education was by no means guaranteed.

At home he was a darner of socks and errand-boy for his working class parents. As a leading member of his Bible Class he was sometimes called to speak from the Methodist pulpit of his local church. Academically, he excelled. He was a housemaster of Nelson College, played provincial rugby, was a tramper, a rower, a long distance runner and a good rifle shot. He won a lot of admirers, but he pissed some people off.

Never shy of praise or attention, Sutch divided opinion throughout his life. Those who encountered him were rarely indifferent.

Sutch seemed convinced of his own rightness in all things. He could irritate, but he could also charm. He had little deference to authority but was always well mannered and refrained from both cursing and drinking. He was a creative thinker, with an ability for concerted effort and prodigious productivity.

By age 24 he had completed Teachers College, gained an M.A. and a B.Com from Victoria University and won a university fellowship at Columbia University in New York. It was here that he wrote his PhD thesis – ‘Price Fixing in New Zealand’ – in a single year.

Sutch was physically as well as intellectually adventurous. On gaining his doctorate he embarked on a self-educating tour of Europe and Asia at the height of the Great Depression. He would later write:

“I’ve seen people dead from starvation. I saw them lying on the tops of underground vents in Paris. I’ve seen them lying under newspapers in New York…”

Sutch returned to New Zealand, Christmas 1932, with a heightened sense of political purpose and colourful stories of his travels. He told of walking around the Arctic Circle into Northern Russia with nothing but a small backpack, a change of underwear, a toothbrush and chocolate (for barter); sleeping out on the tundra in Lapland, in the market square in Tashkent and the camps of Afghan tribesmen.

In an embellished account that implied he made an entire journey from Russia to India on foot “unassisted by permission”, Sutch’s exploits earned him a prestigious infamy.

Back home, Sutch was confronted with New Zealand in the grip of economic depression.

His family was unemployed and Sutch took relief-teaching work at Palmerston North Technical College. One pupil, the stocky son of a railway engine driver named Jack Lewin, recalls Dr. Sutch’s arrival at the school:

“I remember vividly this smart film-star looking guy with a moustache and staccato-firing questions the moment he walked into the room. The first impact was that you were in the hands of a new prophet.”

Lewin, a later union organiser and public service boss, would grow up to become Sutch’s right hand man at the helm of the Department of Industries & Commerce in the 1960s.



New Zealand in 1933 was a simple, conservative society – about to undergo radical change. A weak coalition government held on to power by its teeth in the face of growing unemployment and a wave of popular dissatisfaction. Michael King describes the Prime Minister of the time, George Forbes, as “the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time”: “…a bull-necked farmer from Cheviot who had captained the Cheviot rugby team…tough and stubborn but not inspiring.”

In Easter of that year, the ever dashing and energetic Dr. Sutch gained public notoriety when his mixed-sex tramping party got stuck in the Tararuas, trapped by swollen streams.

A massive search and rescue operation was undertaken – one of the first ever. Sutch’s party walked out of the hills safely a fortnight later, to tell the press that they “were never lost”. “We had an alimeter, a barometer, three compasses and a map, and we knew our position within a mile at all times.” It took days to recall the search parties and their actions were criticised in the press.

Dr. Sutch responded: “because of several inexact, misleading and even false reports which appeared in some dailies, we should like to make it clear from our point of view that the purpose of the tramp was to cross from Te Mahawai to Holdsworth Hut to see whether it would be possible to make a winter crossing.” The winter crossing remained elusive, but the party had proved their resilience and resourcefulness – reported in the press as the “Trampers’ Thrilling Story”.

News of this adventurous doctor of economics reached the ears of Finance Minister Gordon Coates. Coates himself had recently incurred the public’s wrath in the press by declaring that “no one would go hungry in New Zealand as long as there was grass growing on our farms”. People accused him of suggesting they eat grass.

On their first meeting Coates described himself and Sutch as “the two most unpopular men in the country”.

The Forbes-Coates coalition was under pressure to initiate financial reforms in the wake of the country’s economic collapse. Prime Minister Forbes was a stuffy conservative, but Coates was a modern and radical thinker.

In the earliest New Zealand example of a government think-tank, Coates gathered around him a team of economic advisers comprising left wing economists Dick Campbell and Horace Belshaw. It was their task to reform the economy. Sutch was their youngest and brightest star.

In 1933 Labour Party leader Harry Holland died. Sutch wrote a decade later: “It was at Holland’s funeral in October 1933 that the public realised for the first time the numbers of the unemployed in New Zealand…with their spokesman carrying a pathetic wreath they came in their shabby thousands, marching in fours as they had been taught in the European war.”

The same month Sutch began working in Coates’ office, helping to devise the economic changes needed to bring New Zealand out of its slump. Sutch planned the milk in schools scheme and helped set up the Reserve Bank, allowing government to control the value and availability of the national currency. This enabled later reforms like the housing programme and the guaranteed price system.

The measures were radical but could not save the Forbes-Coates administration. The Government was toppled by a Labour landslide at the 1935 election.

The leaders of the first Labour Government were self-educated Socialists drawn from the ranks of the trade union movement. Prime Minister Michael Joseph Savage “radiated amiability” and became the acceptable public face of radical reform. His second-in-command, and Prime Minister on Savage’s death in 1940, was Peter Fraser – a humourless Scotsman, intelligent and capable but “bereft of charisma”.

Sutch was enlisted into the services of the new Finance Minister Walter Nash, a pacifist and former bookshop owner who shared many of Sutch’s political beliefs. Under Nash’s wing, Sutch became one of the architects of New Zealand’s welfare state (although Sutch always argued that Coates would have taken the changes further).

Sutch travelled the world with Nash. On a Government mission to London in 1937 they attended a meeting of the Imperial Defence Committee from which it was later believed that information was ‘leaked’ to a Communist newspaper. The suspicions of Britain’s security service, the MI5, fell on Sutch. While in London he was reported to have visited leading officials of the British Communist Party and joined in a street march in support of the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.

The New Zealand delegation disregarded Britain’s suspicions. Nash stood by his advisor, but from this time successive British governments are said to have supplied secret information to New Zealand with the proviso that Sutch not have access to it.

Back home, Sutch remained an outspoken political commentator and agitator for change. He was a member of the Spanish Medical Aid Committee, the Progressive Book Club and the Society for Closer Relations with the USSR.

In the pages of the journal ‘Tomorrow’, he wrote sometimes as “W.H. Heard”, sometimes as “our Wellington Correspondent”, sometimes as himself. ‘Tomorrow’ was edited by cartoonist Kennaway Henderson and was a voice for New Zealand intellectuals, writers and artists radicalised by the rise of fascism in Europe.

In 1938, poet A.R.D. Fairburn wrote of Dr. Sutch:

“He belongs to no political organisations and claims to have no politics…He has always maintained a detached attitude towards all political groups leaving himself free to think and speak as an individual.”

The Government closed ‘Tomorrow’ down in 1940 under Wartime press restrictions, after it made a habit of criticising Government policy.

Now well known as a writer, Sutch was asked to produce a history of New Zealand’s social services for the centenary celebrations of 1940. The book was declined publication by Government on three separate occasions, despite one entire rewrite that the author completed in a matter of weeks. They were considered too political.

Sutch was told to “lock the manuscripts at the back of a filing cabinet and leave them there for a long time”. The Head of Internal Affairs, J. W. Heenan, who was leading the project said:

“Any public servant would be a damn fool to have such a production given to the world under his own name.”

Within two years both manuscripts had been published, as ‘Poverty and Progress’ (1940) and ‘The Quest for Security in New Zealand’ (1942) as a Penguin Special, which went on to sell 100,000 copies.

When Sutch was called up for military service in June 1942, the Government did not appeal.

Sutch returned to civilian life in 1945 as a director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, seeking and distributing relief goods for war-torn Europe. In 1947 the Labour Cabinet approved his secondment to External Affairs as Secretary-General of New Zealand’s first delegation to the newly formed United Nations in New York.

In the UN Sutch represented New Zealand as a small, developing nation with an independent voice from Britain or America. At a time when reconstruction aid from the US was increasingly determined by allegiance to the West via the ‘Marshall Plan’ and the ‘Truman Doctrine’, Sutch supported the cause of independent reconstruction aid to all of Europe and fraternised with delegates from the Eastern bloc.

In New York, he socialised with American Marxists Leo Huberman and Paul Sweezy, editors of left wing journal, ‘The Monthly Review’. They published his article ‘Inside the United Nations – the American Struggle Against Human Rights’ in 1951, criticising the United States’ disproportionate influence in the UN through covert ‘Hand-In-The-Velvet-Glove’ operators.

Writing as ‘A Special Correspondent’, Sutch described diplomatic bullying, officially sanctioned wire-tapping courtesy of the FBI, and racial prejudice in the appointment of black-only staff to service the amenities in the UN’s New York headquarters.

The FBI alerted Sutch’s superiors to the fact that they regarded him as a security risk, and in 1951 he was returned home to an ‘opening’ in the Department of Industries & Commerce. Sutch continued to correspond with Huberman and Sweezy and acted as a New Zealand distributor for their magazine.

Back in New Zealand, the first National Government under Sid Holland was in office, the country’s involvement in the Korean War was at its height, and the ANZUS Pact was about to be signed. Following the radicalism of the thirties, the country had settled back into a consensus of comfortable conformity.

Sutch began contributing a regular ‘Washington Letter’ to local politics and arts journal, ‘Here & Now’, under the pen name William McChesney Martin. For these articles Sutch adopted an American persona, although he was actually barred entry to the United Sates from this time on security grounds. In 1954, he wrote in ‘Here & Now’:

“…Under the McCarthy Act the US Consulate in New Zealand is responsible for disallowing visas to New Zealanders whose history includes, for example, contributing to medical aid to Spain in 1936. Where does the US consul get his dossier from? He gets it from the New Zealand security police…”

Until 1955 New Zealand’s security intelligence was in the hands of the Special Branch of the Police force. In that year, with the assistance of the British MI5, the New Zealand Security Intelligent Service (SIS) was formed, under “quasi-military” authority, headed by Army intelligence officer Brigadier H E Gilbert (later by knighthood and deed poll, Sir William).

Gilbert assembled about him a small group of security officers drawn from the army, the police and the British MI5. One of the Brigadier’s publicly declared objectives was to identify Communists in the public service and circumvent their influence. In an interview in the 1960s he said:

“…Young intellectuals who accepted Communism during the thirties and have since dropped their party membership now fill senior positions in the Public Service…(Those who) remain sympathetic towards Communism cannot, in my view, fail to exert their influences in accordance with their beliefs.”

Sutch progressed through the public service hierarchy to Assistant Secretary in 1956, but when the position of Permanent Head became vacant, his path was blocked. Sutch was in line for the job, but it was only with the re-election of a Labour Government in 1957, under Prime Minister Walter Nash, who vouched for Sutch, that he was advanced into the senior ranks.

As Permanent Head, Sutch transformed the Department of Industries & Commerce from an organisation that dealt with the mechanics of price control, import licensing and trade promotion, to one with a singular vision for New Zealand’s national economic development.

At a time when most arguments about the New Zealand economy revolved around how big a subsidy farmers should receive for their primary produce, Sutch advocated diversification into untapped industries like fishing, wine growing, manufacturing, industrial art and design – even the development of a local film industry. He criticised New Zealand as an economic ‘monoculture’ based on the production of grass, “processed by two animals, the cow and the sheep”.

Sutch anticipated a future where Britain would join the EEC, well before it happened, and argued for New Zealand to overcome its “colonial” economic status, to be self-sufficient and culturally independent. He regarded education as a building block for wealth creation and full employment as essential for full production.

He advocated a programme of “Development in Depth” and worked on all fronts to this singular end. He wrote submissions to the Commission on Education, established a Design Council and a Consumer Service (now the Consumer’s Institute), and provided philosophical and intellectual support to the campaign for equal pay for women.

Some looked to him as an inspired visionary. Others, especially those in the agricultural sector and the Chambers of Commerce, regarded him as a threat.

With his colleague Jack Lewin heading its ‘Industrial Division’, Sutch’s Department devised huge projects like the Marsden Point oil refinery, the Bluff aluminium smelter and the Glenbrook steel mill. Others, like the Nelson cotton mill, were stopped in their tracks following the re-election of a National government in 1960.

Sutch’s minister under National was John Marshall, known to the world as “Gentleman Jack”. Marshall was a measured conservative who didn’t like confrontation.

Marshall had little patience for Sutch. He had helped establish the SIS in 1955, and was convinced of Sutch’s ‘disloyalty’. Throughout the early 1960s National Party Conferences lobbied their leaders to be rid of Sutch, and Marshall was cautiously sympathetic.

By 1965, though he had not yet reached the retirement age of 60, Sutch had accumulated the required amount of government superannuation – a unique anomaly that was used as a means to lever him out.

The decision to retire Sutch followed a series of meetings between Marshall, the Prime Minister, SIS chief Brigadier Gilbert, and the head of the State Services Commission.

The original SSC decision cited as among its reasons the “attitude of the business community” and the “attitude of certain overseas countries”, although this was never publicly disclosed.

Sutch appealed the decision, but the appeal was unsuccessful.

Sutch continued to work in ‘retirement’ as an economic consultant, a writer and as Secretary of the New Zealand Woollen Mills Association. He appeared neither bitter nor regretful. A friend once described him as “like a rubber ball: the harder you hit him, the more he bounces back”.

Sutch updated his two 1940 social histories and published many new books including ‘Colony or Nation?’, ‘Takeover New Zealand’ (about foreign investment) and ‘Women with a Cause’ (about the rise of feminism).

With the incoming Kirk government of 1972, Sutch was offered Chair of the newly established QE II Arts Council, forerunner to Creative New Zealand, allowing him to fulfil a lifelong passion for promoting local arts and culture, and help forge the path for the foundation of the New Zealand Film Commission.

Though no longer privy to any sensitive government information, Sutch remained under surveillance by the SIS. His final downfall, at their hands, came in September 1974.

Sutch claims to have been approached at a party by a Russian diplomat in early 1974 asking how to get hold of the head of the New Zealand Israel Society. Sutch was a member of the Society, but told the Russian to look in the telephone book.

He agreed to another meeting with the diplomat in Karori, where the Russian Embassy was based, because he said he was “intrigued” and wanted to discuss why certain Russian novelists were not published in the USSR.

The accounts of Sutch and the SIS differ, but both agree to at least three recorded meetings between Sutch and Dmitri Razgavorov over a six-month period in 1974. Sutch kept a record of the appointments in his diary which all occurred at 8.30pm on Thursday evenings.

The meetings took place outdoors. Sutch said this was because Russian people prefer to talk while they walk in the street. Sutch himself was a pedestrian by choice, knew the streets of Wellington well and did not drive a car, regarding private cars as “an obstacle to traffic”.

The SIS had been following Razgavorov since his arrival in the country in January, and claim to have had no interest in Sutch until they first saw him with the Russian on 18 April outside the Karori Bowling Club – a meeting that Sutch said never took place.

The SIS appears to have had considerable foreknowledge of all Sutch’s appointments with Razgavorov. At Glen Road, Kelburn on 25 July, a number of SIS agents were present, hiding behind bushes and in telephone booths near to the pair’s agreed meeting place.

According to Sutch, the two spoke only briefly at the Glen Road meeting – of Zionism and Russian novelists – before a further appointment was hastily made and Razgavorov retreated to a diplomatic vehicle parked close by. “I thought the poor bloke had diarrhoea or something,” Sutch later told a TV interviewer.

The next meeting was at the corner of Hopper and Webb Streets, on 28 August, directly opposite an office that had been leased for more than three years by a certain ‘Tradebroker Research Group’ unlisted in any telephone or business directory. Six or seven SIS agents were present, some sat at the windows with binoculars, walkie-talkies and a “high-powered” camera.

Sutch said that Razgavorov told him “Things are terrible”, sweated profusely, and appeared to be “in a complete panic”. Sutch was seen to kneel for a moment and open his brief case – to adjust, he said, a half-empty a bottle of milk that it was his habit to take home from the office fridge each night. Nothing was seen changing hands.

A further appointment was made for the corner of Holloway Road and Aro Street on 26 September. On this occasion a whole swag of security agents were present, hiding in a public toilet block, waiting in cars and behind trees. It was raining. In addition, a squad from the criminal investigation branch of the regular police force was present.

Sutch never actually met with Razgavorov that night, but was apprehended by the Police on his arrival. Razgavorov was detained for 90 minutes by the head of the SIS operation before being released.

At Wellington Police station, Sutch was asked if he was “on the hook” with the Russians, to which he replied that if he was and said so, would it not be that he was then “on the hook” with the Police? The conversation was presented as evidence against him at the trial.

Sutch was charged under the Official Secrets Act 1951 with “obtaining information that could be prejudicial to New Zealand”, although simply associating with an “enemy” was sufficient grounds for suspicion and prosecution under the Act.

Trees and shrubs were cut down in the Holloway Rd. vicinity, but no further evidence was found. Sutch’s home was searched from top to bottom, but officers uncovered nothing more suspicious than “large quantities of untouched alcohol” – a wine cellar being something of a novelty in the 1970s, even for a cultural ambassador.

Sutch was tried by a jury and acquitted in early 1975. He died within the year, aged 68.

Bill Rowling, Prime Minister at the time of Sutch’s arrest and privy to regular security briefings from Brigadier Gilbert throughout the episode, claimed much admiration for Sutch, but said,” He was meeting with Russians alright…I think he had a bit of the ‘Walter Mitty’ in him.” The name is a reference to the James Thurber story about an ordinary man who imagines himself a hero.

Sutch was no ordinary man, but he saw things differently to other people. All his life, he said and did as he pleased, regardless of political consequences and often to his personal detriment. Sutch was a natural risk-taker, with what historian Keith Sinclair described as a “tactlessness (that)…sometimes amounted to genius”. ”

At his trial, the managing director of Alliance Textiles, Bruce Alexander described Sutch as “the most loyal New Zealander I have ever met.”

His reputation and influence continues to resonate in New Zealand society today.


W B Sutch – Prophet Without Honour originally appeared in WHITE FUNGUS magazine.

Tim Bollinger is a Wellington, writer, painter, and comic artist.