Story: Sutch, William Ball

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Sutch, William Ball

1907–1975

Teacher, economist, writer, diplomat, public servant, social policy analyst

This biography, written by Brian Easton, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 5, 2000.

William Ball Sutch was born in Southport, Lancashire, England, on 27 June 1907, the third of five children. He arrived in New Zealand at the age of eight months, when his family migrated to Wellington. His father, Ebenezer (Ted) Sutch, was a journeyman carpenter, and his mother, Ellen Sutch (née Ball), a dressmaker. Both had determined characters, and were widely read in the social fields, despite having only elementary schooling. They were staunch Methodists and were involved in the United Ancient Order of Druids Friendly Society. The household allocated various tasks to each child, independent of gender. Bill’s included making the soap, jam, pickles and Yorkshire pudding, polishing the floors, turning the mangle, bringing the findings (such as cotton thread) for his mother’s work, and minding the baby. His strong-minded and financially canny mother, whom he adored, gave him a lifelong commitment to women’s causes.

After Wellington College, Sutch went to Teachers’ Training College (1926–27) and Victoria University College, Wellington, where he graduated MA (1928) and BCom (1931). To finance his studies he worked as a telegraph delivery messenger, newspaper vendor, farm labourer, builder’s labourer and grocery assistant. He taught at Nelson College from 1928 to August 1930, when he transferred to Wanganui Technical College. The sickly child had developed a fine physique and in his youth he was active in sport and the church: he participated in several tramping trips, one over the Copland Pass, and another in the Tararuas, where he became stranded with three others for 16 days. He remained a handsome man throughout his life, with a dapper moustache and neatly dressed, and a teetotaller. He had an intense personality, with the capacity to charm, as well as alienate.

A fellowship at Columbia University, New York, led to a PhD with a thesis on ‘Price fixing in New Zealand’ in 1932. He travelled through the United States and Western Europe, sleeping rough ‘to see how the poor people of other countries had to live’. Returning through Scandinavia and the Soviet Union to Afghanistan, India (where he contracted malaria) and Australia, in late 1932 he reached New Zealand, which was in the deepest part of the inter-war depression. His entire family was unemployed, doing a little relief work. For a short time so was Bill, but in early 1933 he went relief teaching at secondary schools. The experiences of his friends and relatives during the depression years shaped Sutch’s thinking about New Zealand and the world economy.

In August 1933, because of his advanced qualifications in economics, Sutch joined the staff of the then minister of finance, Gordon Coates. He became private secretary to Coates and, after the 1935 election, to Walter Nash, accompanying him on overseas trips. Thus he was closely involved in most of the main economic debates of the period, including those on the Reserve Bank, guaranteed prices, and exchange and import controls. He was on the committee of the Social Science Research Bureau and the Advisory Council of New Zealand Standards Institute.

On 12 January 1934 at Wellington, Bill Sutch married Morva Milburn Williams, a schoolteacher. There were no children of the marriage. An active member of the Wellington cultural and intellectual community, Sutch helped found the Fabian society that year and was active in the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, the Left Book Club, Progressive Publishing Society, and the Wellington Co-operative Book Society (Modern Books). He began publishing regularly on a wide variety of contemporary economic and political issues, in Tomorrow (frequently under pseudonyms) as well as in learned journals and official publications. As unofficial Wellington editor of Tomorrow , he was involved with the publication in 1939 of John A. Lee’s controversial ‘Psycho-pathology in politics’.

In 1941 Sutch’s Poverty and progress in New Zealand , a history with the theme of social difficulties driving national development, was published as a Penguin special. In 1942 The quest for security in New Zealand was published, selling over 100,000 copies. Both were originally versions of a text commissioned by the National Centennial Historical Committee for the centennial publications as a social history, but each had been rejected. It is said that Sutch was advised by J. W. Heenan, under-secretary for Internal Affairs, that the two manuscripts should be locked away and left for a long time.

These public activities by an official closely involved in political advice led to conflict with his political masters, especially the prime minister, Peter Fraser, and late in 1941 he moved to the Ministry of Supply (later incorporated into the Department of Industries and Commerce). He entered the army in June 1942 and became a gunner, and later a gunnery instructor. He did not serve overseas and was discharged in November 1943. He worked briefly for the Prime Minister’s Department and the following year returned to the Ministry of Supply as an advisory economist, dealing with policy issues such as lend-lease, foreign trade, and price equalisation. He was the trade union nominee on the first Government Railways Industrial Tribunal, which fixed wages.

His marriage to Morva was dissolved on 2 February 1944, and he married Shirley Hilda Stanley Smith, a lecturer (later a lawyer), in Auckland on 2 June that year. They were to have one daughter.

In 1945 Sutch was based in Sydney, as deputy director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, responsible for the south-west Pacific. He moved on the following year to direct its operational analysis division for Europe, based in London. From 1947 to 1951 he was secretary general of the New Zealand delegation to the United Nations in New York. There he chaired the United Nations’ Social Commission in 1948 and 1949, and UNICEF in 1950. He contributed to the creation of an independent international public service, and actively discouraged race discrimination. Later he played a crucial role in a UN decision to continue with UNICEF, despite a United States desire to close it down.

Returning to New Zealand in 1951 Sutch became, in turn, economist, assistant secretary and, in 1958, permanent secretary for the Department of Industries and Commerce. His term commenced with a downturn in export prices. The Department of Industries and Commerce applied import and price controls, and promoted industrialisation and diversification. It sponsored trade promotion and export incentives externally, and trade practices legislation, the New Zealand Industrial Design Council and the Consumer Service (later Consumers’ Institute) domestically. Sutch’s promotion of industrialisation, with an explicit argument that New Zealand was too dependent upon pastoral products, was anathema to much of the farming community, while some in the business community did not trust him. In March 1965 he was forced to retire after 40 years of public service employment. While Sutch’s administration promoted protection via import controls and created some new domestically oriented firms – of which the Marsden Point oil refinery and the Glenbrook steel mill were the largest – it also laid down the foundation for the major export diversification that occurred in the 1970s following the fall in the terms of trade in 1966, which he predicted and feared.

Sutch had rejoined the Wellington cultural and intellectual community, including being involved with the Architectural Centre (he was chairman for seven years) and chairing the Festival of Wellington Arts Committee that organised the Industrial Design Exhibition in 1961. A magnetic public lecturer, he contributed actively to such groups as the WEA. His modernist house, high in Brooklyn where he had grown up, was designed by Ernst Plischke. He again wrote on contemporary issues, including book reviewing and art criticism, in the New Zealand Listener and Here & Now. In 1973 he was appointed chair of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand.

At 57 he began a new career as a consultant, especially to the textile industry. He made extensive submissions to the royal commission on social security and to the committee of inquiry into equal pay. As well as a revision of his two earlier books, which became much fuller economic and social histories of New Zealand, his major publications included Colony or nation? , The responsible society in New Zealand , Takeover New Zealand , and Women with a cause. His Festschrift, Spirit of an age , was published in 1975.

Sutch’s writing provides one of the most comprehensive accounts of, and visions for, New Zealand. While his views were often original and independent, many that were rejected at the time are now accepted. He was a nation-builder who wanted to see an economically strong and socially fair New Zealand, free from colonial ties, whether economic or political. New Zealand had been a dependent colony, a monoculture which grew and processed grass, mainly sold to Britain as wool, meat and dairy products. Sutch saw the need to foster industry and employment, and to earn foreign exchange by exporting goods and services, as well as conserving foreign exchange through import substitution. Production had to be of high quality and make full use of human resources. Thus Sutch was a tireless advocate for the development of a national culture. People were at the core of his development vision: children were a key to the future, and women were entitled to equality both as a right and because it contributed to the broad social development. He advocated decentralisation to local authorities and was concerned with human rights. His vision was of an interventionist democratic state, promoting economic activity based on high-quality exports and providing protection and support via full employment and public education, health and welfare services.

In September 1974, after some meetings with a Russian diplomat, Sutch was charged under the Official Secrets Act 1951 with the offence of obtaining information that would be helpful to an enemy. Although the act (since repealed) was so general that it could cover almost any communication, no evidence was brought that he had obtained information of any kind, and there was no significant evidence on his security file. He was acquitted in February 1975.

There is no evidence that Sutch was ever a member of the Communist Party: he once said that he could not join because he would not allow anyone to control his thinking. He had many friends with diverse politics and political views. For much of his life he was an admirer of the Soviet Union. If he was in any way a ‘fellow traveller’, he walked a very independent path. Like British socialism, Bill Sutch was more influenced by Methodism than Marxism.

The events surrounding the trial overshadowed the significance of what went before, and have muted subsequent recognition of his intellectual contributions. Sutch’s health began failing after his arrest. He died on 28 September 1975 at Wellington, shortly after holding his just-born first grandson. He was survived by Shirley Smith and his daughter, Helen Sutch, an economist.

How to cite this page:

Brian Easton. 'Sutch, William Ball', first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol. 5, 2000. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5s54/sutch-william-ball (accessed 19 October 2017)