The 1919 polls represented the supreme effort of the prohibitionists, and since that time the strength and electoral support of the movement have steadily declined. During the 1920s the campaign still continued to arouse enough feeling to disrupt party politics on occasions, as in 1925 when a Licensing Amendment Bill very favourable to the trade was considerably amended by unruly Reform members of Parliament. The Government's failure to control its supporters shook the faith of many of its influential supporters and played a large part in the shift of business support to the United Party in 1928. Prohibition was losing ground. There were obvious reasons for this. During the twentieth century memories of the rough, hard-drinking pioneering era faded, and drunkenness, particularly in the more extreme forms, declined. During the twenties the example of the failure and abuse of prohibition in the United States also turned opinion against the movement. During this period in New Zealand there was a noticeable growth of moderate opinion on the liquor questions, and a swing away from prohibition. This is seen in the founding of a Licensing Reform Association early in the twenties. The association was attacked bitterly by the alliance. The alliance also faced the concerted power of the licensed trade which after 1905 was united to contest the triennial polls and carried out extensive publicity campaigns.
The decline of the alliance was also due to a number of faults in the nature and tactics of the movement itself. In its early years the alliance antagonised political parties by its constant pressure and tended only to harden them in their opposition to its demands. The alliance's attempts to have prohibitionists elected to Parliament were also largely a failure. In retrospect, too, the demand for a national poll on prohibition worked to the alliance's disadvantage. Whereas a slow but steady advance was being achieved in local no-licence, the trade found it much easier to arouse opposition to prohibition on a national scale, and many people who were content to vote against hotels in their own districts thought twice about supporting national prohibition. After the failure of 1919 there was considerable dissatisfaction within the alliance about the abandonment of local option polls. At the root of the alliance's failure, however, was the coercive nature of the whole prohibition concept. The extreme tone of much prohibition propaganda and its resolute refusal to admit the efficacy of any reform other than total prohibition alienated the support of many people who were dissatisfied with licensing conditions as they were.
In spite of these weaknesses the prohibition movement must be accounted the most important mass social movement in New Zealand's history. It attracted support which, in its heyday, cut across political, religious, and class groupings and aroused emotions and passions rarely generated by moral or political questions in New Zealand.
by John Richard Sinclair Daniels, M.A., Local Government Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington.
- Grogs Own Country, Bollinger, C. (1959)
- Temperance and Prohibition in New Zealand, Cocker, J., and Murray, J. M. (1930)
- No-Licence Handbook. Dash, G. ed. (1908)
- The Vanguard (1890–1954).